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Hinkle Fieldhouse, Before The Madness

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Hinkle Fieldhouse

A view from the upper level of Indianapolis' Hinkle Fieldhouse. (Luke Winn/SI)

INDIANAPOLIS — Before this fairy tale hit the Final Four, before the upset of Kansas State, or the upset of Syracuse, or the viral explosion of Too Big Yo, I paid a visit to Butler. This was on March 9, for the Horizon League title game, and I intentionally booked a morning flight to Indy, so there’d be time to explore Hinkle Fieldhouse in advance of the crowd.

The previous day, I called former Butler athletic director and football coach Bill Sylvester, to see if he’d act as an unofficial tour guide. The school’s sports information director, Jim McGrath, told me that Sylvester was the closest thing to a historical authority on the Fieldhouse, since he spent years there sharing an office with the eponymous Tony Hinkle. Sylvester agreed to drive down from Carmel to meet me after the Bulldogs finished their pre-game walk-through. I sat in on that as well, as they ran through their sets in front of coach Brad Stevens and his staff. The players were calm, business-like, precise. Stevens never once raised his voice in anger.

I should admit something at this point: I wasn’t gathering material in anticipation of Butler playing in Indianapolis this week. I’m a convert to The Butler Way, but back then, wasn’t a believer that they could get this far. I was just gathering material because I knew I’d be back in Indy at the end of March, and I thought the Final Four venue, Lucas Oil Stadium, was a super-sized, ultra-expensive rip-off of Hinkle, the crown jewel of college basketball and setting for Hoosiers. I figured a tour of Hinkle might make a good blog post. I also wanted an excuse to wander the place in the quiet of the afternoon, when the light would be pouring in the eastern fieldhouse windows, leaving rectangular reflections on the floor. Near the start of a 31-day run of hoops Madness, I was looking for a moment of Zen.

Hinkle Fieldhouse Court

(Luke Winn/SI)

Sylvester arrived a bit later — he’d run into a nasty traffic jam on the Interstate, caused by some wreck between a semi and a couple of cars — and we sat down to talk, just under the south basket. He’s 82, the same age as the building, which opened as Butler Fieldhouse in 1928, at a cost of $1 million. He grew up with the place, coming to see games in the ’30s and early ’40s with his father, always sitting in the balcony that lines the north baseline. During World War II that upper level was converted into bunk space for Army and Navy men before they were shipped off to battle.

I took FlipCam video (above) of some of our conversation. We examined the court, which still has the original, super-thick boards that groan if you step on them in the right places. He told me that Hinkle personally supervised the Frenchmen who constructed the raised hardwood surface over a dirt floor. Sylvester pointed out the old fans that used to blow heat from a coal-burning furnace in the basement. We looked at where the old track had been from the famed Butler Relays, in which Jesse Owens tied a world record in the 60-yard dash in 1935.

Sylvester, who had to deal with the logistics of Hoosiers’ filming in his building, spoke of the movie with more annoyance than reverence. His best memories at Hinkle were of other things. When we walked to the spot where Milan High’s fictional squad first entered the building, he pointed out the gate, but remembered it more as the location where President Gerald Ford was accosted, after a speech, by an old Butler equipment-room manager. “Mr. President,” the manager said after stopping Ford by the drinking fountain, “I never voted for ya, but I love ya.”

Hinkle Exterior

(Luke Winn/SI)

You don’t have to be a Butlerite to love Hinkle. It’s the gym you wish your old college team called home. I went to Northwestern, and always lamented that the campus’ original Patten Gymnasium, site of the first Final Four, in 1939, was torn down later that year to make room for a new Technical Institute. Patten wasn’t built with reddish-brown brick, but there’s a photo from the NU archives that shows an interior reminiscent to Hinkle’s: an arched roof supported by angular, steel beams; tall windows letting in the sunlight; and wooden bleachers set up over dirt. We played our intramural games at the new Patten, which isn’t all that new — it opened in 1940 — but just didn’t have the same amount of character.

Patten Gymnasium

Northwestern's original Patten Gymnasium, which hosted the first Final Four. (NU Archives)

I did more wandering around Hinkle, on my own, to take photographs. The visitor’s locker room, which Wright State would occupy that evening, was open; it’s been modernized with a digital clock and a whiteboard, but still has old, wooden benches, classic grey lockers, and a bathroom area where the showerheads never fully turn off, so water-sounds keep echoing off the tile — drip, drip, drip, drip.

Hinkle Locker Room

(Luke Winn/SI)

Hinkle Signage

(Luke Winn/SI)

In one of the main-floor hallways, there’s a stained-glass tribute to Tony Hinkle, which furthers the feeling that you’re in a basketball cathedral. Much of Hinkle’s other signage is painted directly on the brick; descending the upper-level ramps, you pass “CAUTION” messages against running, sprayed on through old-school stencils. I assume that those warnings have been disregarded by at least three generations of Indiana children.

But the most memorable sign I saw, in retrospect, had nothing to do with nostalgia. It was just a few words on a sheet of white paper, taped up next to the ticket-booth windows. At the time, I didn’t even deem it worthy of a picture. The sign said something to the effect of, “Final Four Ticket Allotment Sold Out.”

Butler had tickets to sell in early March because it was designated as the NCAA’s “co-host” of the games at Lucas Oil Stadium, along with the Horizon League. I remember thinking that it was nice that at least a few seats were going into the hands of regular folks at Hinkle, rather than corporate sponsors or scalpers.

I made the mistake of not thinking bigger; not dreaming that the Bulldogs, in three weeks’ time, could be more than hosts.


  • Published On Mar 30 2010 by lukewinn
  • Seeing Brightness on the Horizon

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    Butler Dancing

    Butler went dancing -- literally -- after locking up the Horizon League's automatic bid on Tuesday at Hinkle Fieldhouse. (AP)

    INDIANAPOLIS — It was a case of differing interpretations. When Butler lost 72-65 to Georgetown on Dec. 8, nearly everyone in the press — myself included — perceived the game as the third in a series of early indictments against the Bulldogs. They began 2009-10 as the nation’s mid-major darling, ranked No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press poll, then failed in the role of giant-killer, losing to Minnesota and Clemson in Anaheim, and the Hoyas in New York to fall to 6-3. They’re blowing their chance at an at-large NCAA tournament bid, we all said. They don’t even look like a Top 25 team.

    Butler’s coach, Brad Stevens, had the opposite view of the Georgetown result. “It was a great thing for us,” he said. “We would have liked to have played a lot better, and we only lost by seven, and had a chance to win the game. So what I felt when we left that gym was, ‘We’ve got a chance to be pretty good.’ Meanwhile, everybody else was taking the expectations off.”

    The Bulldogs fell out of the poll for part of December and all of January, and were, to a degree, written off as a tourney threat. But over the past two months, Stevens was vindicated. As the Bulldogs celebrated winning the Horizon League’s automatic bid on Tuesday by thrashing Wright State, 70-45, they were ranked higher (at No. 11) than they were in the preseason. With a 20-0 record in conference regular-season and tournament games, they were the lone team in the country to go unblemished in its league. To see them play at Hinkle Fieldhouse in March was an entirely different experience than seeing them at the Garden in December, when star forward Gordon Hayward hinted that they were playing selfish basketball — behavior that was very un-Butler-like. Guard Shelvin Mack said on Tuesday that they had gotten back to playing the Butler Way — “doing the right thing all of the time.” No one is heading into the NCAA tournament with more positive momentum than the Bulldogs, due to three crucial factors:

    Matt Howard

    Matt Howard scored 14 points in the Horizon League title game and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. (AP)

    • Matt Howard is a force once again. Last season’s Horizon Player of the Year couldn’t stay out of foul trouble at the start of ’09-10, getting DQ’d from four of Butler’s first five games. He’s fouled out nine times this year, but not once since Feb. 4, harnessing his aggressiveness into more production than silly whistles. He was a beast on Tuesday (with 14 points and nine rebounds), winning the tournament’s Most Valuable Player Award and delivering the game’s most memorable play:

    With 9:38 left in the second half, and the Bulldogs up 24 — a point at which most people not named Matt Howard would go on cruise control — he single-handedly kept a possession alive by tipping an offensive rebound on the right side of the rim, and chasing it all the way into the front row of chairs beyond the left wing. He cleared out two seats with his dive, but ball he saved landed in the hands of Shawn Vanzant, who dished to Willie Veasley, who sunk a three-pointer. “That’s a play that will be shown for the next 20 years,” Stevens said. “It speaks to who [Howard] is, but it also speaks to who we all want to be every day.”

    Howard went five rows deep into the stands after the game — to shake the hands of as many denizens of Butler’s student section as he could before cutting down the nets. “It’s spring break,” he said. “I just wanted to thank them for staying.”

    • They have one of the country’s best one-shot-and-done Ds. This is the best defensive team of Stevens’ tenure at Butler, ranking 24th in efficiency in large part because it allows the ninth-lowest offensive rebounding percentage in the country (27.1). The player most responsible for this may come as a surprise: it’s Hayward, who’s mostly hyped for his offensive versatility and potential as an NBA shooting guard. He happens to be one of the college game’s best defensive rebounders, pulling down 24.3 percent of available boards — a tenth of a percent more than glass-master Luke Harangody does at Notre Dame. “It’s remarkable how well he flies in above the rim and cleans up,” Stevens said of Hayward. “Sometimes you base your matchups on the fact that you want him to go get balls for you.”

    • They get high-quality minutes out of everyone in their top six. The Horizon All-Tournament team was four-fifths Bulldogs: Howard, the hustle machine MVP; Mack, who hit three treys in the first eight minutes and finished with 14 points; Hayward, who had a double-double against Milwaukee in the semifinal, and defended all five positions against Wright State; and unsung point guard Ronald Nored, who had a robust stat line of nine points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals. Sixth man Zach Hahn didn’t get any hardware, but he hit three dagger threes, and is a scary shooting threat (at 42.9 percent from long range) off the bench.

    After the game, Howard seemed concerned that their starting wing guard (and lockdown artist), Willie Veasley, hadn’t received any love. But Butler beat writer David Woods was quick to note that Veasley actually had been recognized on Tuesday — as a first-teamer on Seth Davis’ All-Glue squad, which is possibly more prestigious than an All-Horizon tourney nod. As Mack said of the team’s progression since that Georgetown loss, “Everybody has gotten back to doing their job, instead of trying to do things they couldn’t do.”

    Now the Bulldogs wait to find out what the selection committee makes of this late-season surge — if it was impressive enough to warrant a No. 4 seed, or if they’ll be saddled with something as low as a 6 or 7. Either way, when they get their next shot at the Georgetowns of the world, there’s reason to believe that the positives will be easier to interpret.


  • Published On Mar 10 2010 by lukewinn