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Transition Game

No state loves basketball more than Indiana, but Hoosier hoops is changing

By L. Jon Wertheim

Basketball may have been born in Massachusetts, but it grew up in Indiana.
-- James Naismith

Click for larger image Class 2A champ Shenandoah High and other girls' teams are winning admirers for their fundamental (and below-the-rim) style. Damian Strohmeyer
It's only fitting that the world's coolest basketball venue sits on the midcourt line of the state of Indiana. Conseco Fieldhouse, a gem of a gym in downtown Indianapolis, hasn't even celebrated its fifth birthday and it's already being called basketball's Field of Dreams. Step inside and it's easy to play time traveler. There are retro scoreboards and a russet-colored motif, bare-bulb lighting and old-fashioned wooden seats. The practice court is built to resemble a typical bandbox -- like, say, Hickory High's in Hoosiers -- replete with brick walls and a manual scoreboard. The corridors are lined with sepia-toned photos of old Indiana teams, high school, college and pro. You half expect to find malted milks on the menu at the concession stands.

Yet for all the old-time touches, there are abundant earmarks of 21st-century hoops. The main scoreboard is festooned with all manner of ads -- signage, to use the modern business term. Between the retro seats and bleachers are scores of luxury suites. A Starbucks sells lattes in the lobby. Even the name of the place is something of a mixed message. The Fieldhouse is a romantic nod to the Indiana gyms of yore. Conseco is the name of an upstart financial services company that shells out $2 million annually to have its name on the building.

In short, Conseco Fieldhouse is a 750,000-square-foot emblem of a basketball culture in transition. In Indiana, hoops is still the connective tissue that binds the citizenry, the fail-safe topic of conversation at watercoolers and in barbershops. But the paradigm is changing. Urban is supplanting rural. Multicultural is displacing homogeneous. The players' preferred axis is shifting from the horizontal X to the vertical Y. Indiana is still a fertile crescent that continues to yield standout players. But they're no longer just corn-fed, buzz-cut perimeter shooters. (See: Mount, Rick.) Instead, they come on the order of Memphis Grizzlies guard Bonzi Wells (from Muncie) or Portland Trail Blazers forward Zach Randolph (Marion) or Tennessee junior forward Shyra Ely (Indianapolis), stars for the new millennium who play above the rim or dazzle in the paint. "It's a changin' game," says Slick Leonard, a beloved figure in the state who captained the Indiana Hoosiers' 1953 national title team, coached the Pacers to three championships in the ABA and is now a Pacers radio analyst. "You can argue whether it's better or worse, but you can't argue whether it's different."

The season begins with a uniquely Indianan feast of basketball every Thanksgiving weekend, tipped off by the Pacers, who, like the Detroit Lions in football, always play a home game on Turkey Day. Time was, the Pacers were perennial NBA bottom-feeders whose endearing but down-market venue, Market Square Arena, befitted the team. Today, just as the Pacers' arena is a sign of the changing times, so is Indiana's roster. Four members of the team that at week's end had the best record in the Eastern Conference never attended college, not even the best player, 6'11" Jermaine O'Neal. Though he just turned 25, O'Neal is a "max money" player whose contract calls for him to make $126 million over the next seven years. His diamond earrings are probably worth more than the title-winning Pacers' franchise of the '70s.

For a first helping of hoops last Thanksgiving, I watched Indiana drub the Knicks by 23 points. The game filled up a highlight reel: blindingly fast crossover dribbles, rim-reverberating dunks, a fast break that covered 90 feet without ball hitting floor. But, typical of today's NBA, the outside marksmanship -- a skill kids in Indiana used to master around the time they first rode a bike -- was abominable. Shot after shot clanged defiantly off the rim. "It's embarrassing," says Larry Bird, the team's president, who developed into a pretty fair marksman as a kid in French Lick. "These guys are world-class athletes, but shooting is a skill that gets worse year after year."

For the second course I returned two days later to Conseco for the annual John R. Wooden Tradition college tournament, whose namesake is from Martinsville, 25 miles south of Indy. The featured game pitted Xavier and Indiana. Like the Pacers, recent Hoosiers teams bear little resemblance to previous vintages. Most of the players no longer hail from the state, or even from the Midwest. The team's signature motion offense has been displaced by an NBA-style set. Then there's the coaching change.

If life A.B. (after Bobby) hasn't been hard enough for some Hoosiers fans, it's compounded by the fact that Knight's successor is his polar opposite. Mike Davis, a 43-year-old African-American, is as personable as Knight was pathological, as accommodating with players as Knight was exacting. "Mike D. isn't just a players' coach," says Indiana senior A.J. Moye, "he's a people's coach." (Mike D.? A player who had dared to call his predecessor Bob K. would still be running wind sprints.) For all his virtues Davis is not Knight's equal as a game coach (who is?) and sometimes has trouble coaxing a consistent effort out of his troops. Against Xavier, the Hoosiers looked out of sync for most of the game. But they forced overtime when swingman Bracey Wright made a sensational tip-in, and to the crowd's delight the Hoosiers prevailed, 80-77.

Thanksgiving weekend also marks the opening of the high school season, and for my next course I caught a game between Bloomington North and Bedford North Lawrence. Until recently Bedford fans who failed to arrive an hour before tip-off weren't guaranteed a seat. Basketball was a representation of the community, a source of civic identity. And as the fields lay fallow and the weather dipped below freezing, it was the entertainment on winter weekend nights.

But today, beset by the fragmentation of community, besieged by other choices of divertissement -- high-speed Internet access, satellite TV, a casino on the Ohio River barely an hour away, to name three -- Indianans don't automatically converge on the high school gym. Compounding matters, the ill-conceived decision seven years ago to euthanize the all-comers state tournament and hold separate tournaments for each of four classes has hastened the decline of interest in the high school game. On this night the 6,500-seat arena was barely half full as Bloomington North won handily.

I concluded my weekend basketball banquet at a girls' youth league game in Bloomington. Purists who cling obstinately to the past and prefer their basketball played methodically beneath the rim have found refuge in the girls' game. It's easy to see why. The 14- and 15-year-olds scrimmaging at the SportsPlex shot accurately, passed efficiently and played honest defense on every possession; the backboard wasn't merely decorative. Even so, there were occasional flourishes -- a behind-the-back pass here, a finger roll there -- that suggest no level of hoops is safe from change. "Little by little you're seeing more freestyle," says Stephanie White, 26, a former Miss Basketball from West Lebanon who starred at Purdue and now plays for the WNBA's Indiana Fever. "It's not like it used to be."

She's right. The state of basketball in the state of basketball? Indiana is still the place where the sport's heart beats loudest. It's just that the rhythms have changed.

Issue date: February 16, 2004

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