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Alexander Wolff
December 02, 2002
Five years after Indiana carved up its basketball tournament into four tiers—ending any chance of another Hoosiers-style miracle—declining interest has led to sparse crowds and plummeting revenues
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December 02, 2002

Class Struggle

Five years after Indiana carved up its basketball tournament into four tiers—ending any chance of another Hoosiers-style miracle—declining interest has led to sparse crowds and plummeting revenues

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When Bobby Plump began dribbling away from that "picket fence" formed by his teammates, then rose with the ball cocked high, he had no idea what his shot would come to mean. If he had known that roughly 90% of the people in his state—in person or on radio or TV—would share that moment in real time, Plump probably would have made a mess of the jumper that gave tiny Milan High its 1954 Indiana state basketball tournament title. "We were naive," he says today. "In those days it took a couple of weeks for news to get to Milan. Hell, if we'd known we were supposed to be good, we would have lost." 5 Ignorant and innocent, the Milan Indians won, and the symbolism of that victory instantly became an article of Hoosier faith. Throwing everyone into one draw in Indiana's state tournament meant that schools like Milan, with 161 students in four grades, could be the equal of their opponent in that final, Muncie Central, with an enrollment 10 times as large.� Communities beyond Indiana—football-fevered towns in Texas, for instance, or Minnesota towns in the thrall of hockey—have also known how high school sports can knit people together. But civic life rarely revolves around schoolboy sports the way it once did, even in the Hoosier state.

For decades boys at the smallest Indiana high schools milled dreams of the Milan Miracle. So long as a team could play only five men at a time, the little guys stood a chance. In 1986 moviegoers watched the fictional Jimmy Chitwood duplicate Plump's shot in Hoosiers, and four years after that 41,000 fans turned out for the Hoosier Dome valedictory of Damon Bailey, who led Bedford North Lawrence High, with an enrollment of about 1,600, to the title. The one-class tournament, Phillip M. Hoose writes in his book Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana, was the ideal embodiment of the Hoosier mentality: "It gave everyone a chance, but no one a handout."

Before the 1997-98 season, however, the Indiana High School Athletic Association put an end to it all. With an impetuosity and disregard for tradition that was uncharacteristic of Hoosiers, the IHSAA cleaved the state's 382 schools into four classes based on enrollment and inaugurated a tournament for each. The push for change came from small-school principals, who had worked their way onto the board of the IHSAA and, in a 12-5 vote, scrapped the single-class tournament despite widespread opposition among students, fans and coaches. The insurgents argued that no small school had won a championship since Milan, and they wanted more kids to win state titles, even if each title would be diminished.

Plump led the preservationists, heading a group called Friends of Hoosier Hysteria out of his tavern in Indianapolis, Plump's Last Shot (where the coasters say ALWAYS TIME FOR ONE MORE). Alas, he and his allies had everything on their side except the IHSAA board. It's small consolation, but everything Plump predicted has come to pass. He had pointed to Minnesota, where that state's storied hockey tournament hasn't been the same since it abandoned its all-comers format in 1992. Sure enough, since the introduction of the class system, Indiana tournament attendance and revenue have plunged. Last spring the four class events combined to draw 438,430 spectators, a little more than half as many as the final single-class tournament. Postseason basketball has been like the weak candidate at the top of a ticket, dragging down interest during the regular season, too.

The sectionals, the marvelous little tributaries in the bracket, have lost their charm, as teams sometimes travel an hour or more to play like-sized opponents. A typical old-style sectional-six schools, three games, one county—had the chesty big school in the county seat, the plucky little one that had survived the consolidation movement of the '60s and several supporting characters. "A lot of fans needled one another, and we might beat up on each other out on the floor," says Plump, "but if you won your sectional, everyone in the county got behind you."

In a rural state where life is tethered to the turn of the seasons, basketball perfectly suited that dormant interval between autumn harvest and spring planting. Small schools without the bodies or budget to field and outfit a football team could always empty a classroom of its desks and chairs, or a church of its pews, and hoist a couple of goals. (In Indiana they're goals, never baskets.) And those schools that did spring for a gym sometimes spared no expense, building temples with more seats than the town had people—a good thing, for visiting fans would fall in behind the team bus and form caravans.

The obsession extended beyond the small towns into the cities. In Middletown, their classic study of Muncie in the 1920s, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd declared the Bearcats of Muncie Central to be "an agency of group cohesion" that "sweeps all before it.... No distinctions divide the crowds which pack the school gymnasium.... North Side and South Side, Catholic and Kluxer, banker and machinist—their one shout is 'Eat 'em, beat 'em, Bearcats!' " In Indiana the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision did less to hasten school desegregation than the tournament did a year later, when two all-black high schools, Indianapolis Crispus Attucks and Gary Roosevelt, met in the final. Suddenly even the most bigoted Hoosier had to contemplate the prospect that white kids might not play for any more state titles unless the Negroes got sprinkled in among them.

Attendance at high school sports events has declined across the country. But the fact that fewer Hoosiers spend Friday nights in the winter wedged between neighbors is particularly worthy of attention. Nowhere has the game meant more than it did in Anderson, a Class 4A school in a company town 25 miles northeast of Indianapolis, whose plants have long turned out parts for General Motors. For decades locals reliably filled the Wigwam (capacity 8,998), home of the Anderson High Indians; they fought over season tickets in divorce settlements and bequeathed them in wills. Anderson never sold more than it did in 1984, when unemployment crested at 22% and 5,600 season tickets were purchased. To Andersonians, high school basketball was no mere diversion.

Yet with the introduction of class basketball, season-ticket renewals have melted away. Now the Indians sell 1,100 season tickets and the Wigwam is barely one-third full. With all but a half-dozen of its nearly 20 automotive plants closed, Anderson has suffered something of an identity crisis. "We're becoming a suburb of Indy," says Doug Vermillion, an Anderson High history teacher who spent 14 seasons as the Indians' P.A. announcer. "People simply have less loyalty to Anderson. Where a dollar used to be turned over in town seven, eight, nine times, now it might turn over two or three times before it goes to Indy or Chicago."

A die-hard crew of fans—the "downtown coaches"—still gather at the Wigwam in the mornings to talk, play H-O-R-S-E or just catch the glint off the maplewood floor. One of them is Joe Bonisa, president of the AHS Boys Basketball Booster Club, who met his wife, Norma, at one of the auto plants, where both worked at jobs from which they've retired. "I'd say 75 to 80 percent of the decline in the crowds is because of class basketball," Norma says. "Me, I look at it as, Why punish the boys? They're making the effort. Plus, it's cheap entertainment. But a lot of our friends think that if they don't attend, the IHSAA will get the message."

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