SI Vault
Brock Yates
December 03, 1973
More than moonlight is bright on the banks of the Wabash these days: Indianapolis is pushing its way into the sporting big time
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December 03, 1973

A Hot Time In The Bold Town

More than moonlight is bright on the banks of the Wabash these days: Indianapolis is pushing its way into the sporting big time

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"As far as the sports arena was concerned, I could think of no better way to inject wealth back into the area. Revenues from leasing the arena and property taxes will yield half-a-million dollars per year, one-half of which will go to inner city schools. The total cost of the project will be about $50 million, which includes $20 million for the arena itself; the other $30 million goes into the surrounding urban development project. Of the total, the city is providing about $16 million and the remaining $34 million will come from private investors.

"This city has been described as being similar to Atlanta five years ago, and we have done our homework on the experiences of similar cities. First came our new convention center, one of the largest and most elaborate facilities of its kind, and it has already turned around downtown retail sales, which had experienced a 10-year decline. Now comes the sports arena and its complex of hotels and offices. Much of this growth focuses on the Pacers, which have been a quantum leap for the city. They are a focal point for bringing people together. It is imperative that the Pacers—as heroic figures—participate with the community. Men like George McGinnis and Billy Keller, both of whom grew up in Indianapolis and were high school basketball players, are folk heroes, and their role in creating a sense of unity is invaluable."

Lugar, who is a jogger, backyard basketball player, enthusiastic golfer and tennis buff, is an unabashed Pacer fan. But like many other leaders of the city, he wants more. For a number of years the prime target was the National Hockey League, which responded with consistent lack of interest. The NHL spurned Indianapolis during the last expansion cycle when Washington and Kansas City were admitted in the summer of 1972, then turned down a more recent effort by Charles Finley, owner of the California Golden Seals, to relocate in Indy with his Oakland-based franchise. Finley, who lives in nearby La Porte, Ind., had found the way greased for his arrival with such incentives as a long-term lease on the new arena, but the league flatly refused to countenance the plan. While nobody in Indianapolis is certain why the Finley move was so firmly opposed (save for speculation that the NHL did not want to tarnish its record for never having transferred a franchise), the action did convince backers to look elsewhere for a hockey team. The eager operators of the World Hockey Association responded instantly. This summer a franchise was awarded, and the Indianapolis team—presently coachless and nameless—will begin play in 1974.

"We paid $2 million for the franchise," says one of the owners (the same group that operates the Pacers), "which is $4 million less than the going NHL price. That leaves more in the kitty to acquire players. What's more, we think our natural rivalry with the WHA Cleveland, Chicago and Cincinnati teams will stimulate interest in the new club."

Within a year after a pioneer family settled at the junction of Fall Creek and the White River in 1820, a raw town named Indianapolis (Indiana—a place of Indians—plus polis, the Greek word for city) was declared the capital of the new free state of Indiana. It is said that the towering 285-foot art nouveau Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the middle of town is at the exact geographical center of the state.

The city is a cartographer's dream. Laid out by Alexander Ralston, a prot�g� of Major L'Enfant, the designer of Washington, D.C., Indianapolis is a combination of the spoked wheel or " Versailles spider web" concept, coupled with Thomas Jefferson's scheme of a federal city of regular squares. All roads lead from the great monument, one going directly east and west, the old transcontinental Route 40, others heading toward Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis, which surround Indianapolis on the corners of a ragged 150-250-mile square.

As the center of an agricultural state, the city thrived as a railhead for grain and livestock and briefly contested with Detroit as the car manufacturing capital of the nation. Such automotive names as Mercer, Stutz, Marmon and Dusenberg were born in Indianapolis and in fact, the Speedway was originally conceived as a test and competition center to complement the budding new car business. But after 1920 Detroit's more favorable links with Mesabi Range iron ore and cheap rail and water transportation beat back the Indianapolis challenge, and the city lapsed into nearly half a century of slumber. Then came the sixties and men like Richard Lugar.

Through it all, the city has carried on its love affair with basketball. It appears to have been the game throughout the entire state practically since Dr. Naismith nailed up his first peach basket. "They talk about the Pacers," says Tom Keating, a columnist for the daily Star, "but the heart and soul of the game is at the high school level. On a winter weekend there are hundreds of games going on where you couldn't wedge your way into the gym with a chisel." The state has 28 high school gymnasiums with over 5,000 seating capacity; 14 that hold over 6,000, including New Castle, with a field house containing 9,325 seats plus an adjacent building where closed-circuit coverage is piped to the overflow.

Oscar Robertson, perhaps the city's finest athlete, came from this furiously competitive world. He led his Crispus At-tucks High School team to consecutive state championships in 1955 and 1956, going undefeated for 31 games during the second season—the first such accomplishment since the inception of the statewide tournament in 1911. It also marked the first such triumph for a predominantly black high school, and many feel that Robertson and the sensational play of his Crispus Attucks team helped provide a major bridge of understanding between the black and white communities in Indianapolis. Ray Crowe, the coach of the team, was later elected to the Indiana State Legislature.

The VanArsdale twins, Dick and Tom, are products of Manual H.S. and starred for their team in the 1961 state finals before losing to Kokomo in overtime, while brothers Mike and Jim Price graduated from Indianapolis Tech, Mike going on to play with the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, Jim to the Los Angeles Lakers. The most recent pro stars to come from Indianapolis are Keller and McGinnis. Keller, a feisty guard ignored in the professional draft because of his 5'10" size, dribbled and shot his Washington High School team to the state championship in 1965. McGinnis, a 6'8", 235-pound forward whose skills rival anybody's in the game, took Keller's alma mater to the same title four seasons later. The Pacers' No. 1 draft choice this year was Steve Downing of Indiana University, who was a teammate of McGinnis on the 1969 state championship team. Over the summer, however, he ignored hometown fame for money and signed with the NBA Boston Celtics, who had also made him No. 1.

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