When the last flock of wild geese has flown over the last football game of the season, honking faintly as if to bid farewell to shivering fans below, a segment of this vast American audience feels rather sad about the winter outlook. College and professional basketball is the main fare. To many of this group basketball is but a casual and poor substitute, a sort of numbers game of shooting and hitting or missing, a business of 10 men without identities running about furiously; a game, in fact, without real drama or emotional buildup, unless by remote chance one has some money on the result. Disbelievers merely wait for spring and the New York Yankees.
Not so in Indiana, where this is written. Here things are very different indeed.
When the high school basketball season gets under way, it isn't just a matter of a few good games but a universal state-wide civic and sociological movement, a manic preoccupation that seizes Indiana and will grow and grow in some 750 town gymnasiums until the finals at Indianapolis in mid-March. During the 1954-55 high school basketball season, according to the office of L. V. Phillips, commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, total paid attendance at sectional, regional, semifinal and final games (to say nothing of the Friday night local games) was 1,483,211 persons, for a total ticket take of $787,727.69. And, as any harassed high school principal such as Loren Chastain of Muncie Central will tell you, most of the people involved in these statistics are adults, and they are the ones who make the most trouble.
This has been going on now for about 30 years. High school basketball gets bigger and bigger, creating new gyms, which cost millions and seat amazing numbers—3,200 at Noblesville, a town of 6,567 (1950 census); 8,200 at Elkhart, pop. 35,646; to the 15,000 at Butler University Field House in Indianapolis where the state finals are played. It has grown thus not because increasing numbers of happy high school kids love basketball but because their taxpaying parents and aunts and uncles have insisted on it. More than one school principal has lost his job because he couldn't produce winning teams for the honor of his village or, more likely, because some local big shot lost out in closely guarded local drawings for state tournament tickets.
"The effects on classroom work are terrible," says Mary Fisher, a Muncie, Ind. teacher. "The kids get so excited before a big game that you can't do anything with them." Miss Fisher showed courage in putting this opinion on the record. Most teachers would rather not be quoted on anything having to do with basketball.
Drive through any Indiana town on Friday night and you will find streets deserted; everyone is either at the local game or inside watching on television. Out in the country the farmlot backboard and net are as familiar a sight in Hoosierland as pumpkins in the fall. Nobody in a town like Muncie would think of building a garage without a hoop on it for the boys, and in high-class residential sections expensively paved and equipped basketball courts are common. This devotion to basketball among young and old becomes a gripping and seemingly delightful obsession. Town pride, of course, is involved. All sports are considered vaguely noble and uplifting, but with basketball in Indiana there's more to it. Hoosiers themselves don't quite understand why all this is, but they seem to be proud of their basketball mania as a distinctive trait, like the Tennessee hillbilly's love of hound dogs.
"It's just our tradition," said a man in John Rotz's drugstore on East Jackson Street, Muncie. "It's something everybody does." Mr. Rotz, perhaps an iconoclast, observed that there isn't much else to do in Indiana in wintertime. Mayor Joe Barclay, a white-haired manufacturer and ardent fan, believes basketball is a fine thing because "it takes people's minds off their worries, allows them to let off steam." He knows what he is talking about: on the night of a big game he has to put on extra policemen and firemen to control crowds of fans who get up impromptu victory parades, go horn-tooting down Main Street and frequently set fire to the city's wastepaper boxes. Fights occur during and after games.
Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd, who used Muncie as the typically American city they called " Middletown," took note of the annual fever that seizes upon Indiana citizens in their famous social study. They saw basketball as a form of community boosting.
Two main values, the Lynds said, are involved:
"One is assurance in the face of the baffling too-bigness of European wars, death...business worries, and political graft; the bigness of it all shrinks at a championship basketball game...the whole business of living in Middletown suddenly 'fits' again, and one 'belongs'; one is a citizen of no mean city, and presumably no mean citizen.