Ask people to name three things they associate Indiana with, and two of the three will be “corn” and “high school basketball.”
High school basketball is religion in the Hoosier state. In Texas, it’s high school football. In Georgia, it’s college football. But in Indiana, it’s the roundball that has captured our collective hearts. So much so that we have our very own high school basketball Hall of Fame.
It’s how we identify ourselves. When we meet someone else who grew up in Indiana, we discuss our high school basketball teams. And if they went to rival high schools, we’ll tease each other about how “we beat you back in ’85,” or “our team won Sectionals in 1982.”
So I took my family for a visit this weekend to New Castle, in Henry County, just 50 miles east of Indianapolis on I-70. I was there as a proud alum of the only high school — Muncie Central — in the entire country to win eight state basketball championships, so I know a little about high school ball, but not much beyond my own high school.
Still, I was surprised at the number of schools, teams, and players I recognized, or even had a small personal connection with. There were familiar names everyone’s heard of — Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Damon Bailey, Scott Skiles — and championship displays from big cities and small towns — Franklin, Lafayette, Indianapolis Crispus Attucks, Indianapolis Broad Ripple.
There are small plaques of players, coaches, and officials who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and we meandered through the area, looking for names we recognized of people who had been inducted — Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, Oscar Robertson, George McGinnis, and former Pacers coach Slick Leonard.
As I wandered throughout the huge shrine to Indiana basketball, a few things stuck out in my mind and tugged on my heart.
Twenty-four years after graduating high school, I had forgotten how much of a pull high school basketball had on me as a Hoosier.
As I walked, I remembered the deafening cheers in the Muncie Fieldhouse as our team took the court. I remember playing in the pep band, laughing with my friends. I found myself wishing I had payed more attention to it, promising myself to pay attention at least a little more this winter.
The ghosts of players past tapped me on the shoulder one last time, asking me to pay closer attention this time. I mumbled a promise, and whispered I’d be back.
My youngest daughter grabbed my hand as we walked out the door into the warm June afternoon: “We just went through time, didn’t we, Daddy?”
I couldn’t answer. There was something in my eye.