Today's Paul Bunyan, the tall, lanky figure who engages the imagination of all the vast Midwest, is the high school basketball player. He and the exciting game he plays arouse the parochial passion of every village and hamlet, producing a home-team partisanship that begins as devotion and becomes hysteria. Towns of 4,000 build arenas that seat 7,000—and fill them regularly. A thousand resolute fans will fight through a bitter snowstorm to vie for a mere handful of tickets. The spirit of the sport in Indiana, where basketball fever rages all year long, is portrayed on the following pages

Basketball is the stuff of dreams for Indiana boys. From the time they are 6 they cherish the game's equipment. One of today's high school stars tells of having wanted a hoop so much that he finally stole one by moonlight from a playground. He set it up in his home and shot rolled-up socks at it. Another, given his first ball, washed it each night and took it to bed

The light may be dim, the floor hard-packed, uneven dirt and livestock an occasional annoyance, but the basics of much Indiana basketball are still learned in barns. The thump of a ball against a backboard is as familiar a rural sound as a whinny or a moo. In city and suburb the garage door replaces the barn beam as support for the ever-present hoop

Invariably, where there is a boy there is somewhere, very close, a basketball. On the walk to school or the bike ride to the local barbershop, the ball is brought along. It is partly a status symbol, but every free moment is used to practice bouncing and passing it

Hoosier basketball enthusiasm reaches its peak at high school tournament time. Community storefronts, like these in mid-state Kokomo, are draped with colorful banners and signs urging the home team on to victory

Merchants close up their shops (left) the day of a game, honoring the local team. But the jail opens, in a sense. Kokomo's prisoners are allowed to watch the finals of the state tournament on television. To deprive them would surely be "cruel and unusual punishment"

Big victories trigger big celebrations as a team moves toward a state championship. Kokomoans burned down the town bandstand (right) during one burst of excitement last season. Saner citizens were undismayed. They calmly pointed out that no one had set fire to the town hall—yet

Ten thousand Kokomo rooters made a lively pilgrimage to Indianapolis and helped pack the huge Butler Field House (below) when their team reached the state finals. Nearly half a million people attend the 16 regional elimination tournaments that lead up to this grand climax

The breathless pace of the sport reflects the mood of its frenzied following. Tournament games are fiery and freewheeling, filled with fast breaks and crushing spills—a violent story with an accompaniment of shrieks and screams

Members of the winning team (opposite) cut down the net in a traditional ritual of victory. Each player will keep a piece of the cord as a memento of the night he and his teammates conquered their state

As if the final buzzer were a signal, the losers and their cheerleaders surround their coach and weep unashamedly. But the next day they, and everyone in Indiana, will be talking about next season's tournament hopes