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

December 02, 2002

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."

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."

Disaffected adults are only part of the story. Student attendance
and participation have suffered, too. "Kids are turning to other
things--movies, DVDs, computers," says Steve Schindler,
Anderson's athletic director. "Businesses are open later, and
kids are more mobile, out working to pay for gas and insurance
for their cars."

If Anderson's ambiance is that of a down-at-the-heels industrial
town, then Ripley County (where Milan is located) is archetypal
rural Indiana. Batesville High (SI, March 17, 1997) sits on
Ripley's northern edge, and regular-season attendance remains
strong. Yet with the schools in the Bulldogs' Class 2A sectional
now flung across five counties, the team travels up to three
times as far to its early tournament games--and the fans don't
follow. "The night we won the right to play in the 2A final two
years ago, there was hardly anybody in the gym [where we
played]," says Batesville coach Mel Siefert. "It felt like a
Friday-night regular-season game. We came home at 2 a.m., and the
town was dead. Before, when we won a sectional, we'd come home
[at 9:30 p.m.] to a pep session in a full gym.

"There are no rivalries anymore. Walk up to anyone in Batesville,
and I'll bet none could name more than a couple of schools in our
sectional. The worst is, you win a sectional and you can't
gloat."

The move to class basketball is a case study in unintended
consequences. The retirees who make up so much of a school's fan
base are reluctant to spend several hours driving to and from
distant tournament games. Coaches at small schools, many of whom
supported the change, are suffering under more pressure to win.
Meanwhile, the revenue shortfalls from the tournament have left
those smallest schools most vulnerable. Under the old system,
little Lapel High collected perhaps one sixth of $30,000, the
typical take from the sectional at the Wigwam, nine miles away.
Under the new system, Lapel might play 25 miles away at fellow
Class 1A school Blue River Valley and split $6,000 six ways. It
takes a lot of bake sales to make up that difference.

Class basketball advocates point out that the Milan Miracle was
never repeated in 43 years. Yet in every tournament since 1954,
small schools have beaten bigger ones, won sectionals, even gone
on to the regionals to win there. In Kentucky, the largest of
three states that still stage an all-comers tournament (Delaware
and Hawaii are the others), Paintsville High (enrollment 299)
beat several large schools en route to the 1996 state title, and
the tourney still draws huge crowds.

When it instituted the change in 1997, the IHSAA declared class
basketball to be a two-year experiment. If it failed, Indiana
could always have its one-class tournament back. Yet the new
format is apparently here to stay. "For the kids, it's very
simple," says IHSAA spokesman Jerry Baker. "They like to play
their sport, and many wouldn't experience the emotion of making
it to a state final without class basketball. A lot of people are
still living in 1954. God bless 'em--it was a great year."

This month the coaches, who were cut out of the decision from the
start, began canvassing their ranks for proposals for alternative
tournament formats. And there have been whispers that 70 or 80 of
the state's largest schools might play a postseason tournament of
their own in hopes of forcing the IHSAA to reverse itself. For
now, such ideas are little more than bones for the downtown
coaches to chew on. "If the IHSAA can weather all they've
weathered and still not see the light," Plump says, "what's the
use?"

Over the summer a member of Speedway High's freshly crowned
Indiana Class 2A champs approached Plump at a banquet. Though the
school sits within greater Indianapolis, a short dribble from the
Brickyard, Speedway is small enough that it has a bit of the
Hoosiers feel. Last March the Sparkplugs did their nickname
proud, winning with the kind of hustle and precision that would
make an old Milan Indian smile.

"I got one, too," the boy told Plump, flashing his championship
ring.

"That's wonderful," Plump said.

"Well, it isn't so wonderful," the boy replied. "I'd rather have
played on an old sectional champ than won a state class title."

Plump recounts this exchange as the preamble to a larger point.
Time has enshrouded the Milan Miracle in such a gauzy veil that
people forget: The year before they won it all, much the same
Milan team had lost to South Bend Central in the state semifinal.
"So we got beat," Plump says. "That's part of life. If athletics
are taught properly, if everything is kept in perspective, they
mirror life. They teach you that nobody's ever won at everything
he's tried. That if you're defeated, you should take a lesson
from it--to be more dedicated, follow the rules better, depend on
your teammates more."

It may come as a surprise that a man known throughout Indiana as
the consummate winner should have such a finely developed
appreciation for losing. But five years ago he lost a big one,
and most of the Hoosiers who shared in his shot 48 years ago are
suffering every bit as much with this defeat as they exulted in
that victory.

NEXT WEEK Few rivalries have stood the test of time like the
Turkey Day football game between Missouri's Kirkwood and Webster
Groves.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON SIGN OF THE TIMES Batesville fans still attend scrimmages, but not like the old days. B/W PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER WHEELS OF PROGRESS Five years ago droves of fans followed their teams to sectionals, but venues like the Wigwam (right) are no longer community centers. B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON [See caption above] TWO B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON NO SHOT Diehards like those in Batesville have hung tough, but even Plump (left) doubts there will ever be another fairytale finish.

"The night we won the right to play in the 2A final, there was
hardly anybody in the gym," says Siefert. "It felt like a
regular-season game."

"I'd rather have played on an old sectional champ," the boy
told Plump, flashing his ring, "than won a state class title."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)