Transition Game No state loves Basketball more than Indiana, but Hoosier hoops is changing

February 16, 2004

Basketball may have been born in Massachusetts, but it grew up in
Indiana. --JAMES NAISMITH

It's only fitting that the world's coolest basketball venue sits
on the midcourt line of the state of Indiana. Conseco
Fieldhouse, a gem of a gym in downtown Indianapolis, hasn't even
celebrated its fifth birthday and it's already being called
basketball's Field of Dreams. Step inside and it's easy to play
time traveler. There are retro scoreboards and a russet-colored
motif, bare-bulb lighting and old-fashioned wooden seats. The
practice court is built to resemble a typical bandbox--like,
say, Hickory High's in Hoosiers--replete with brick walls and a
manual scoreboard. The corridors are lined with sepia-toned
photos of old Indiana teams, high school, college and pro. You
half expect to find malted milks on the menu at the concession
stands.

Yet for all the old-time touches, there are abundant earmarks of
21st-century hoops. The main scoreboard is festooned with all
manner of ads--signage, to use the modern business term. Between
the retro seats and bleachers are scores of luxury suites. A
Starbucks sells lattes in the lobby. Even the name of the place
is something of a mixed message. The Fieldhouse is a romantic nod
to the Indiana gyms of yore. Conseco is the name of an upstart
financial services company that shells out $2 million annually to
have its name on the building.

In short, Conseco Fieldhouse is a 750,000-square-foot emblem of a
basketball culture in transition. In Indiana, hoops is still the
connective tissue that binds the citizenry, the fail-safe topic
of conversation at watercoolers and in barbershops. But the
paradigm is changing. Urban is supplanting rural. Multicultural
is displacing homogeneous. The players' preferred axis is
shifting from the horizontal X to the vertical Y. Indiana is
still a fertile crescent that continues to yield standout
players. But they're no longer just corn-fed, buzz-cut perimeter
shooters. (See: Mount, Rick.) Instead, they come on the order of
Memphis Grizzlies guard Bonzi Wells (from Muncie) or Portland
Trail Blazers forward Zach Randolph (Marion) or Tennessee junior
forward Shyra Ely (Indianapolis), stars for the new millennium
who play above the rim or dazzle in the paint. "It's a changin'
game," says Slick Leonard, a beloved figure in the state who
captained the Indiana Hoosiers' 1953 national title team, coached
the Pacers to three championships in the ABA and is now a Pacers
radio analyst. "You can argue whether it's better or worse, but
you can't argue whether it's different."

The season begins with a uniquely Indianan feast of basketball
every Thanksgiving weekend, tipped off by the Pacers, who, like
the Detroit Lions in football, always play a home game on Turkey
Day. Time was, the Pacers were perennial NBA bottom-feeders whose
endearing but down-market venue, Market Square Arena, befitted
the team. Today, just as the Pacers' arena is a sign of the
changing times, so is Indiana's roster. Four members of the team
that at week's end had the best record in the Eastern Conference
never attended college, not even the best player, 6'11" Jermaine
O'Neal. Though he just turned 25, O'Neal is a "max money" player
whose contract calls for him to make $126 million over the next
seven years. His diamond earrings are probably worth more than
the title-winning Pacers' franchise of the '70s.

For a first helping of hoops last Thanksgiving, I watched Indiana
drub the Knicks by 23 points. The game filled up a highlight
reel: blindingly fast crossover dribbles, rim-reverberating
dunks, a fast break that covered 90 feet without ball hitting
floor. But, typical of today's NBA, the outside marksmanship--a
skill kids in Indiana used to master around the time they first
rode a bike--was abominable. Shot after shot clanged defiantly
off the rim. "It's embarrassing," says Larry Bird, the team's
president, who developed into a pretty fair marksman as a kid in
French Lick. "These guys are world-class athletes, but shooting
is a skill that gets worse year after year."

For the second course I returned two days later to Conseco for
the annual John R. Wooden Tradition college tournament, whose
namesake is from Martinsville, 25 miles south of Indy. The
featured game pitted Xavier and Indiana. Like the Pacers, recent
Hoosiers teams bear little resemblance to previous vintages. Most
of the players no longer hail from the state, or even from the
Midwest. The team's signature motion offense has been displaced
by an NBA-style set. Then there's the coaching change.

If life A.B. (after Bobby) hasn't been hard enough for some
Hoosiers fans, it's compounded by the fact that Knight's
successor is his polar opposite. Mike Davis, a 43-year-old
African-American, is as personable as Knight was pathological, as
accommodating with players as Knight was exacting. "Mike D. isn't
just a players' coach," says Indiana senior A.J. Moye, "he's a
people's coach." (Mike D.? A player who had dared to call his
predecessor Bob K. would still be running wind sprints.) For all
his virtues Davis is not Knight's equal as a game coach (who is?)
and sometimes has trouble coaxing a consistent effort out of his
troops. Against Xavier, the Hoosiers looked out of sync for most
of the game. But they forced overtime when swingman Bracey Wright
made a sensational tip-in, and to the crowd's delight the
Hoosiers prevailed, 80-77.

Thanksgiving weekend also marks the opening of the high school
season, and for my next course I caught a game between
Bloomington North and Bedford North Lawrence. Until recently
Bedford fans who failed to arrive an hour before tip-off weren't
guaranteed a seat. Basketball was a representation of the
community, a source of civic identity. And as the fields lay
fallow and the weather dipped below freezing, it was the
entertainment on winter weekend nights.

But today, beset by the fragmentation of community, besieged by
other choices of divertissement--high-speed Internet access,
satellite TV, a casino on the Ohio River barely an hour away, to
name three--Indianans don't automatically converge on the high
school gym. Compounding matters, the ill-conceived decision seven
years ago to euthanize the all-comers state tournament and hold
separate tournaments for each of four classes has hastened the
decline of interest in the high school game. On this night the
6,500-seat arena was barely half full as Bloomington North won
handily.

I concluded my weekend basketball banquet at a girls' youth
league game in Bloomington. Purists who cling obstinately to the
past and prefer their basketball played methodically beneath the
rim have found refuge in the girls' game. It's easy to see why.
The 14- and 15-year-olds scrimmaging at the SportsPlex shot
accurately, passed efficiently and played honest defense on every
possession; the backboard wasn't merely decorative. Even so,
there were occasional flourishes--a behind-the-back pass here, a
finger roll there--that suggest no level of hoops is safe from
change. "Little by little you're seeing more freestyle," says
Stephanie White, 26, a former Miss Basketball from West Lebanon
who starred at Purdue and now plays for the WNBA's Indiana Fever.
"It's not like it used to be."

She's right. The state of basketball in the state of basketball?
Indiana is still the place where the sport's heart beats loudest.
It's just that the rhythms have changed.

SI.com
For more about sports in Indiana and the other 49 states, go to
si.com/50.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER STAR TURN Drivers in French Lick can travel down a legend's lane. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER WELL-GROUNDED Class 2A champ Shenandoah High and other girls' teams are winning admirers for their fundamental (and below-the-rim) style. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER GRASS ROOTS In the Fort Wayne youth league (above) or before a high school game in Jasonville, kids have a ball.

Indiana is still a fertile crescent that continues to yield
standout players. But they're no longer just corn-fed, buzz-cut
perimeter shooters.

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)