Monday, March 29, 2010

Hoosier Hysteria

For those of you who don’t know the term, “Hoosier Hysteria” refers to basketball. And if you’ve never experienced it, you simply cannot grasp the unbridled fun it represents. So in honor of March Madness, I want to explain what it’s like to grow up in Indiana, the Basketball State.

My hometown’s population is 3,500. Our town’s high school basketball gymnasium seats 5,000. That fact alone could allow me to end this story right here. But let me explain further.

My family were not fans of Bobby Knight – I think we tended to be basketball purists. Knight was rude and unsportsmanlike; we respected fair play, hard work, and quiet talent instead of in-your-face victory. Boston Celtic Larry Bird grew up in French Lick, the town next to mine, and he exemplified the talent I refer to – a good old boy who made it big due to his talent, hard work, and ambition. Qualities to respect.

In my high school in Paoli, Indiana we were taught to respect the sport and to respect the other team. If our crowd’s cheers started leaning toward disrespect, our principal let us all know the next day in the morning announcements what was appropriate and what wasn’t. We were taught right and wrong through basketball. We sang along with the National Anthem, cheered on our team, and then clapped for the losing team when it was over. But don’t get me wrong, we weren’t too Goody-Goody; we had our share of slams, like at the end of the game when we were about to win and we’d yell to the opposing team “Go start the bus!”

My earliest memories of basketball, besides the men in my family playing ball at the basketball hoop that was requisite at every house, was in 1979 when our high school basketball team won the sectional. I received an autographed picture of the team when I won a kindergarten poster contest, and I treated that photo as if it contained movie stars. I got to go to the Sectional and see the packed gymnasium in all its glory, with the band playing, the cheerleaders yelling, and the crowd members – every single one of them – on their feet and into every moment of the game. It showed me that basketball was important.

This was back at the beginning of the good old days of Celtics vs. Lakers, and we watched every game in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room with my uncles and anyone else who dropped by. To this day, the ambient sound of a crowd on a TV is the most comfortable sound I can think of on an otherwise quiet weekend afternoon.

When I was in the fifth grade, our fifth grade team was undefeated, and I predicted that when we were Seniors we’d have a great team. Little did I know…

In the late 80’s, Indiana’s high school basketball was not divided into divisions as it is today; we played the teams in our area, no matter the size of the school. So it was amazing when our little town of 3,500 won the Sectional, then Regional, and went to Semi-State for the first time in our town’s history.

We were like the movie Hoosiers. Our team was featured in the big-towns’ nightly news and in Louisville and Indianapolis newspapers. We were the tiny town with smart players who went up against Goliath.

And boy was it exciting. The whole town went crazy, putting our slogan “We play ball!” on the sides of semi trailers and buildings. Townspeople attended our pep rallies and joined in caravans to our games. The whole town was decked out in our purple and gold school colors. In fact, they already were, year-round.

Hoosier basketball fans are like Cubs fans, supportive no matter what. When our guys lost their semi-state game, our fans – all of them on one side of the huge big-city gymnasium – stayed in place far after all the other winning team’s fans had gone. We stayed and continued cheering for our guys, who had played with honor, talent, and wholesome ambition.

I watched that whole basketball season from the edge of the court, my press pass allowing me closer access as I took photos for our yearbook. Later I went on to college, excited to attend my first basketball game and get all excited again, but in Missouri it was different. Yes, the fans cheered, but it wasn’t the same. The people were there but almost seemed indifferent. That’s when I learned that Indiana basketball is special.

Indiana is the land of corn, cows, and basketball. If you ever get a chance, please go to a basketball game there (preferably between rivals like Purdue and IU, or Paoli and French Lick). Now and then I go to a UNLV game to get into the spirit, and although it isn’t Indiana, it reminds me of home and those good old days in the popcorn-littered stands, together as one town, cheering for our boys. I can just hear the PHS fight song now…

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