The Washington Times-Herald

The "Z" Watch

March 26, 2013

Basketball is a king's sport in Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana athletic director Fred Glass must be ready for the game each time he goes out.

The minute he's recognized at the supermarket or the barbershop, he knows he'll be doing an impromptu news conference. He has learned to expect the sit-down interview if he shows up at his wife's optometrist's office. And when he sees that hand-written envelope from Libertyville, Ind., he realizes he better have a good answer for that 90-year-old retired schoolteacher, too.

In Indiana, seemingly everyone is a basketball expert and talking about it has no boundaries.

"My favorite story is this little old lady who writes me in longhand and says 'I don't know much about basketball, but I really enjoy watching the boys play, and can you also explain to me why when we're playing a 1-3-1 zone, we don't push anyone out to the elbow?'" Glass said with not even a hint of a chuckle. "She says all this after she says she doesn't know much about basketball."

Here, basketball is treated like a king's sport. Stars are considered royalty and the Hoosiers still rule the state, especially now, just two wins away from their first Final Four trip since 2002 after one of the grandest comeback stories in its storied history.

Five years ago, coach Tom Crean took over a program that had just two returning players and had been sullied by scandal.

Over the next three years, the proud Hoosiers won just 28 games. Then came Cody Zeller's commitment, Christian Watford's buzzer-beating 3-pointer against then-No. 1 Kentucky, a trip to the round of the 16 and suddenly the Hoosiers were back.

But even during the bleak years, the passion for Indiana basketball never wavered.

The Hoosiers continued to be ranked in the top 10 nationally in attendance - even as Butler reached back-to-back national championship games and rival Purdue contended for Big Ten titles while Indiana lagged at the bottom of the league.

There was no shortage in interest, either. People talked about it year-round on radio talk shows and message boards, at Little League baseball games and swim meets and certainly at local bars.

So when the Hoosiers hit it big last year, of course the eager fans went bonkers. Glass said from the 2010-11 academic school year to 2011-12, alumni donations increased by $1 million. That's up an additional 22 percent this year.

Merchandise sales have increased about 30 percent since last year, too, and the team's famous candy-stripe pants, which cost $75, have become all the rage in grade schools, middle schools and high schools around the state. They're so popular that some people who ordered the striped pants in October are still waiting for their Christmas gifts to arrive.

According to Glass, even some within the athletic department didn't realize Indiana was last ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll in 1979, had gone 20 years without winning an outright Big Ten crown or had earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament only two other times. And now that they're back in the regional semifinals, facing fourth-seeded Syracuse on Thursday night in Washington, Hoosiers fans are holding their emotions in check for something far bigger - their first title run since 1987 when Keith Smart beat the Orange on that famous baseline shot.

"This year has been different because the expectations were so high. But I think it's harder to exceed lofty goals than to overcome milder ones," Glass said. "So we're not dancing and celebrating the Sweet 16, because that's what we want at Indiana and that's what we expect."

Basketball is the great unifier in Indiana, bringing together young fans and old, boys and girls, those from urban areas and tiny rural communities. For decades, of course, the state high school basketball tournament was up for grabs for any school, no matter how small.

Dan Dakich, a radio talk show host who grew up in the northwest Indiana, played high school ball at Andrean, near Chicago. He played at Indiana and served as a longtime assistant on Bob Knight's staff before taking the head coaching gig at Bowling Green, then returned to Indiana in 2008 and wound up serving as the interim coach when Kelvin Sampson was fired amid NCAA recruiting violations.

"The one thing that really demonstrated it to me was when Indiana was ready to get rid of Kelvin Sampson even though he had a good team and even though he was winning," Dakich said. "Don't get me wrong. I liked Kelvin. But the fans didn't just want to win, they wanted to win the right way and you just don't always find that."

Those who have gone beyond the borders understand.

"In Kentucky, high school basketball is strong, but the University of Kentucky is so strong, it's more about the university. The thing in this state is that it's about the sport," said Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who was a student manager for the Wildcats. "It's widespread. You don't meet people who don't understand the game, who don't appreciate the game."

Perhaps that's why the state has such a long basketball lineage.

Indiana, which ranks 16th in the nation in population, has 12 of America's 13 largest high-school gyms including the 9,325-seat New Castle Fieldhouse.

This is the state Hall of Fame coach John Wooden called home, that turned Knight, Gene Keady and Digger Phelps into household names, that remembers Butler Hall of Fame coach Tony Hinkle as the man who created the orange basketball. It's produced some of college basketball's greatest scorers -- Calbert Cheaney, Clyde Lovellette, Rick Mount and Adrian Dantley -- and where two of the greatest NBA players in history -- Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird -- honed their skills, one on a dirt court and one down on the farm.

It's where Bobby Plump and Milan created the real-life script for one of Hollywood's greatest sports movies, "Hoosiers," and where the sequel nearly came to life again during Butler's improbable tourney runs.

Over the years, only the names and faces have changed.

Of the 360 NBA players drafted over the past six seasons, 22, or 6.1 percent played either high school or college basketball in Indiana, a list includes 13 first-round picks with at least one first-round choice in all six years. And all this from a state that accounts for approximately 2.1 percent of the American population.

Still don't believe it?

Walk into a Pacers game where adult women are dressed in their players' favorite jerseys, or Assembly Hall, where Indiana students have adopted a new mantra "Banner Up," a clever play off the Boilermakers preferred chant of "Boiler Up" while incorporating the Hoosiers own measuring stick -- adding a sixth national championship banner. At Mackey Arena, students keep count of defensive plays.

"Even driving out to the country, you'll see basketball goals on barns or just stuck on a pole with a wooden backboard, so, you know it's a sport that everybody loves out here and again, there's a lot of hidden talent out here," said Paul George, the Pacers All-Star swingman who grew up in California. "The fans, they're real knowledgeable. They know the game. It's not like they're just fans of the players. They're fans of the game. They actually know the game, so I think that's what keeps them so loyal is that they just respect the game."

Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague can attest to it, too. He played high school ball at Indianapolis Pike before heading to Wake Forest for college and becoming a starting guard for the Atlanta Hawks.

"I think everybody grows up playing basketball here. There's a court on every driveway, a court in every backyard. It's just like a religion almost," he said. "They got into basketball (at Wake Forest), but here you go to an IU game and it's packed to capacity. At Wake Forest, you might not see as many fans, they don't get as loud, I don't think they're as passionate about it."

The passion for the Hoosiers in particular is passed down from generation to generation and keeps everybody talking, whether you're 9 or 90.

"Here, it's deep-seeded, more deep-rooted to the point that it's almost a birthright," Dakich said. "What you know is what your dad knew. I can still remember being at a friend's house in 1973, when I was 11, and his dad came in and knocked us the heck out of the way so he could turn on the TV when IU was playing."

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