If there were a state religion in Indiana, it would be basketball.
If there were an automatic election to the state’s governorship in Indiana, and with zero campaigning, it would go to the current coach of the Indiana University Hoosiers (if his name is either Bobby Knight, or he’s on a huge winning streak), or perhaps to a former Mr. Basketball from the high school ranks.
And, if there’s anything that would keep you busy on a cold weekend winter night, it would be high school basketball. You’d be in your town’s gym, more than likely. If you were so sick that you’d have to be in a hospital, you’d have a nurse wheel you over to the gym for the game. As a last resort, you’d listen to the game on the radio, as even the smallest of towns usually had a broadcast. And, you’d certainly be talking about last night’s game with your neighbors and friends for a week until the next game day arrived.
The photo above is from the incredible Lost Muncie site maintained by Jeff Koenker and shows the Muncie Fieldhouse in the hoops-diseased state of Indiana during Tourney Time.
If I were laying down today, with my eyes closed, and even though I haven’t been inside it for over 40 years — you placed a single drop of the Eau de Fieldhouse near me (you know, that smell combining popcorn, sweat, forced air heat, melting-often-dirty snow still on your shoes, an edgy excitement…) I would instantly recognize it and be transported back to a special time when 15 to 17-year-old boys were gods.
Just look at this: Of the 15 largest high school gyms in the land, 13 are in Indiana; and if the still erect but vacant Wigwam in Anderson, Indiana were still in use, it would be second largest in the country, putting Indiana’s take at 14 of the 15.
|1||Indiana||New Castle||New Castle Fieldhouse||9,325|
|2||Indiana||East Chicago||John A. Baratto Athletic Center||8,296|
|3||Indiana||Seymour||Lloyd E. Scott Gymnasium||8,110|
|5||Indiana||Muncie||Muncie Fieldhouse||7,635 |
|6||Indiana||Marion||Bill Green Athletic Arena||7,560 |
|7||Texas||Dallas||Alfred J. Loos Fieldhouse||7,500|
|8||Indiana||Elkhart||North Side Gymnasium||7,373|
|9||Indiana||Michigan City||“The Wolves’ Den” Gym||7,304|
|10||Indiana||Gary||West Side High School Gym||7,217|
|11||Indiana||Lafayette||Jefferson High School Gym||7,200|
|12||Indiana||Southport||Southport High School Gym||7,124|
|13||Indiana||Washington||“The Hatchet House”||7,090|
My gym was Number 5 on the list, the Muncie Fieldhouse, home of the mighty Muncie Central Bearcats. Although I was never athletically blessed enough to play ball there (I did make it often inside as a tennis player, though, when we’d have to run the stairs before practice), I spent hours and hours there as a fan… and as a volunteer’s helper.
And that volunteer was my Mom, a Spanish teacher from one of the “County schools” (there were City schools — well, two in most of my time there — and about a dozen, much smaller County schools). And, that’s what we called them… City schools, and County schools.
Mom taught at Royerton High School. about five miles outside of town, with perhaps 80 or 90 kids per grade (I was in a class of about 500 kids at the City school, Muncie Central), and they were often the best basketball team among the County schools but would, for years and years and years, always come in second place to Central in the local area playoffs, called the Sectional, which was the first stop on the way to the statewide tournament.
My love of basketball started, in part, because of my experiences with Mom and her volunteer work at the Fieldhouse during Tourney Time, in the late winter months of February and March when the weather was usually a drizzly and snowy 20-30s.
But, inside that Fieldhouse, you’d be transported into another world, and being around Mom, the ticket taker — you knew that basketball was indeed a religion, and very much something that would hang with you for the rest of your life and become both a curse and blessing.
As you entered the fieldhouse, there was a circular hallway — leading to restrooms and concession stands — that went around the walled-in gym, and you’d walk up one of the many ramps from the hall to then either go up or down to your seats. Mom was stationed at the top of a ramp to take your ticket, before you could enter, or to give you the evil eye (she was a teacher, after all, so anyone leaving during a game, supposedly going to the bathroom or to buy some popcorn, was suspected of some nefarious activity that might be going on out in the parking lot or points beyond).
As it was, the ticket-taker positions offered the best viewing spots in the gym — you were high enough up to see over all of the heads of the patrons below you, but not so far up to feel away from the action.
But, here’s the deal: Mom could not and would not stay in her appointed spot when her beloved Royerton Redbirds were on the court. At even the slightest miscue, a missed foul shot, or an errant pass, Mom would go screaming down the ramp, while yelling at me (I was always seated right next to her in the row next to the ramp) “Michael, Michael, Michael. Get over here! You’ve gotta take over… I just can’t…” (I went by Mike at the time, and Mom called me that as well, except at crisis time, when I became Michael.)
These exclamations were often followed by swear words, and they were the only time I heard her use them.
So, there I’d be at age 5, 7, or 9 — a little kid, really — taking tickets. No one ever seemed to notice that a kid was on door duty, and Mom would always be back in a couple of minutes to resume her spot and send me back to my seat. She’d usually return composed enough to get to the next errant play.
This scene would be repeated several times per game — and, during Tourney Time multiple games per day. I’ll have to leave for another time what would typically happen when the Sectional finals usually brought the dreaded Central Bearcats against the almost-good-enough Royerton Redbirds. For now, let’s just say that we didn’t see Mom at her best.
But, for me, as a kid, all this was normal. That was what all moms did, right?
And, it’ s where my lifelong passion for this wacky round ball game of basketball began.
For another story about Mom and the 1960s, please see Mom and the Transistor Radio.