Hoops & Hoosiers
THREE trombones slide through ``The Star-Spangled Banner.'' Then the din explodes: The game is on. More than 7,000 fans are scrunched into the gymnasium to watch the Marion High School Giants play. Play what? Basketball, of course. What else in Hoosierland? These fans can detect a double dribble faster than a spark plug misfiring, and before the ref can blow his whistle on a foul, they ``call it'' - but only if it's the opponent's. In tight spots, they chorus, ``We are Giants, we are Giants, we are Giants,'' until the rafters rattle. Then threading through the cluster, a Giant slam-dunks the ball and the crowd rises to its collective feet. When the Giants win, Hoosier hoopla hits a high, but the silence of the losers seems louder.
This is high school basketball in Indiana.
Right now, the state tournament is under way, with the Giants fighting for their third straight title. To date, only small-town Franklin has pulled off that triple feat in the 77 years of tournament history. Those victories were back in 1920, '21, and '22, when only 16 teams competed for the title. This year, 388 teams entered the competition, which is open to any school in the state, regardless of size or season record. It's this tourney that gave rise to the current movie ``Hoosiers.''
If you've never seen an Indiana high school game, and never plan to see one, you've missed a slice of Americana that no amount of apple pie can replace. This Hoosier cult, long labeled a ``lunacy,'' ``hysteria,'' ``fever,'' and ``frenzy,'' has plenty of boosters: Fourteen high school gymnasiums around the state seat 7,000 or more. And when talking about state notables, Hoosiers will probably skip over Abraham Lincoln's Indiana boyhood to tell you about the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird, who came up through high school ranks in downstate hill country.
All around this farmland, kids half as high as summer corn toss basketballs into hoops hung from barns and garages, always with an eye on the high school's starting five. For Hoosiers, this game began back in 1893, when a minister attached two feed sacks to forged iron hoops, so the story goes. Since then, basketball has grown like Jack's beanstalk. And no wonder. It's a game that comes alive when fields sleep, a sport to break the boredom between harvest and planting. Fortunately, the state's city kids took to the game, too, so tournaments bring together a hybrid of backgrounds.
Fans recite the tourney timetable like the four seasons, and they caravan around the countryside for sectionals, regionals, semi-state, and state games - if they can get tickets (at $4 to $8 - up to $50 from scalpers), meted out through lotteries.
Nowhere does the pinnacle of winning and the pits of losing hit so hard as in these state championships. Just ask the 324 teams who have already been bounced out during the sectionals last week.
But the Marion Giants are still in the thick of it - in fact, on top of it. They've won their sectional title, and tonight they start their regional round, tipping off against the Peru Tigers in the Marion home gym. The Giants go into the game with a 22-1 record, their only loss being to a Kentucky team.
The starting five are a cool bunch, able to stay loose under the pressure from fans - and this year's added scrutiny from the news media as ``Hoosiers'' hits the theaters.
But coach Bill Green eases his team's jitters by letting the kids know, ``The only one you answer to is me.'' This dictum from a coach who rarely eats breakfast, lunch, or dinner on the day of the game. There just isn't room in his stomach for both butterflies and food. He also doesn't sleep more than four hours at a stretch - ever.
Some of the Giants have played together since they were 10 years old on the Police Athletic League team. With all their victories over the years, you'd think they would strut. But they don't. At the local Arby's, Lyndon Jones, a guard, and Jay Edwards, a forward, take their sack of sandwiches and shakes and scoot out the door. The girls ogle, but the coach's 11 o'clock curfew edges close.
``We gotta go home,'' says Lyndon, with a shyness that befits Charlie Brown. But unlike Charlie, Lyndon is no loser. Both he and Jay will go to Indiana University at Bloomington on scholarships next year to play under coach Bobby Knight. Daric Keys, a forward, will be at Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem, N.C. As yet, teammates Eric Ewer, the center, and Kyle Persinger, a guard, haven't determined where their college destinies lie.
As far as a coach's destiny goes, no one knows better than Green that school boards can have short memories when losses start to stack up.
``I'd guess that of the 388 coaches [in the tournament], 80 will be fired this year,'' says Green, who is hired for only a year at a time. Green says Marion basketball brings in about $150,000 annually, enough to support all 17 sports programs at Marion High.
That's a lot of backing from a city of 35,800 that doesn't showcase much wealth. The ABCs of Marion are Agriculture, Basketball, and Churches (104 total) - though perhaps in different order. But basketball is Marion's common denominator, linking young and old, black and white, farmer and factory worker.
On downtown streets you see workers wearing T-shirts imprinted with ``Basketball Built This Town.'' And at Marion's corner cafeteria, you're bound to spot several team members, because the proprietor, Bucky Woodard, feeds them for free.
Does Green think maybe his team members' days are a bit lopsided with all this basketball? Not at all, he maintains. Their academics are solid; their social life, straight; their bodies in shape. To Green, basketball is their ticket to a good tomorrow.