Sports Business

SPORTS: Diagnosing basketball's ills in a Hoosier laboratory

March 21, 2005

The local daily recently had a story that revealed there are no statewide high school basketball legends in the making anymore. Players whose reputations were wellknown from Michigan City to Tell City long before their senior year in high school have gone the way of, well, single-class basketball.

On top of that, as March Madness unfolds around us-with the NCAA men's first and second rounds being played at the RCA Dome and the Women's Final Four rolling into town April 3-5-we are wallflowers at the Big Dance. Purdue finagled an invite to the women's field, but that seemed as much a career achievement award as anything.

Then there are the suspension- and injuryriddled Indiana Pacers, fighting to hang on to a playoff spot rather than fighting for, as expected, a top seed.

So what we have is who-cares high school hoops on a statewide basis, mediocre college programs and a star-crossed pro team.

As a longtime devotee and defender of all that is represented in the term Indiana basketball, I find myself able only to utter a weak, Cubs-like, wait until next year.

Indiana, temporarily, has lost its basketball direction, if not its soul.

And into the mix comes "Transition Game: How Hoosiers Went Hip Hop."

It's a book authored by Sports Illustrated senior writer L. Jon Wertheim. A 34-yearold Bloomington North High School graduate who matriculated at Yale University, Wertheim returned to his Hoosier roots a couple of years back and noticed that both the complexion of the game-and the complexions of those playing it-had changed at his prep alma mater.

He then spent much of last winter in Indiana researching the Hoosier game at all levels, concentrating on Bloomington North's season but taking illuminating side trips to Martinsville (focusing on race relations) and Indiana University (revisiting the Bob-Knight-to-Mike-Davis saga). He also examined the Damon Bailey phenomenon, the Pacers and their move from Market Square Arena to Conseco Fieldhouse, the growing popularity of girls' and women's basketball as reflected by the Purdue women's program, pickup games, computer geeks (skip that chapter), agents (with Purdue alum Eugene Parker as that chapter's focus), and, of course, the decision to move to multiclass basketball.

On the latter, he concludes, "Indiana high school basketball is immeasurably worse for it."

You are correct, sir.

It's a good read and I'd recommend it, although I found the intertwined diary of the Bloomington North season far more interesting than the rehash of facts already wellknown to Hoosiers aware of how basketball-our game-has been changing (some would say "crumbling") around us.

Wertheim's goal, however, was to use Indiana basketball as a reflection of how the sport is changing throughout America.

"I wanted to make sense of all this change in the culture of basketball in Indiana, using Indiana as your prism, figuring if it's going on in Indiana, it's going on everywhere," he told me last week.

"There's a perception that Indiana basketball isn't what it used to be, and I guess what I concluded is that it is every bit what it used to be; you just have to look different places. You're not going to find it on Friday night in the Connersville gym, but you might find it in Mackey Arena, where 10,000 people turn out to watch women's basketball. It's still there, but the points of entry are different."

As a life-long Hoosier, however, I was uncomfortable with the underlying theme that virtually all the changes are somehow tied to race, and the implications that we are a state of racists incapable of accepting blacks as part of our basketball culture.

I do not deny those idiots are out there and unquestionably there has been shameful behavior, but I would argue that Indiana is no better nor worse than many other states in that regard, and has been proud and accepting of blacks going back to the days of highschoolers Hallie Bryant and Johnny Wilson.

Wertheim also gigs Indiana about not being progressive when it comes to women (never mind that Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh authored Title IX). He also wrote that Market Square Arena had only one women's rest room in the entire building, which is simply incorrect.

But that's nitpicking. Because Wertheim supplies a conclusion about the future of Indiana hoops that might get you through the temporary-I hope-depression of the present. You'll find reading it therapeutic.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to bbenner@ibj.com.
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