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BENNER: It's too late to turn back clock on single-class basketball

April 28, 2012

Gov. Mitch Daniels is appearing in a television advertisement supporting the re-election of Richard Lugar as U.S. senator.

The TV spot addresses directly the nonsensical issue of Lugar—despite his long tenure in the Senate—as anything but a bona fide, certified, down-to-his-Sycamore-on-the-Wabash-roots Hoosier.

Says the governor: “It’s funny in a way … these folks from elsewhere telling us who a real Hoosier is.”

It’s funny in a way, too, when I hear folks from elsewhere trying to redefine those things that make/made us real Hoosiers.

Take, for example, class basketball (hey, with the topic raised anew, you knew I had to get around to it sooner or later).

Unless you lived it, loved it, felt it, followed it and—most of all—understood the profound way it bound us as Hoosiers, you can’t grasp the lasting significance of losing our single-class boys state high school tournament from the Indiana landscape.

It was as much a part of “Hoosierness”—OK, I just made up a word—as a T.C. Steele painting, a James Whitcomb Riley poem, autumn in Brown County or the start of the Indianapolis 500.

It was Hoosier Hysteria, a type of collective craziness that existed long before March Madness became an NCAA copyright. It defined us. It set us apart.

And in the midst of all this “do what’s right for the kids” gobbledygook, I’d wager that not one young man’s life was diminished by participating in the single-class tournament. Somebody won, somebody lost, and life went on as real life does.

The single-class tournament was never about replicating Milan’s historic 1954 state championship victory over Muncie Central. It was about the journey, not the destination. For some schools, winning a sectional—or even winning a sectional game against the county rival—was all it needed to be about.

As a columnist for the local daily back in 1997, when the IHSAA made its most bone-headed decision ever and discarded America’s most-admired high school event, I passionately advocated leaving the tournament alone.

Shows what kind of influence I had.

But my opinion, reflective of popular opinion, mattered not to the small-school principals, many of whom were from other states, and IHSAA board members who voted to consign this storied tradition to the landfill. They didn’t care that a majority of every constituent group polled—taxpayers, the public at large, coaches and, most important, the players themselves—wanted to keep the single-class tournament.

The principals voted otherwise and the IHSAA board, a deck stacked with small-school reps, affirmed their will. I was there. It may not have been the day the music died, but “Back Home Again in Indiana” certainly lost some of its meaning.

Everything predicted then has come true: declining attendance, far-flung travel, decreased media coverage, and dominance of lower classes by private and parochial schools.

Yes, towns like Lapel and Waldron have been able to hoist championship trophies. Good for them. But as they did, the rest of Indiana shrugged.

Nonetheless, class basketball is once again (still?) a topic of debate. State Sen. Mike Delph has stirred the pot, and the IHSAA is conducting listening sessions around the state, where a bunch of old geezers are showing up and speaking out in favor of a return to the all-comers format.

But it’s an empty exercise. Indiana today is reflective of America today, where we legislate competitiveness and strive to bolster self-esteem by watering down success and handing out participant ribbons. God forbid that, in doing “what’s best for the kids,” they learn that life, sometimes, isn’t fair and the playing field not always level.

Yes, I’m an old geezer … but at least I’m an old Hoosier geezer who actually experienced the single-class tournament, who went to sectionals, regionals, semistates and the State Finals from Hinkle Fieldhouse to the Hoosier Dome.

Look, I have nothing against current IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox, who is a multi-class proponent. In fact, I really like the guy. And I’m certain Sen. Delph is well-intentioned, although I believe, as a taxpayer and voter, that his time could be better served pursuing issues that really matter.

And see, that’s the sad part. It really doesn’t matter anymore, except to a few old geezers like me who lived it, loved it, felt it. I believe that’s something only real Hoosiers can fully understand.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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