SPORTS: High school hoops border war reduced to a scuffle

June 19, 2006

Often, when I'm asked to give talks reflecting on the success of the sports initiative in Indianapolis, I use summertime as an illustration.

Back in the old days-and you know you're getting old when "old days" refer to anything pre-1970-Indy's June-July-August sports menu could pretty much be written on a single page and in large type.

Once the Indianapolis 500 came and went on Memorial Day, about the only thing to do was wait for the start of college and high school football seasons in September.

Sure, Stan Malless and his tennis pals were conducting the Western Open in a tiny venue at Woodstock Club. The Fox Stake harness race was a big deal during the Indiana State Fair. And the Indianapolis Indians were drawing decent crowds to Bush Stadium on West 16th Street.

That was about it. Amateur sports events hadn't discovered Indy yet, or vice versa.

Today, of course, the Western Open has morphed into the RCA Championships at the downtown Indianapolis Tennis Center. The Fox Stake still exists, but has been dwarfed by other activities. The Indians moved downtown to glistening Victory Field, and I was reminded last week during attendance at a matinee what a special experience that continues to be.

The Indiana Fever are in action at Conseco Fieldhouse. IMS has added two blockbuster offerings in the U.S. Grand Prix and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. The NBA draft and subsequent camps sustain interest in the Indiana Pacers. The Indianapolis Colts begin training camp in July and build anticipation of the NFL season in August. Amateur events-be they swimming, diving, rowing or something like the upcoming USA Track & Field Outdoor Nationals-dot the summertime calendar.

Unfortunately, the growing number of events may have had an adverse effect on one that has been operating in our midst since 1939.

I'm referring to the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star Games.

Back in the day, this was the hottest of hot tickets in the summertime. Pride was on the line, and that meant passion and packed houses during the two-week series at Louisville's Freedom Hall and Indy's Hinkle Fieldhouse, moving to Market Square Arena in 1974.

Bob Williams, the longtime state high school scribe for The Indianapolis Star-which continues to sponsor the series-dubbed the home-and-home games "the World Series of High School Basketball" and while that seems hot-air hyperbole today, back then it was difficult to offer a disclaimer. There simply wasn't anything like it in the country.

Furthermore, there was no more significant individual title in prep sports anywhere than to be named Indiana's Mr. Basketball, and a berth on the All-Star team was coveted by not only the player, but his community.

There's no question that Mr. Basketball (and Miss Basketball since 1976 when girls became part of the series) are still awards that last a lifetime, and an All-Star berth remains a prize.

But in these days of proliferating high school all-star games and McDonald's All-Americans, distinction in Indiana is just another in a series of honors for many of the players.

In the meantime, attendance also has dwindled. Kentucky's games long ago left Freedom Hall and have wandered to Lexington, Frankfort, Owensboro and Bowling Green (the last the site of this year's opening doubleheader). In Indy, the games have shifted to Conseco Fieldhouse (where they'll be played June 24) but there's been a steady decline in spectators.

It's not for lack of promotion. To The Star's credit, it packs its pages with house ads promoting the games. Local media give them decent coverage. I don't think it's that anyone isn't aware the games are taking place. The interest just isn't there.

To this Hoosier boy, that's disheartening because I've always viewed the games as a measuring stick. And I'm proud to say Indiana's boys own a dominant advantage (75-41) in their series, and Indiana's girls-after a slow start-have become pre-eminent in recent years, winning 21 of the last 28.

I understand the empty seats are a sign of the times. Our summers are now filled with entertainment and family options, sports and otherwise, and that's a good thing.

That said, I hope a good crowd shows up for the games, even with the unfortunate absence of Mr. Basketball Greg Oden, who is out with a wrist injury.

Besides, it's always enjoyable to watch Kentuckians get their tails kicked in basketball ... or anything else for that matter.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and 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 e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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