Brian Hamilton: A heapin’ helpin’ of hoops | TheUnion.com

Brian Hamilton: A heapin’ helpin’ of hoops

Brian Hamilton

There's something about this time of year that always takes me back to my Hoosier roots, as basketball and brackets beg for my attention.

Growing up in Indiana, basketball was big. The annual high school state tournament, as featured in the film "Hoosiers," once rivaled the Indy 500 as the state's most anticipated annual sporting event.

But it wasn't just about basketball.

"Hoosier Hysteria," as it was once known, was about community.

It was about school pride, competing against regional rivals and, of course, the sort of Cinderella stories that continue to capture the imagination of millions across the country with each edition of "March Madness" and the NCAA tournament.

I say "was" because the Indiana High School Athletic Association essentially killed the golden goose in the late 1990s, when it switched away from a single-class tournament — which welcomed all comers, every team in the state, regardless of record or size of school — in favor of multi-class tournaments based on school enrollment, just like every other state in the nation.

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For 87 years, the team that emerged from the tournament unscathed was known as the Indiana state champion. Singular. And for young boys and girls working on their bounce passes and bank shots, the name of the winning school was added to a legendary list it seem nearly everyone knew.

Those youngsters hoped they, too, would some day take the court in the largest high school gymnasiums in the world, competing for a sectional championship and punching a ticket into the next round of the tournament: regional, semistate and the state finals.

Mention the word "Hoosiers" and no doubt among the first images that come to mind are of that small gymnasium that housed the fictional "Hickory Huskers." (By the way, that gym wasn't a movie set. It was the former home of the Knightstown Panthers, until it was essentially transformed into a museum to celebrate the fairytale of Jimmy Chitwood and Hickory High). Many of the gyms across Indiana were of similar style, a lot like Earl Crabbe Gymnasium at Placer High, which once inside you can just sense the history it has witnessed.

But to get a real feel for how big high school hoops once were in the Hoosier state, one had to visit one of the super-sized gyms that served as sectional sites, where smaller schools sought to knock off the host team, most often centered in the county seat. The Anderson Wigwam, for example, once hosted capacity crowds of 8,996, second only to the New Castle Fieldhouse, which remains to this day the largest high school gym in the U.S., capable of hosting 9,325 fans — for a high school basketball game.

Today, after 20 years of class basketball, Hoosiers have seen a whole lot more state champions, but also a lot less interest in them. Four state champions are now crowned each year, meaning 80 schools have cut down the nets in the past two decades, nearly matching the number in those first 87 years. I can't imagine any young Hoosier out on the playground, working on the pick and roll, to be able to recite them all — or perhaps even remember the short list of champs from last season alone.

I suppose we can chalk it all up to change and, at the risk of sounding like a sports curmudgeon, a society that seems to too often value participation more than competition.

But the truth is "Hoosier Hysteria" wasn't about the state championship.

It was about every step along the way.

If your team was bounced from the sectional tournament by your neighboring rival, more often than not you still headed back to the gym for the next round to cheer on the team that ousted your own, as they took court with the big school "Goliath" of the tournament.

Of course, that's one of the most fascinating aspects of sports — a story line of many sports films far beyond "Hoosiers" — whether the underdog can overcome, or whether Cinderella can stay out after midnight, so to speak.

And if the small school ever emerged with the win, that sectional celebration was one worthy of any state championship club and the fan following only seemed to grow into longer caravans of cars traveling to the next round of competition.

Along those lines, area high school basketball fans have a rare opportunity tonight to jump on basketball bandwagons and cheer on their own regional rivals.

Forest Lake Christian girls (20-6), a section runner-up, travels all the way to Santa Rosa to square off with host Rincon Valley Christian in the first round of the Division VI NorCal bracket.

But much closer to home, Colfax will host a rare state tournament doubleheader, as the section champion Lady Falcons (25-4) host Oroville (18-11) at 6 p.m., followed by the section runner-up Colfax boys (21-9) tipping off against Colusa (24-5) in the first round.

That's a heapin' helpin' of hoops sure to satisfy the appetite of any basketball fan, perhaps even a transplanted Hoosier who admittedly might be hanging on to the good ol' days a bit too long.

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.

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