A Melancholy Lovesong

…to Indiana high school basketball and “Hoosier Hysteria”.
It’s beautiful.

…In the mid-1990s, everything that defined Indiana basketball-the hysteria, the excitement, the pageantry-changed dramatically. Like the hardwood at New Castle years ago, the bottom suddenly fell out. As NCAA basketball began to rise in popularity and televisions started beaming games from across the country into Indiana living rooms, high schools watched as once-reliable crowds slowly trickled away. Teams across Indiana that consistently expected nightly sellouts were suddenly looking up at empty stands. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, a period in which the state’s population held steady at 5.5 million, attendance at sectional, regional and even semi-state tournaments dropped by 25 percent.

Most in the community can trace the decline to two words: class basketball. In the ’90s, a group of small-school principals started lobbying the Indiana High School Athletic Association to move to a class system, with schools divided into divisions based on size. No school with an enrolment of 500 or less had won a state championship since Milan in 1954. Smaller schools wanted a better chance of going deep in the tournament and bringing home a banner. Purists scoffed at the suggestion, refusing to change an 86-year-old tradition. So the principals took matters into their own hands. Several of them earned spots on the IHSAA executive board and began whispering in ears, changing opinions from within. By 1997, they successfully switched the tournament format into one with four classes-1A, 2A, 3A and 4A, separated by enrolment in ascending order. They simply lopped the entire state into four quarters and in 1998 awarded four state titles to four schools that had never won one before. In the 14 years since class basketball’s inception, there have been 56 state champions.

The argument against class basketball is that it eliminates much of the allure and magic of a small school taking a run through the tournament. Milan’s 1954 triumph could never happen in class basketball. Anyone who played at a small school in the single class system will tell you the most exciting part of the tournament was travelling to Anderson or New Castle and trying to knock off the big boys. Winning a sectional was akin to winning a state title for some small schools. But now the romance was gone; it was small schools vs. small schools and big schools vs. big schools. One year after the class system was introduced, attendance at regionals dropped from 168,715 to 71,384 and at the state finals from 55,125 to 27,295. The IHSAA saw a $600,000 dip in revenue between 1997 and 1998 alone.

Not helping the cause was the rapid consolidation of schools in Indiana, which dropped the number of tournament entrants from 755 in 1955 to just 401 this season. As manufacturing jobs started to disappear in the 1990s, more and more families left the state. High school enrolments plummeted. A town like Anderson, which once had three schools, no longer needed-or could even afford-that many. Since 1959, more than 400 small schools in Indiana have been consolidated with others in their areas. Cross-town foes, and even regional rivalries, were eliminated. Community identities and fierce loyalties went with them.

As schools were shuttered, so too were their storied gymnasiums. The biggest gyms stayed intact, gigantic symbols of what basketball used to mean here. But in the early morning on July 1, 2011, the unthinkable happened. The Anderson school board dispatched a service crew to change the locks at the Wigwam.

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