The Secret History of the Hoosier State
April 14, 2019
New Albany, IN– It is jarring to see, startling to the outsider. It is an experience wholly unique to the land of Jimmy Chitwood. Every year, upwards of eight thousand Hoosiers gather in the small town of Seymour, Indiana, for a trip back into their childhoods, or a chance to see greatness. Indiana, more than any other state, cherishes the game of basketball. The thrill of victory is one aspect of the game. The communities it impacts are many. What happens when these gymnasiums come and go, leaving ghosts or what might have been. Darkness does lies in the heart of Indiana’s basketball kingdom. Just as it may bring joy, it also brings pain. The heart of the Hoosier State beats with a dribble.
Meyer in the Moment
In 1969, this place was known as the pressure cooker, due to defense and the extreme heat”, these are the remembrances of Jamie Lowry, the current Athletic Director of Scottsburg High school. It still is a pressure cooker in many ways. It is a humid Spring afternoon in Scottsburg, Indiana. It is warm now and the excitement of just one month ago has waned. The hallways are vacant, the only persons dwelling are the administrators, long detached from the thrill of a basketball game. Even with Winter, heat still rises. It comes in the form of games like the heartbreaking 52-51 loss at the hands of Switzerland County witnessed by a crowd of reckless students. The pressure is still on. It is not an uncommon sight to see a packed gym on a game night. It has been this way in Scott County for years, 1956, to be exact. Since then, championship teams have passed through. Their names are high in the rafters, like heroes of a ancient times. Curiously, a memorial to the 1989 State Champion Warriorettes and the plaque commemorating the Indiana Hall of Fame member Rene Westmoreland remain just out of sight. Meyer is a gym that likes to keep its secrets. Just ask the school’s Athletic Director, Jamie Lowry. He says his gym is halfway underground. “I would say the most unique feature is the ‘Sunken Gym’ feeling. It’s not actually a sunken gym.” The thought of Meyer sinking into the earth is poetic in a way. Every year, it springs back to life with the cold chill of Winter. Like the sunken gym, the town’s nightlife is secret left undiscovered by those just passing through town. Stay a while, and see that Meyer Gymnasium is sacred to the community. It does not even need the Scottsburg High School anywhere near it. In fact, the school is located nearly five miles away from the location of the Meyer Gymnasium. The steamy nights in winter and the relative quiet of summer give the small community all the excitement it can handle. Scottsburg is on of the lucky towns; it is big enough to sustain having a school. Jamie Lowry once again notes the life it gives to the community. “It forms a bond and creates memories for a lifetime, no matter what social or economic status was, people would gather for a common purpose”, proclaims Lowry. They still do. And, they are not alone.
From the Smallest of These
“In a word, the team gave ‘hope’ for years following and many years to come”. These are the words of a champion. Reilly Gray has lucky enough to win a state title in 2013, and bring it back to Borden, some thirty miles south of Scottsburg. Gray’s mother owns coffee shop in the area. To this day, the winning portrait of that team, from six years ago, hangs proudly in the dining room for all to see. It serves as the reminder of the promise of a fresh start, and the glory at the fingertips of every small community every winter. Even in communities that have not experienced the euphoria of a state title, there is still a love of history. Ask Jordon Kneobel, who played at Charlestown High School and Indiana University Southeast. “It meant a lot knowing the history and how much they genuinely care about basketball around here!” he says, “Playing in front of a packed gym was incredible”. Packed gyms are far from unusual in Indiana; the state boasts eight of the top ten largest high school gyms in the United States. Outside those 8,000+plus seat gyms; there is a certain mystique to any Hoosier town on game night. Garrett Lane, Indiana University Southeast freshman, has seen both sides of the river. He played in Louisville, Kentucky. However, to him, there is nothing like the small town of Henryville, Indiana, the 2A school he played for his junior and senior year. “There are five-hundred things to do on Friday night (in Louisville). The mindset is more about going to the malls, rather than basketball games”. Lane also says that from his days as a player, one thing is certain, “It is a Friday night event (in Indiana), I much prefer Indiana fans.” The lessons learned from small time athletics go above and beyond what the eye sees on the court, they tell the tales of the community, and state, at large. They are the theater, the heart of drama. Other parts of the state have drama far beyond the court.
“It was a true community center. Now, it’s a fading piece of history”. These are the words of Jody Robert-Ford, the former head of the Save the James M. Shields Gym group on Facebook. He is describing the tomb lost in the shadow of Lloyd E. Scott Gymnasium, located blocks away from his crumbling palace. Shields Gym, as it is known locally, used to be the Owl’s roost. Seymour played here for years. Sectionals were won, fans cheered, and good times were had, perhaps too many good times. A lively chapter occurred in the Scottsburg-Seymour rivalry where one member of the Scottsburg team pulled an Owl’s arm out of socket. He got a police escort through a jeering crowd. Or, on a cold night in 1968, tear gas was deployed onto the bus of the visiting Scottsburg Warriors by an unruly fan. The police were called, and it was quite a site. No one would see life in Shields now. There it sits, with broken windows, a “no trespassing” sign, and graffiti scaring its once beautiful face. What led to this depends on whom you ask. If you ask Jody Robert Ford, the culprit is clear. “A local lawyer who seems to own everything in town, he won’t engage with anyone regarding the gym. It would make a great community center”. Robert-Ford’s frustration shows the loss that some communities feel when the gym closes down. For some, the memory remains. Memory serves well for people like Bud Shippy, it always has. He has all the statistics from as far back as 1910.”I remember when the IHSAA Commissioner Phil Eskew was there”, Shippy says, he is remembering the epic 100-100 overtime tie between the Warriors and Owls, “(Eskew) talked about that came until the day he died”. Death is something more familiar to Shields now. Bud is one of the lucky ones. Memories cannot be taken away by the progression of modern living; Bud and Robert-Ford might agree on one notion of change, stated by Robert-Ford, “As a result, we are forgetting who we are. E Plubris Unum, out of one many. Now we are disconnected. They are many graves in the graveyard.” Gone, but not forgotten. Places like Shields. Places across the state.
“State tournaments galvanize a school, there is no better time to present a school bond proposal to voters!” This is the wisdom of long-time basketball fan Bruce Schrock. Seymour is lucky-it still has a school. It has seen its fair share of tournaments and the magic they hold. This cannot be said for some of the schools that once were in the Hoosier state. Silver Springs, located some fifteen miles away from Seymour, lost theirs long ago. Heading South, it is not uncommon to see a piece of memorabilia from the Marengo Cavemen. They no longer play, either. All across the state, economics and classrooms have driven the small school to consolidation.. This issue is not endemic to the southern region of the state. Randy Fairchild was young when his parents moved to Hillsboro, Indiana. He came after the consolidation of Hillsboro into Fountain Central, but still noted some major changes. “What happened in my eyes was the small town’s loss of identity. Since these schools (like Fountain Central) kept getting bigger. I realize students have more chances to learn, but I feel like our rural areas have been deeply impacted by this.” Fairchild’s observation hits a key nerve. Schrock has also seen the power of school on communities. “The community loses population and population”. He saw this in Missouri, but its different to Indiana. Very rarely are those schools lost to time major players in the area. Schools with groups of students much smaller than usual, found themselves being swept up in the need to conserve money. From Hillsboro in the North, to Millerstown in the South, rural communities lost some sense of identity as the world moved around them. There is no glory for them. It is a common practice, but not all bad. It does manage to leave behind some relics of a forgotten era. Some relics have found their place in the modern world, like DuPont, Indiana’s 1937-era gym. It is being used as an elementary school now. Or, there is Paris Crossing, a small hamlet located near the town of Vernon, Indiana. Paris Crossing itself was born of the merger of many smaller schools in the 1930s. It lasted into the sixties, and even left a marker of its own. The small, desolate, gym used to be one of the most popular community centers in its area. Then, a combination of bad business and zoning issues led it to become a ghost, just like Shields. On a cold, dreary, Sunday morning, it looks like a zombie. It is a place should be feared. It is not one of the lucky ones. Some gyms, however, get a second chance with life.
On the Third Day, He Shot Hoops
“Definitely a pillar in the community. And it is affordable”. So says Tyler Towns, a long time Jeffersonville resident about the old Nachand Fieldhouse. “I’ve played basketball there since I was four years old. “ Nachand is located in the heart of Jeffersonville. Here, there are looming bulldozers on the horizon. This usually means death, but not for Nachand. No, here is the epitome of progress. A new elementary school is being built here, and Nachand is the crown jewel. Its life is a little different than some. Heading up river to Madison, Indiana, another relic is observed. This one comes with the old school still attached, and serves as a shrine to past glory. In 1950, the Madison Cubs rode a good offense to a state championship. Along the way, they bested many teams that no longer exist. The school they won in has since, literally, moved to the hills, but along the waterfront, a special community center, one filled with the musty smell of years past, remains. Nachand also has a tittle attached. Theirs came in 1993. They both represent a happy resurrection of something bigger than basketball: the resurrection of a community.
Once again, statewide pride carries Hoosiers to preserve their holy grounds. Knightstown, Indiana, is located near the town of New Castle. On a regular map, it may only appear a blip, but film aficionados have seen it many times. Now, it is a cultural touchstone. This old private school gym became the filming site for Hoosiers, perhaps the ultimate expression of hysteria in the state. Now, the Hoosier Gym is a site to be seen for Hoosiers of all ages. The restored community center hosts parties for local youths, church groups, and, of course, the occasional high school basketball game. It is a pillar of the community, perhaps even of the state.
It is a little different that Nachand and Brown Memorial in Madison, but the future remains in motion, even if that means losing Nachand to progress. It is a though that causes life-long users like Tyler Towns to become introspective, “I think having a gym for people of all ages is a great way for people, especially youths, escape their problems in a productive manner. Honestly, I would love to see another gym open up in the future.” The future. It is the one ghost that always hangs over communities. Progress, but at what cost. “Its like my home away from home”, says Towns. It is a home that may soon live on in a legend of its own.
Lessons from the Wizard
Its no surprise to see the lore of the Hoosier basketball fan is varied and deep. Small towns from all corners of the state have their legends., the ones who carried the torches. From Larry Legend in French Lick, to the Big O leading Crispus Attucks to state titles, there are a few that are truly transcendent. It is the small towns where fame is fleeting. The greatest coach of all time came from a small school in Indiana, then to Purdue, and then stardom. That Pyramid of Leadership is stapled to the wall of every P.E. class in the state. It tells the backbone of success as being a full team effort. Humility of all traits is above everything else. Humility is a lesson that time teaches everyone. Whether watching a game in a holy spot some five miles away from the high school, or staring at the remnants of a once prosperous school, time finds its way into our lives. The shot clock, ironically not present in the high school game, continues to run down. When the buzzer rings, all that’s left are memories. Memories of the palaces left to die. Memories of a culture.