On Dec. 1, Sandy and I attended a basketball game in Medora, the second-smallest public high school in Indiana. Then just four days later, we attended a basketball game at New Castle High School, the home of the largest high school gym in the world … and here’s the story.
For decades, the identity of towns and cities across Indiana was the local high school gymnasium on game night. A packed gymnasium to watch the high school basketball team was the thing to do in Indiana. It became known across the state and nation as “Hoosier Hysteria.”
Outsiders from other states questioned the Hoosier logic of building huge, magnificent cathedrals in which to watch a high school basketball game. But in Indiana, those gyms became the heartbeat of our communities, some huge beyond imagination, and some just cozy and small — and perfect.
For the past few years, however, the gyms across Indiana aren’t so packed. The tradition of Indiana high school basketball means less and less to communities across Indiana each year.
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In Anderson, the second-largest high school gym in the world is no longer used. “The Wigwam,” home of the Anderson Indians, was closed by Anderson officials a couple of years ago. The place that for decades was filled with 9,000 basketball fans for home games dwindled in years to crowds of less than 800 people, and the upkeep became too much.
In other smaller communities that were once hotbeds for basketball, it’s very common for only 300 to 400 people to show up for a game and the pep band to not even play, something unheard of just a few years ago.
Hornets still buzzing
In Jackson County, out in the middle of nowhere, there remains one of the places where the heartbeat of the community is still the local high school basketball team. That place is Medora.Medora High School is the second-smallest public high school in Indiana (less than 100 students), and the high school basketball team has not had a winning season since 1982, back when a guy named Johnny Mack Brown was the coach.The town of Medora has fallen on hard times. It’s no secret. A couple of years ago, the New York Times did a feature on the Medora basketball team. It wasn’t pretty. Instead of focusing on the basketball team, the article highlighted poverty, unemployment, depression and drug use and depicted the community as a ghost town rotting away.
And then, the New York Times left and went back to New York. They didn’t report the good in Medora — the people who still are there fighting for their town and school.
On Dec. 1, our Backroads Indiana basketball trail took us to a Medora Hornets basketball game. Despite the decades of losing seasons, this isn’t a school or a community expecting to lose. A Medora basketball game is a community event, a team fighting together.
In their tiny gymnasium, the Hornets hosted the Senators of West Washington and lost a close, hard-fought game 58-53. The gym was crowded with basketball fans and people supporting their school, their community. The Medora cheerleaders were full of energy and performed the entire game.
The basketball team is like the town — a team of hard-nosed fighters. They are gutsy, well coached and well behaved with positive attitudes on the floor. Jackson County should be proud of this school and what its fight means to small-town America.
If you ever go to a Medora home game, you’ll leave there feeling good about the spirit of Medora and thankful for the flashback in time to Hoosier Hysteria. There is a lot to be learned for all of us at a Medora High School basketball game.
The Medora Covered Bridge is the town’s oldest and most sacred link to its past. Built in 1875, the bridge, at 438 feet long, is the longest covered bridge in the United States and draws visitors annually from all over the world.
When visiting the bridge and attending a Medora basketball home game, one doesn’t get the feeling Medora is about to give up any time soon. It’s a feeling that every small farm town in the United States understands, and that has all of us pulling for Medora, a town of fighters, a town of winners.
On Dec. 5, our Backroads Indiana basketball trail took us to New Castle to the largest high school gym in the world, a place that seats 9,325 basketball fans. Our reason for going there, of course, was to take in a basketball game between the New Castle Trojans and the Anderson Indians.On the surface, New Castle seems like any other Midwest farm town, but it’s much more than that. This is a basketball town. Any town that has only 18,000 residents and builds a gym to hold 9,325 fans is a certified “Hoosier Hysteria” community.This is where Indiana University basketball legends Kent Benson (1973) and Steve Alford (1983) played high school basketball, and both were Indiana Mr. Basketball in their senior years. Benson was on Indiana’s 1976 national champion team, and Alford was on the 1987 Hoosiers national champion squad.
The New Castle gym is not what you expect when you go there for the first time. It doesn’t overwhelm you. It doesn’t make you think this place is too big. Instead, it welcomes you into its past, into something special, into the tradition of Indiana high school basketball.
When you walk into the gym, you are greeted by row after row of permanent wooden bleachers, and then there’s the floor, the magnificent floor. The parquet floor is a unique part of the history in this gym. You just don’t see floors like this on a high school gym. But then again, this is the largest high school gym in the world, so what you see here, you won’t see anywhere else.
Taking it in
The New Castle pep band performed the entire game, and along with the energetic cheerleaders, the crowd was entertained all night, and the band still was performing after the game.And about those cheerleaders, they did something I’ve not seen before, which was reflective of the New Castle school system. Before the national anthem was played, the cheerleaders led the fans in the Pledge of Allegiance. And that was special. Congratulations, New Castle High School, and thank you for remembering to support patriotism in America.
Oh, by the way, New Castle won the game 64-54 against Anderson. It was fun watching this game, as crafty point guard Andrew Garrett kept New Castle together each time Anderson made a run.
New Castle has other things to do than just visit the world’s largest gym. There’s the Steve Alford All-American Inn and the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame to visit, as well. And within five miles is the Knightstown gym, the gym used as the home gym in the movie “Hoosiers.”
So if you’re looking for a flashback to Hoosier Hysteria, start in Medora and end in New Castle. You won’t be disappointed.
Mike Barrett is a local resident with an interest in history. Send comments to email@example.com.