A secret gym

It started with a phone call about a secret gym and ended in the loft of a dark barn on the backroads of Jackson County … and here’s the story.

When Ricky Lloyd of Salem called me one day this past winter, he caught my attention really quickly when he asked, “Have you ever heard of Brownstown’s secret basketball gym?” Well, I had not, but I certainly wanted to hear about it. A “secret basketball gym,” this was some serious stuff.

The story started when Lloyd was doing some work in the Brownstown area and was shown a full-court basketball goal in the loft of an old barn. He was told many years ago it’s where Brownstown used to practice during the offseason, where they could work as team without anyone knowing.

I could only smile on the inside when he told me the story. At last, I had uncovered the success behind the history of Brownstown’s great basketball program — a secret gym.

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My task to revealing this great revelation to the world was to see the gym and to get the story. So on a darkened Friday night, my wife, Sandy, and I met Lloyd as discreetly as we could. After all, on a story this big, anyone could have been following us.

So we met at the McDonald’s parking lot in Brownstown, and we pulled our meeting off without raising suspicion for sure. We looked like anyone else at McDonald’s. We looked like all we wanted was a Big Mac. But in reality, we were about to unravel one of the great secrets of our time.

We barely made eye contact with Lloyd, and as he pulled his pickup truck out of the parking lot, we followed closely behind in my Jeep Commander. The night was dark and had an eerie feel to it for sure. I had no idea where he was leading us. We crossed a railroad track and passed some houses lit up with lots of Christmas lights.

Eventually, his truck slowed and turned into a drive. We had reached our destination. He got out of his truck. He didn’t say a word to us and went up to the door of a small house, where he went inside. Sandy and I stayed put in the drive. The night was dark, but we could see a barn just a short distance away.

Finally, he came out of the house with another man. We then all walked over to the barn. We went upstairs to the loft. There weren’t any lights in the pitch-dark barn, so we used a couple of flashlights, and sure enough, there it was. Basketball goals on each end of the loft, benches on each side of the court — this was Indiana. And because we were in Indiana, I knew what I was seeing was for real. My heart jumped.

I asked question after question, but the man wasn’t sure about a lot of the information. He told me he heard it was once used for secret practices but wasn’t sure. We took a couple of pictures, and then we left, but I knew I still needed more information.

As we headed over to the Brownstown Central High School gym, where they were playing Scottsburg, I reached out to Jon Robison. Now, Jon seems to know everything about basketball in Jackson County, so he listened to my story and said, “I’ll see what I can find out.”

I knew I could count on Jon because when I arrived at the gym, Jon introduced me to a man named Randy Delph. Randy just happened to be at the game, and he actually grew up on the farm where the barn with the basketball court in the loft was located. It’s a small world, isn’t it? I mean, what are the chances of that?

For Randy, playing basketball in the barn is a recollection of wonderful childhood memories — a place he thinks about every day, even though he no longer lives there.

The barn, it seems, is very old, built in the 1890s by the Hess family. It was built with character and built with 12 horse stalls. Randy said his older brother put a goal up in the loft in the mid-1960s, and it was used frequently for pickup games up until the mid-1990s. Randy built the benches on each side of the court and even installed lights so they could play at night. They no longer work.

On cold winter days, Randy installed a blast kerosene heater on each end of the court, and eventually, it would get so hot in the barn, they would have to open hay doors in the loft to let cold air in.

Now, about those secret practices, Randy said it was never used for that, but a lot of basketball was played there by some of the best players in the history of Brownstown’s storied program. He recalled that Jeff Morning once shot a layup and the floor broke where he came down and his foot went through a hole in the floor.

So the story of secret practices seems to be just an urban myth, but Randy did have a story that not everyone may know. It happened in the 1970s when Randy was on the track team. The team would run past his farm, and in his words, the gym was secretly used by some members of the track team.

It seems some of the more committed members would run past the barn on down the road to where they were supposed to go. But some of the guys in the back of the pack would head toward the barn and up to the loft, where they would shoot some hoops and watch for the more dedicated runners to come back down the road.

As the other runners returned and passed the barn, the guys would leave the loft and fall back in behind, like they had been there all the time. Now, that’s not the secret I was looking for when this story started, but let’s face it, that’s a great Backroads Indiana story for sure.

Mike Barrett is a local resident with an interest in history. His Backroads Indiana columns appear regularly in The Tribune. Send comments to zspicer@tribtown.com.