A lesson on where Hoosier hoops came from

For the better part of Indiana’s history, high school basketball has been the glue that binds citizens together.

Is there a Hoosier living who hasn’t played the game, cheered a sectional or seen the classic movie “Hoosiers” — multiple times? Or been inspired by the stories of the “mighty men of Milan” of ‘54 and the Crispus Attucks Tigers of ‘55?

“Early on I just couldn’t understand why people were so passionate about high school basketball,” broadcasting legend Tom Carnegie said in a 2010 interview for the 100th anniversary of the Indiana high school basketball tournament. Carnegie, a native of Connecticut, figured it out fast: “It was the topic of conversation everywhere — in the smallest burg in the state, in the biggest high school — and I think it was because they were all shooting for one big trophy, and that was the state championship.”

Indiana didn’t originate basketball, of course, but it sure welcomed it with open arms. James Naismith is credited with creating the game in 1891 in a Massachusetts YMCA to keep restless college men active in the winter.

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Naismith nailed peach baskets to the lower rail of a gymnasium balcony, one at each end, and “basket ball” was born. His rules were printed in a magazine sent to YMCAs around the country, and the game spread like wildfire.

How and when it came to Indiana isn’t clear. Most Indiana basketball histories say the Rev. Nicholas McCay introduced the game at the Crawfordsville YMCA in the spring of 1893, with the first competitive game in March 1894 between teams from Crawfordsville and Lafayette.

More recent scholarship suggests games already had been played elsewhere, including Indianapolis and Connersville. S. Chandler Lighty searched late 19th century Indiana newspapers — recently digitized — for references to basketball and found quite a few. He summarized his conclusions in a December 2014 Indiana Magazine of History article: “Evansville seems to have been the site of the earliest competitive (non-exhibition) basketball games in the state.”

Regardless of its arrival date, Indiana and basketball were a match made in heaven. Hoosier farm boys could play it in the winter because it didn’t interfere with planting or harvest season. Urban youngsters could play it in a park.

From the beginning, girls played too, although their tournament opportunities were limited until the gender equity movement of the 1970s.

The first boys high school state tournament was in 1911, Crawfordsville beating Lebanon 24-17. After that “the high school tournament became an annual rite, a sacred institution, a touchstone of Indiana culture,” writes William Gildea in “Where the Game Matters Most,” a study of the final season before the tournament switched from a single-class to multi-class format in 1997.

Two shining moments stand out in Hoosiers’ collective tournament memory. One was the last-second 14-footer by Bobby Plump in 1954 that lifted small-town Milan high school over powerhouse Muncie Central 32-30, a David versus Goliath story fictionalized in the movie “Hoosiers” and filmed in Indiana.

The second occurred the next year when Oscar Robertson led the Crispus Attucks Tigers to the state championship, becoming the first all-black team to win the state title — a feat repeated in 1956 in the face of widespread racial prejudice encountered on opponents’ courts.

Those stories and much more are memorialized at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle. Its 14,000-square-foot museum documents the teams, players and coaches behind Hoosier Hysteria from the 1890s to the present.

If you go

Basketball Hall of Fame: The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame is at 408 Trojan Lane, New Castle.

The Hoosier Gym: The Hoosier Gym is at 355 N. Washington Street, Knightstown.

This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.