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Crazy basketball buzzer-beater becomes all-time standard by which this high schooler’s life will be measured

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Myra Fleener: You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god, er, uh, how can he ever find out what he can really do? I don’t want this to be the high point of his life. I’ve seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.
Coach Norman Dale: You know, most people would kill… to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.

If I were Austin Groff, I would bore people until the end of my days about the few moments when I became a god by hitting this crazy, ass-backward, buzzer-beating shot during a recent high school holiday basketball tournament in Ohio.

(Hat tip: Off the Bench, nbcsports.com.)

When cutting a high school gym means cementing a city's death

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You would think the Anderson (Ind.) school district, in a 40-year decline that is resulting in the shutdown of one high school and four other schools at the end of the 2009-2010, plus another 170 teachers cut from the schools that are left, might decide that now is the time to shut down its 9,000-seat basketball arena, which costs about $350,000 a year in utilities alone, or twice the cost of utilities for a whole elementary school. But shutting down the Wigwam, the acknowledged heart and soul of the Indiana high school basketball phenomenon known as Hoosier Hysteria, isn’t about money. It’s about a desperate town wanting to hold onto its last shred and symbol of pride and relevancy.

Again, the Wigwam survives, 13 years after the high school it originally was affiliated with closed, 11 years after a fire that burned down the old high school and would have burned down the gym had firefighters not made a heroic effort to save it, and 10 years after the idea of shutting it down was first broached in earnest after a school referendum failed. On May 11 the Wigwam dodged its latest bullet, when the Anderson school board voted 4-2 against a proposal to open the Wigwam up only to outside rentals, and have basketball games played at the 3,500-seat gym at the one high school that’s left — Anderson High School, sitting in what used to be Madison Heights High School (RIP), and next year to absorb the closed Highland High School.

There is an argument to keeping the Wigwam open beyond the long and storied history of Anderson Indians basketball. A few attached classrooms survived the fire, and they’re used for administrative purposes and special programs. But, really, the only argument for keeping the Wigwam open as Anderson, the city and school district, collapses around it is emotion.

Anderson’s population peaked at 70,000 in 1970, when the city had about 40,000 GM jobs. The population is sinking to 55,000, now that there are zero GM jobs. You could film a “Roger and Me” sequel in Anderson.

There are a few stirrings of economic activity, and Anderson did come back once from the decimation of the end of the Indiana Gas Boom in the 1910s. But riding through the city now is an exercise in watching slow death. The school district enrollment peaked in 1971 and has fallen even sense, with a continual 2-3 percent annual decline. To give you an idea of how bad things are for the Anderson schools, the new superintendent, Felix Chow, was hired in part because he had worked in this situation before — as superintendent of schools in Flint, Mich.

When a friend and I visited Anderson and its coach, Ron Hecklinski, in 2000 while doing a travel story for the Chicago Tribune on Indiana high school gyms (in Indiana, a 9,000-seat arena like the Wigwam or the No. 1 arena, New Castle’s Fieldhouse, is called a “gym”), Hecklinski was lamenting the decline in Anderson. “Every time I read the obituaries,” he said, “I say, there goes another season-ticket holder.” But the lure of Wigwam, the one that made him leave an assistant’s job at Ball State to coach high school ball, remained strong. Then, as now, he was sure that if the Wigwam shut down, he would have to leave Anderson. Anyplace else would be just a gym.

Even though everyone calls the Wigwam a gym, to Hecklinski — as to much of Indiana — the Wigwam is more special than that. “When people walk in here,” I remember Hecklinski saying, “they go, ‘Whoa.’” It’s not just the size of the Wigwam — it’s the intensity of the crowd, which remains even as its numbers dwindle. I suspect the continued use of Native American imagery — including a pregame chief and maiden dance — are held onto less out of mere tradition than as a reminder of the days when everyone in Anderson came to the games from their good-paying jobs.

That’s not something Anderson wants to give up on, even if the auto economy has long given up on Anderson. Richard Tompkins of Anderson wrote a letter to his local newspaper, the Herald-Bulletin, that sums up what the Wigwam means to so many in that city:

We lost our factories and that really devastated this city, but I can think of two great parts of Anderson tradition right now that has given us so much pleasure and is well known throughout the state: The Lemon Drop and the Wigwam.  These are two places we have enjoyed that have been around for generations and are part of the heritage and history of Anderson. This city has lost so much — the factories, far too many citizens, two great high schools, sectional and regional basketball; don’t continue to destroy what we have.

It’s sad, when you think about it, that someone feels all their once-thriving city has left is a famed diner and a gym. And when you feel that sadness, you realize why even when it seems financially wise to shut down that massive gym, it would be a psychic death blow to a city already pockmarked with large, rotting graveyards of what used to be jobs.

Would shutting down the Wigwam had saved some teachers’ jobs? Or a school? Maybe. But probably not. The declining enrollment, more than the Wigwam, has seen that those cuts would happen. But what about other entertainment options? Anderson is only about a 45-minute drive from Indianapolis — couldn’t people go see the Pacers or Colts, or Butler? Or won’t Anderson High basketball still be played in Anderson, but in another gym? Again, all true. But pointing the people of Anderson to entertainment elsewhere strips the city of its last piece of family-entertainment identity (there’s a horse track and casino, but you’re not going to bring your kids there). And no one is coming to Anderson from anyone else to see the team play in a smaller gym — but they’ll come to the Wigwam.

I’m not saying that keeping the Wigwam open while Anderson struggles is exactly the right decision. But I can understand why the people of Anderson want to hold onto it. At this point, it’s practically Anderson’s reason for being.

22-year-old poses as high school basketball player

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Usually the only place you find 22-year-olds portraying high schoolers is in the movies, and the only outsider who wants to be involved with athletics at Permian High in Odessa, Texas, is Buzz Bissinger.

That is, until Guerdwich Monitmere, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native and former junior college basketball player who came to Permian as high school sophomore Jerry Joseph. According to the Odessa American, which has done great work over time chipping away at the mystery of Montimere, Guerdwich admitted on May 11 he was no longer Jerry, and he was placed under arrest.

Montimere had already been held out of offseason workouts when suspicions developed that he was not who he said he was. Maybe the gray hairs gave him away. Apparently Montimere lived with a former high school teammate playing basketball at the University of Texas-Permian Basin, then moved in with Permian coach Danny Wright. From the American:

“He was a family member and that is devastating to my family,” Wright said. “This affected a lot of people. The whole school of Permian embraced that kid. He deceived us and played on everyone involved’s emotions.

“He has been lying to everyone, my God, what is up with that?” Wright said.

Montimere played varsity basketball for the Panthers his sophomore season, which will likely result in the entire season being forfeited.

Permian principal Roy Garcia, who was at the forefront of the investigation, said he was glad the matter has been resolved. “I wanted the truth. Whatever the truth was, we had to get to it.

“I’m absolutely glad that it has been resolved. I feel sick, but now that we’ve gotten the truth, we can move on from here,” Garcia said.

Permian was tipped off, as was the Odessa American, about two weeks ago by sources from Florida who accused the Permian sophomore of being a 22-year-old former Florida player.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were confident the previous week that “Joseph” was an illegal Haitian immigrant, but before Arizona police could get to him, ICE said, upon further review, he was not. But it did discover “Joseph” wasn’t who he said he was, and alerted local authorities in Odessa. Monitmere, as of this writing, is in a holding cell, awaiting charges on presenting false information to a peace officer.

Yet to be answered: Why did Montimere do this? And why didn’t school officials in Odessa have any inkling something was amiss?

St. Patrick, elite N.J. basketball program, is banned from postseason

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Not a good last few days for elite high school boys’ basketball programs. First, on Feb. 26, the high school behind faux high school program Findlay College Prep says it’s closing. Today, a federal judge in Newark denied St. Patrick, New Jersey’s No. 1 team, injunctive relief that would allow it to participate in the state tournament, as well as the ESPN RISE Tournament of Champions for the faux high school boys basketball national title.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association banned the Elizabeth, N.J., school because head coach Kevin Boyle held several illegal practices before the official start of the preseason — a charge Boyle has copped to. His athletic director got suspended for three months without pay for the rules violation, and St. Patrick offered to suspend Boyle if that got St. Patrick into the postseason. But no dice.

The St. Patrick case was full of questionable actors — including the NJSIAA. The case started when the father of two players transferring in from Texas called the NJSIAA to question how his estranged wife could afford to move there. The NJSIAA found no recruiting violations (and the players ended up back in Texas), but the NJSIAA — in what was to be an extremely controversial move — hired a private investigator to follow the players and videotape any goings-on. Sayeth Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage to the (Newark) Star-Ledger: “I find that extremely fascist on behalf of the NJSIAA.”

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Chris Bollwage dedicates this one to the NJSIAA.

By the way, who was that father who tipped off the jackbooted thugs at the NJSIAA? None other than Chris Washburn, one of the biggest busts of the bustfest that was the 1986 NBA draft. A bust so bad, No. 2 pick Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose before his first practice, and he arguably had a better legacy than Chris Washburn, the man taken behind him. Washburn lasted three years before the NBA drummed him out for repeatedly failing drug tests.  And now, here he stands, the voice of the rules of athletics.

cwChris Washburn, bringer of excitement.

Yates High: Still running up the score

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As if it weren’t enough to keep running and pressing so it could score a state-record 170 points in a 135-point squeaker over Lee High, Houston’s Yates High boys basketball team cemented its reputation as the worst sports in the world Jan. 20 in its failed attempt to get a 12th straight game with more than 100 points. Nothing was at stake except looking more badass to move up from a lowly No. 3 in the USA Today Super 25 national high school ranking, but Yates played the fourth quarter as if it were down 20 points instead of up 20.

From the Houston Chronicle:

Scoring six points with 1:30 remaining in a basketball game may sound like an attainable goal, but for Yates, it was mission impossible.

Unable to log its 12th 100-point plus game for the season, the Lions, ranked No. 3 in the nation on USA Today’s Super 25, had to settle for a 94-64 win over Westbury Wednesday night at Barnett Stadium. …

With less than three minutes to go, [Brandon] Peters broke away for a crowd-pleasing, 360-degree dunk to push the Lions’ total to 84.

From that point on, Yates employed a strategy of their own: immediately foul on the inbounds play. Westbury went to the free-throw line seven times in that span, giving the Lions plenty of opportunities to pad their point total to triple-digits, but missed shots and broken plays tripped them up as the clock wound down.

I couldn’t imagine being more bush-league than merely running up the score on a hapless team for a state record, but Yates coach Greg Wise clearly has an imagination far more active than mine. Fouling to stop the clock so you can get 100? What, does everyone in the crowd get a chalupa if you hit triple digits?

I applaud the professionalism of Westbury coach John Howie, who had his team play hard as if it were a real basketball game in those last 90 seconds. I would have been tempted to make a mockery of a mockery, say by having my team stand around and let Yates score, or intentionally clanging free throws, or having me, a la Slap Shot, run around the court and strip down to my skivvies.

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Eric Nystrom raised $30,000 for charity with his strip for the Quad City Flames in 2008, and guaranteed himself a place on the short list to play Ned Braden in any Slap Shot, ugh, reboot.

Written by rkcookjr

January 21, 2010 at 3:18 pm

The world's second-largest high school basketball gym could shut its doors

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Indiana’s New Castle Fieldhouse, with 9,300 seats, might be the largest high school basketball arena in the world, and it’s down the block from the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. But it’s No. 2, the Anderson Wigwam, four seats short of 9,000, that’s considered the real shrine to the craziness that is Hoosier Hysteria, a Taj Mahal of basketball, the heart and soul of a game identified as part of Indiana’s essence, along with John Mellencamp, giant fried pork tenderloins on little buns with a pickle in the middle, and trying to live down the Klan governor of the 1920s.

But it looks like the Taj Mahal is going to be boarded up.

1517616853_fd9d017fa0The entrance to Anderson’s Wigwam, 2007. (Photo by Konner Smith, posted to Flickr)

The Anderson school board recently voted to shut one of the city’s two remaining high schools (which one is yet to be determined), as well as four elementary schools, as enrollment tumbles in the aftereffects of the decline of General Motors and its affiliates, once having employed about 30,000-40,000 people in a city of 70,000, and as of 2006 employing zero in a city of 58,000. As part of its cost-cutting plan, the board also said it would seriously consider closing the Wigwam, an idea that not long ago would have been considered as a sacrilege on par with shutting down the Vatican.

The Wigwam has survived a lot of hits over the years. The original Wigwam burned down in 1958. Its attached school, Anderson High, closed in 1997, though the name survives after merging with the deceased Madison Heights High, and the Wigwam remained Anderon’s home gym. The closed-down Anderson High burned down in a 1999 fire; the Wigwam was the only part of the building not damaged. The citizens turned down a tax levy in 2000 that would have allowed renovations to the Wigwam. In March, Anderson’s school board narrowly voted to keep the Wigwam open as it otherwise closed schools.

But in the last decade, even some of Anderson’s own citizens have come to see the Wigwam as a tax-money-sucking anachronism, and not just because it’s called a Wigwam and features two non-Native Americans doing an Indian and Maiden dance before every boys’ game.

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Even University of Illinois grads pining for the return of Chief Illiniwek find this just a teensy bit racist.

The Wigwam represents a time when the post-World War II industrial boom, Indiana’s well-established love of basketball, school consolidation, state tournament sites awarded based on gym capacity, and a lack of entertainment options (and girls’ sports) resulted in schools statewide building mini-arenas that often dwarfed the schools themselves. You ended up with ridiculousness like Huntingburg High (now Southridge High) hosted a gym seating 7,200, which was enough to fit everyone in Huntingburg with more than 1,000 seats to spare. Anderson has long been part of the mighty North Central Conference, notable for its smallest gym being Logansport, with a mere 5,200 seats.

The North Central Conference in general is Hoosier might now made meek through economic ruin: conference members come from industry-battered, mid-sized cities turning smaller such as Muncie, Richmond, Marion, Kokomo and, yes, New Castle, which added the huge local employer, Chrysler, to its high school name in 1979, and is now dropping it as of 2011, what with Chrysler dropping the city itself nearly 10 years ago, and its successor company, Metaldyne, shutting down this year.

The Wigwam and these other huge gyms used to be filled by the auto workers and their families, who then passed on their love of the local hoops team to the next generation working at the auto plant. But beginning with the recession of the early 1980s, Anderson and industrial Indiana have bled population as jobs have dried up and a younger generation goes elsewhere for work. Anderson can see much more prosperous Indianapolis and its suburbs just a few miles south on Interstate 69, but while neighboring Hamilton County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country and the wealthiest in Indiana, Anderson can’t get a piece of that. It gets a few new employers to fill those empty GM plants, but no one is bringing 30,000 high-paying, low-skill jobs anytime soon.

Increasingly, despite the Wigwam’s exalted status, it’s getting harder for Anderson and its citizens to justify the cost of keeping up a nearly 50-year-old arena with no attached school, hosting a boys’ basketball team that is never going to fill it ever again. Even if Anderson has another boom — hey, it survived the natural gas bust of the mid-1910s by transitioning quickly to the auto industry — it’s doubtful kids are going to find watching high school basketball the ultimate in Friday night entertainment. There are too many more options, starting with the Xbox in the basement.

As an Indiana basketball fan, it saddens me that the gym infrastructure is crumbling in Anderson, and elsewhere. Even as high school basketball captures more attention, mostly in the context of scouting the next pro star, and even as the intensity of Indiana high school basketball remains a cut above anywhere else, the downsizing that’s happening everywhere else in the economy appears to be on the verge of downsizing Indiana’s notably large gyms. But if it’s gyms or schools, even the hoops fan in me says the gym has to go.

I would recommend if you want to see what Hoosier Hysteria was and is about, even if the stands aren’t full and two white kids do that damnable Indian and Maiden dance, it’s worth a trip to Anderson, Ind., to see the Wigwam. What makes the Wigwam so special is not just the great players who have passed through there over the years, or the large crowds, but that the Wigwam, even at 9,000 seats, feels like a gym, not an arena. (The pull-out bleachers help with that vibe.) The school board hasn’t said yet when D-day is coming, but it seems assured that this season will be the last, so you only have a few months left to soak in the Wigwam and pay it last respects.

“Let’s win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here”

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If you’re tearing up a little reading that headline, then you must be as big a fan of “Hoosiers” as I am. It’s not only the quintessential sports movie, but it’s also the quintessential youth sports movie, a look at how adults project their own hope and aspirations into their high school basketball team — and vice versa, as it turns out. Every inherent contradiction about youth sports glory is in this exchange, as Jimmy Chitwood’s guardian argues with Coach Norman Dale against Jimmy playing basketball:

Myra Fleener: You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god, er, uh, how can he ever find out what he can really do? I don’t want this to be the high point of his life. I’ve seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.

Coach Dale: You know, most people would kill… to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.

Part of the appeal of Hoosiers was its cast of basketball players. Except for David Niedorf, a professional actor, every one was a real life Hoosier, found through auditions. Interestingly enough, Maris Valainis, who played Jimmy Chitwood, was the only one who didn’t play high school basketball. But whatever happened to this guys?

I can tell you what happened as of 2004, when I wrote a story for Flak Magazine in which I caught up with as much of the cast as I could. I still get emails from people about the story, including one that popped up last night. I was inspired to write it after the suicide of Kent Poole, who played Merle Webb, the player who delivered the oft-quoted line that became the headline. It’s a where-are-they-now mixed with my own thoughts on the myths and realities of basketball in the state in which I grew up, and how those are reflected in the movie itself and the lives of the people who were in it.

I’ll link to the story here. Thanks for reading.

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