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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.

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