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Posts Tagged ‘Hoosier Hysteria

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.

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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.

The New York Times thinks it's identified a cancer in Hoosier Hysteria

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John Branch of the New York Times visited tiny Medora, Ind., to find a high school boys’ basketball program he calls the anti-Hoosiers, as in the bizarro world where the Medora High Hornets are doing this for all the small schools that never sunk this far. It all makes sense, except that Branch doesn’t spend enough time on the more boring, important reason why a small Indiana high school struggles so much in the supposed Hoosier birthright: it’s a small school in a small district.

Players for Medora High School have taken the court wearing work boots because their families cannot afford basketball shoes. Most smoke cigarettes. Some talk openly of drug use. All but a few come from broken homes.

Of the roughly 400 schools in a state that reveres boys high school basketball, none lost more last season than the 0-22 Medora Hornets, under the first-year coach Marty Young, the youngest head coach in the state.

Now 23, Young is not expecting many, if any, on-court victories during the season that starts on Saturday, either. But he counts wins and losses differently from most.

“If they’re in the gym these two hours, then I know they’re not in trouble,” Young said.

Poverty rates are high here, college graduates few. Drug use is rampant, several said, and many residents live in ramshackle trailer homes strewn about the hills that surround the checkerboard streets of the town. In these depressed times, there is little to cheer but the high school basketball team.

Except it does not win.

The lone basketball championship banner hanging in the gym dates to 1949. There has not been a winning season in decades. Counter to those sepia-toned images that outsiders have of small-town Indiana, the boys here rarely dream anymore of starring for the local team.

That is the unexpected predicament confronting Young, the kind of Indiana boy who grew up sleeping with a basketball. Indiana, after all, is the home of “Hoosiers,” the 1986 movie loosely based on the small-town 1954 Milan High team that beat all the bigger schools to win the state championship. Medora, about 65 miles west of Milan, could be this generation’s anti-Hoosiers.

“It used to be such a big deal,” said Maria Powell, born and raised in Medora and now the mother of one of the basketball players. She recalled postgame parties with classmates at a pizza place called The Covered Bridge — long since closed — when she was in high school. “Basketball was just what you lived for.”

Medora, with 16 members in the senior class, is the fifth-smallest public high school in Indiana. It is slowly shrinking, like the town of about 500 itself. Two of three large feed mills are gone. An automotive plastics factory employed several hundred until it closed in 1988. A brick plant on the edge of town died in 1992.

Now, if Branch has watched “Hoosiers,” he knows that one of Norman Dale’s bigger shocks in coming to small-town Hickory, Ind., is that only seven boys, counting the manager, come out for the basketball team. Also, he might have noted that there is an undercurrent to the whole movie about the future for schools like Hickory — consolidation and being erased from existence in the name of educational progress. (Recall, if you will, Ollie reading definitions of progress in Coach Dale’s history class.) In that context, Medora is Hoosiers II: The Downer Sequel.

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Medora High: the inspiration for Matthew Perry in “Hoosiers 2.”

Medora survived the first round of consolidation in the 1950s and 1960s, during which time the number of members in the Indiana High School Athletic Association dropped from a peak of 820 in 1942 to about half that by the dawn of the 1970s. Nationwide, the number of school districts dropped from 119,000 in 1939 to 16,000 in 1975 — a drop of 13 percent a year, every year, for 36 years.

Now Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is trying to undertake Consolidation II: Educational Boogaloo. While a bill failed last year, Daniels again is expected to push that any district with fewer than 500 students be consolidated with a nearby district, while those between 500 and 1,000 students not meeting certain academic standards also be consolidated.

It’s part of the Republican Daniels’ so-far-unsuccessful effort to follow a report issued in 2007 by a commission, chaired by a former Democratic governor and a Republican-appointed Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice. Its recommendations talked about reducing government spending by reducing small but politically powerful jurisdictions like townships and school districts with fewer than 2,000 students. Hence, why they’ve been unsuccessful. (Though Daniels was able to get Indiana to adopt highly unpopular Daylight Saving Time and still get re-elected.)

Not all tiny school districts are created unsuccessful. Dewey Township schools in LaPorte County, in northern Indiana, with 161 students the state’s smallest district, has a basketball team that hovers close to .500 and offers programs like biomedical science. Of course, its student poverty rate of 7 percent is less than half of Medora’s 17 percent, and it also spends nearly $13,000 per student compared with Medora’s $7,500, which is well above the $5,500-$6,000 per student nearby, larger districts to Medora would spend. Dewey Township is an exception, though. Most tiny school districts are like Medora: a double-digit poverty rate, higher-than-usual per-student spending, and an isolated, rural location with a declining population.

Medora’s poverty rate is not much higher than the other schools in Jackson County, Ind., John Mellencamp’s home base. It’s just that with 278 students, every troubled student in Medora makes the school district that much more troubled. And with Medora spending more per student than any other Jackson County school, buttressing Daniels’ argument that districts like it would be better off combined with larger districts for more efficient spending. Small districts aren’t planning to operate wildcat schools, as Onward, Ind., famously did in the early 1950s, its citizens surrounding the school to prevent authorities from consolidating it, but they aren’t terribly happy about the idea of this second wave of consolidation.

But forget about academic or fiscal arguments for a moment. We’re talking basketball! And in those terms, it’s also getting harder for the tiniest districts to compete.

Indiana split its basketball into four classes starting with the 1997-1998, presumably to give the Medoras of the world a chance to get some trophies for their cases. (It so happened that Medora won its last sectional — the first round of the all-comers postseason tournament, in 1997, the final year of single-class basketball.) However, the IHSAA’s membership is starting to shoot upward again because of charter schools from the big cities and small private schools from everywhere (particularly established schools who stayed away from the single-class IHSAA for fear of being stomped), thus providing the tiny schools competition of equal student size by not equal athletic ability.

And particularly in these charter schools in urban districts, the players might have some of the same pathologies at work as they do in Medora, maybe worse. Except that they’re 6-foot-7 and can jump out of the gym. The idea Daniels has is not that small schools are bad — small school districts are. Milan, once home to the 1954 Miracle that inspired the movie “Hoosiers,” and which was not consolidated with other districts in the late 1950s and 1960s because of that success, now clocks about three wins per season.

So while it’s true that Medora’s economic problems and small size have turned Hoosier Hysteria into Hoosier Meh, the issue is a little more complicated than underwhelming kids being drawn from a community of ramshackle meth huts. The problem isn’t just that Medora’s basketball team has issues. The bigger problem is whether a tiny district like Medora is capable of fielding anything of quality when it comes to its schools, just by dint of its size. If Medora can’t prove itself, it won’t be long for this world, now matter how good or bad the basketball team is.

Written by rkcookjr

November 29, 2009 at 5:51 pm