- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Following the dump truck along Route 50 East in Indiana was a huge advantage. It offered an excuse to drive slowly over the curved and hilly two-lane road between Bedford and Seymour; to appreciate the changing leaf colors, and most important, to scour driveways and farms in search of a symbol of what basketball is and means in this part of the country.
For two days this past October, Indiana locals spun stories of idyllic childhoods, when basketball was both the competitive outlet and social conduit for kids in every corner of the Midwest. The love affair with the game grew out of those early years, blossoming into an all-out basketball passion that consumes the state like nowhere else in the country.
Besides maybe Kansas and Kentucky, no state population identifies itself more with a college team than Indiana.
When the Hoosiers suffered the shame and stain of NCAA sanctions, the entire state suffered along with them.
And now that the Hoosiers are back -- ranked No. 3 in the country and one of a handful of favorites to make the Final Four -- the state's passion is once again flourishing. On Saturday, ESPN's "College GameDay" returns to Bloomington for the first time since 2008 for the Hoosiers' Big Ten showdown with No. 1 Michigan.
But what separates Indiana from other places with a steady hoops heartbeat -- Kentucky, Kansas, Tobacco Road -- is that here, it is not simply about the Hoosiers.
The love affair is far more personal and intimate, almost in reverse of everyplace else. It doesn't start with devotion to IU -- or even Butler's famed Hinkle Fieldhouse -- that trickles down.
It starts with the basketball goal that, by its mere presence, redefines a space from a simple driveway or hayloft into a gym, and trickles up.
Locals love to tell stories about how they played on goals nailed to pretty much anything old-fashioned ingenuity could conjure.
I'd heard about barns as backboards and haymows as courts, about garages used to set picks and the home-court advantage of a partially paved drive.
I just hadn't seen any.
I'd come across plenty of portable hoops that you'd buy at sporting goods stores and more than a share of the ones cemented into the ground, but none of the makeshift versions folks liked to brag about.
I began to wonder if maybe the iconic images of the past had been entirely replaced with the online-ordering convenience of ready-made hoops.
And then, as I drove along Route 50, there it was, on a farm off the left side of the road -- a gigantic silver silo, and stuck on its front, a basketball goal -- a vision of Hoosier nostalgia and heartland hope.
I made a quick U-turn into the gravel-lined driveway. There was a car in the carport, so I was optimistic that maybe someone was home.
I knocked and waited but no one answered, so I wandered toward the silo to have a look. A farm spread out behind it, with a barn to the left.
I stared at the silo for a bit before leaving, but as I continued my weeklong visit through the state, I found myself thinking of it again and again and what it represented.
California has its wineries; New Jersey its shore towns. In Massachusetts, you can walk the Freedom Trail; in Kentucky, you travel the Bourbon Trail.
In Indiana, it is the gyms defined by the hanging of a basketball goal -- hung majestically at Assembly Hall, where IU plays, or simply on the side of a silo -- that connect the state.
"When I was growing up, you had your ABC, NBC, CBS and then you had Channel 4, the independent channel. Every Friday night, they'd have Indiana games and then Purdue games. So when I was a kid, that's what you did. You'd sit there and watch.''
-- ESPN analyst and former Indiana player and assistant coach Dan Dakich
INDIANAPOLIS -- Their noses pressed against the glass doors, the elementary school boys elbowed each other for position.
"I wish I could go in there,'' one boy said to his buddy.
"I wish I could play here,'' his friend responded longingly.
The Butler University basketball offices were the inner sanctum of awe for this particular crop of kids from Hagerstown, part of a fifth-grade class field trip to the hoops mecca, Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Of course, a 10-year-old can't quite wrap his arms around the significance of an 85-year-old basketball gym built with 15,000 seats so the high school playoff crowds could be accommodated. He probably can't quite grasp the importance of the 1928 state championship game that was played there, the one in which Martinsville lost 13-12 after a guy named John Wooden missed a free throw; or the significance of Bobby Plump's shot without Hollywood's help.
The 10-year-old only knows that Butler made it to the Final Four twice in the past three years, and that's good enough for him.
The man inside the sanctum gets it. Brad Stevens is a child of Indiana, the sort who still remembers jumping off the school bus before his eighth birthday and spying a basketball goal in the driveway.
"It was the happiest day of my life,'' the Butler coach said over lunch at his favorite spot, the Broad Ripple Tavern.
And Stevens is the sort who appreciated the pinch-yourself moment when, as a volunteer assistant at Butler, he was first given a key to Hinkle.
"I was 23 years old and it was awesome,'' he said. "I wasn't married at the time, so I'd work until 7 and then my buddies would sneak in and we'd have a game at 8. We played a game every Christmas Eve.''
In between the ages of 8 and 23, there were enough quintessential Indiana basketball moments for Stevens to write a "Hoosiers" chapter of his own. There was the buddy whose parents put a full court in his backyard so the boys could play 5-on-5, or at worst, 3-on-3; there were the weekends when Stevens would spend Friday at a high school game, Saturday alongside his dad, Mark, an IU alum, watching the Hoosiers, and Sundays watching the Indiana Pacers.
It's honestly the small moments as much as, if not more than, the big ones that matter. Basketball is just the connection.'
-- Butler coach Brad Stevens
And there was the unforgettable night in 1991 when he served as a ballboy during the high school state title game that pitted Alan Henderson and Brebeuf Jesuit Prep versus Glenn Robinson and Gary Roosevelt High, with 30,345 in attendance. "I thought Alan Henderson was the greatest high school basketball player I'd ever seen,'' Stevens said. "And then Glenn Robinson mopped the floor with him.''
Friendships were forged in the parks or in the driveways, playing pickup games where you called your own fouls and made sure to foul hard. It was in the various open gyms around Indianapolis, in fact, where Stevens first met Micah Shrewsberry. Stevens was just starting his own coaching career, and Shrewsberry was, ironically, an assistant coach at Stevens' alma mater, DePauw University.
The two got to talking, stayed in touch, and in 2007, Stevens hired Shrewsberry as an assistant.
"It's honestly the small moments as much as, if not more than, the big ones that matter,'' Stevens said. "Basketball is just the connection.''
And Stevens appreciates how the game connects people not only immediately, but across generations, especially at places like Hinkle.
The old gym is currently undergoing a $25 million renovation that is equal parts update and preservation. The building is a national landmark, so some things can't be changed. The single-pane windows cannot even be substituted for sturdier double-paned ones.
But scaffolding currently is up outside, and inside there are plans to convert a three-story space that once housed a natatorium into athletic training facilities, an academic center and new locker rooms.
Some coaches might balk at trying to keep an 85-year-old place competitive in today's world of practice facility one-upsmanship.
Not an Indiana boy like Stevens.
"I played in a 3,600-seat gym in high school and they knocked it down for a parking lot and a library,'' he said. "Now I'm all for a library, but couldn't they share the space? That was a special place to me.''
Hinkle is special to the elementary schoolers, but their memories might not be quite the same as their parents' memories. Indiana hasn't played the state championship there since 1971, so to the current generation, Hinkle is the place that spawned Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, not Plump and the Milan Miracle.
That's OK. History evolves. The connection remains.
As the elementary schoolers were heading to the doors, Stevens was headed out for lunch. He walked among the kids, anonymous to everyone but one teacher who waved hello.
"Where are you guys from?" he asked.
"Hagerstown, up by New Castle,'' she replied.
"We've gotten a few players from there,'' Stevens smiled, referring to Zach Hahn and Chase Stigall, both role players on the Bulldogs' Final Four teams in 2010 and 2011.
"Oh I know,'' she said.
Of course she did.
"John Wooden, Larry Bird, Calbert Cheaney … the people who are from here, that's all of it. People can say they saw these guys in high school or college. To be able to say that I played with Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, that's pretty cool.''
-- Butler walk-on Emerson Kampen, a Muncie, Ind., native
MARTINSVILLE, Ind. -- Even before the locals confirm your instinct, it seems rather obvious that the big brick building annexed to the otherwise modern Martinsville West Middle School is the place you're looking for.
It just looks like it would be Wooden's high school gym.
The "Wizard of Westwood" was born about 13 miles away, but played his high school ball for the Artesians of Martinsville.
The inside of the gym, where, fittingly, the middle schoolers are playing basketball in P.E. class, has been modernized with bright lights and new paint, but if you look high up in what should be the rafters, you get the sense of its history.
There is an upper deck of extra courts and hoops, a nod to the days when Indiana gyms were built as big as airplane hangars.
This particular one, built in 1924, was constructed originally with 16 locker rooms and enough seats for 5,200 people -- 400 more than the number of residents who called Martinsville home.
Wooden played there from 1926 to 1928, before heading to Purdue and winning a national title in 1932 -- becoming the first player to ever be named consensus All-American three times. He's honored simply in the front entrance of the gym with a plaque and a large photo. Some of the memorabilia from his playing days is in a trophy case next to the Artesians' more recent hardware.
That's him kneeling in the lower left corner of the team picture, the one who actually has biceps.
"You know, growing up here, people keep their traditions,'' Martinsville resident Steve Powell said later, while enjoying breakfast at Forkey's, the locals' favorite spot in town. "There's not a kid who doesn't know who John Wooden was."
That's the way it is in Martinsville and pretty much every small town in Indiana. Basketball history is as treasured and honored as family folklore, the devotion to the local high school team as important as the commitment to the Hoosiers.
Powell, lounging in one of Forkey's tan leather booths and reading a newspaper, is a devoted Indiana fan even though he let his son go to Purdue.
But he's also an Artesian fan and a novice Martinsville hoops historian. Steve Alford, he will tell you, played here for a spell before his father got a better job and the family moved on to New Castle. Alford would go on to lead Indiana to a national championship in 1987.
Powell is a self-described "Bob Knight guy," and plenty of people in Indiana still are. The old Hoosiers coach might get conflicting reviews outside of the state, but here, he is still revered.
"I don't think people understood all the good things he did,'' Powell said. "They look at him in a bad way but they don't understand all the good."
But in Martinsville and most Indiana towns, Knight is not alone in the spotlight. High school coaches are every bit as highly regarded as the Hall of Fame coach, and some, who have the good fortune of success mixed with longevity, grow into legends.
You know, growing up here, people keep their traditions. There's not a kid who doesn't know who John Wooden was.
-- Martinsville resident Steve Powell
Larry Wing was just leaving Forkey's when he stopped to talk about one of those men. Wing grew up in Hendricks County, about 30 miles outside of Martinsville, and played for Tri-West High School. A farm boy, he'd meet at his buddy's haymow -- that's upstairs in the barn where the hay is stored -- where the space was big enough for a full-court game.
"Sometimes the floors were warped, so you'd have to learn to find the ones where you could get the best bounce and jump off of that one,'' Wing said.
Wing played against Steve and Brian Walker, stars from nearby Lebanon who would make news when they angrily transferred from NC State and coach Norm Sloan to Purdue.
But it was Lebanon's coach, Jim Rosenstihl, who was the most admired. A future Indiana basketball Hall of Famer, Rosenstihl is almost as appreciated in the state as Wooden and Knight, even if most people outside of Indiana don't know who he is.
(An aside: He's also a perfect example of the six degrees of separation that is basketball in this state. Rosenstihl grew up in Zionsville and played at Butler for Tony Hinkle, as in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Years later, another kid from Zionsville named Brad Stevens would become the head coach at Butler and unofficial caretaker of Hinkle.)
"Rosey" had the good fortune to begin at Lebanon in 1962, the same year the legendary Rick Mount began his high school career, tipping off a 24-year run at Lebanon that would lead to 21 sectional titles and seven regional crowns. The high school gym now bears his name.
"He was a legend,'' Wing said. "You didn't realize it at the time but you were playing against all of these great players and coaches. The only thing you did figure out pretty quick is if you weren't any good.''
"I used to play at Marlin Elementary School. There was an 8-foot goal over the back door. We'd go there and shovel off the snow to play if we had to.''
-- Chris Bailey, Indiana native
By Indiana standards, Martinsville's gym in its Wooden heyday is small. Thirteen of the nation's 16 largest high school gyms are in this state. The biggest, New Castle, seats 9,325, or about a dozen more than Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Seymour, Ind., is home to John Mellencamp and the fourth-largest gym in the nation. The Fighting Owls have room for 8,110 fans.
Built in 1970, the gym's seats are all wooden bleachers. They are the originals, though since refurbished, and they stretch on forever.
School was out and athletic director Brandon Harpe was away at a big volleyball game when I stopped in, but secretary Sue Blythe kindly offered a tour.
It's been a while since Seymour filled the place. The Owls have been on a downswing in recent years, a dismal 1-14 this season.
But when the team was good, Blythe said, the place would be jumping.
"We'd even put extra seats in the corners," she said.
"My senior year of high school, we were playing and every seat was taken and they filled in the track. It's overwhelming. It really is Hoosiers. That's why that movie makes so much sense.''
-- Indiana senior Jordan Hulls
Along Route 37, there is an intersection for Crossover Road.
What else would you expect on a stretch of highway connecting Martinsville, home of one local Indiana boy hero (Wooden) and Bedford, home to another local Indiana boy hero (Damon Bailey)?
Compared to Bailey, Wooden played high school ball in relative anonymity. The kid from Bedford was a statewide idol, tabbed a future star when he was in the eighth grade by none other than Knight himself. When he played his state championship game for Bedford North Lawrence at the old Hoosier Dome in 1990, 41,000 crammed into the place to watch.
He went on to Indiana University, where he finished with 1,741 points and a spot on the third All-America team as a senior. It was a more than respectable college career, but in some folks' eyes, Bailey failed to live up to his high school expectations.
Then again, who could possibly?
From the quiet of the barn lofts, to the screech of sneakers during driveway pickup games, to the cavernous high school gyms across the state, the dream is the same: to wear the candy-striped pants and play at Indiana University.
If college ball is an aspiration, playing for IU is the fantasy.
But it is one thing to be a part of the fervor, and another to be the object of its attention.
"The only thing I can compare it to is Alabama football,'' said Birmingham native Christian Watford. "And I think people here are crazier.''
Jordan Hulls grew up with the personal dream and amid the statewide passion. He's from Bloomington, blessed with a unique bird's-eye view of the Hoosiers' ups and downs. His grandfather, John, served on Knight's staff.
High school was more intimidating. You'd play in front of 7,000 people and three-quarters of them you'd know personally. That was pressure.'
-- Indiana sophomore Cody Zeller
Hulls remembers being a toddler trying desperately to score on the full-sized hoop during halftimes of his older brother's games at Bloomington South High School.
He couldn't reach but he could dribble, his parents said, even when he was in diapers.
"That's just sort of how it goes,'' he said. "You're born into it. I don't really know how else to explain it.''
Hulls took a leap of faith when he signed with Indiana, agreeing to play there amid NCAA sanctions brought about from misdeeds during former coach Kelvin Sampson's tenure.
It was a big get for Indiana coach Tom Crean, not only because Hulls is a good player, but also because he's from Indiana.
Indiana always has recruited nationally, but the program built its reputation on the backs of in-state heroes.
Alford. Bailey. Cheaney. The school's most beloved stars were also Indiana boys.
While the Hoosiers suffered through NCAA sanctions, some of Indiana's own left the state -- most notably Mason Plumlee to Duke and Tyler Zeller to North Carolina.
Mason's little brother, Marshall, followed him to Durham. That left Tyler's little brother, Cody.
Statewide hand-wringing, bordering on a panic epidemic, accompanied the wait for his decision.
When Cody Zeller finally said he would play at IU, you half expected Assembly Hall to be bathed in a swath of gold with a chorus of angels overhead triumphantly singing, "Alleluia."
It's a lot to ask of an 18-year-old, to be a state's savior, but through it all, Zeller has remained wonderfully -- and amazingly -- unaffected.
That's partially due to his family's roots. Good basketball runs through the family genes. His maternal grandfather won a state title in Nebraska and his mother played Division III ball. Then, of course, came his older brothers: Luke, who would star at Notre Dame, and Tyler.
But Zeller's nonplussed attitude is also a byproduct of his Indiana roots. Zeller played at Washington High, home to the Hatchet House, a 7,000-seat gym that is rarely less than full.
"High school was more intimidating,'' he said. "You'd play in front of 7,000 people and three-quarters of them you'd know personally. That was pressure.''
Zeller vividly remembers his freshman season in high school, when his team played Fort Wayne Harding for the Class 3A title. Close to 8,000 people were in attendance that day, and Zeller, who averaged only 2.4 points, really didn't expect to see much action.
"I was like the eighth guy, so I wasn't planning on playing,'' he said. "Then they got into some foul trouble and I played a lot. I said after that I'd never be afraid or nervous before a game again.''
"I worked a double that night. I was here at 10:30 in the morning. I think I left at 5:30 in the morning. The shot went in, and I swear I think I blacked out for three or four seconds."
-- Chris Herbert, waiter at Nick's English Hut
John Munden has been tending bar at Nick's English Hut for years and working at the popular Bloomington bar since he arrived in town in the fall of 1987 -- right after the Hoosiers won their most recent national title.
"I'm more than ready for my turn,'' he said wryly.
He, like a lot of fans, is hoping that 2013 is their turn. Indiana began the preseason ranked No. 1 and has hovered in the top 10 since.
In a season already rife with crazy upsets and wild inconsistency, the Hoosiers' ability to stay comparatively solid puts them among an elite pack that appear to be more likely Final Four favorites.
What would that mean to the state? A Final Four berth or national championship is big to any school, and means slightly more in certain places where basketball is king.
But what Indiana has gone through recently, coupled with its passion for the game and the likelihood that Zeller will be gone next season, makes the attention to this season especially keen.
The best comparison to the pressure heaped on this Indiana team is to Kentucky in 1996. Almost a decade earlier, the proud program was shamed with its own NCAA sanctions, a stain that injured the commonwealth's citizens as much as its flagship university.
That's Indiana today. The punishments and embarrassment wrought by Sampson stung deeply here, and the climb out of the grave has been long and arduous.
"I think it wasn't that people were depressed, they were just so disappointed,'' Munden said.
Fans were unusually supportive, still filling the seats in Assembly Hall even as the team struggled through six-, 10- and 12-win seasons.
But patience is rarely a limitless attribute, and at the start of last season, the natives were getting a little restless.
And then came Dec. 10, 2011.
Watford's buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Kentucky was much more than a winning shot. It was the champagne cork pop for a cathartic release that allowed both the Hoosiers and the state to exhale.
Indiana was back.
A now-famous YouTube video shows the reaction at Nick's, where the joyous celebration spilled onto the streets.
Chris Herbert, a New Jersey native, worked that night at the bar.
"I looked around and the floor was sort of moving,'' Herbert said. "The wine glasses on the rack were shaking. One girl got to work late, so she parked her car right out front, not having a clue obviously what was going to happen. Her car was demolished. I'm sure she wasn't happy, but everyone else was.''
"I know that Indiana basketball is a huge part of the daily existence for a lot of people, but as a coach you can't sit here and think, 'I don't want to let people down.' That's not pressure. Pressure is going on the road in the Big Ten with seven or eight walk-ons and trying to convince them they could win, and then when they didn't, doing it all over the next day. That's pressure.''
--Indiana head coach Tom Crean
And now here we are, with Hoosier hysteria at a fever pitch. When IU hosted its actual Hoosier Hysteria open practice, it had to turn away 1,000 people.
Student ticket sales have risen from 4,100 in the doldrums days to a capped 12,000.
And on Saturday, the "College GameDay" trucks arrive for the showdown with Michigan.
"There was never a blueprint for what we had to do here,'' Crean said. "And there isn't one now. We have to still fight the human element. Winning is not a birthright. We learned that here, but we have to remember it. We didn't just lose, everything was gone, and now that it's back, we have to remember how hard it was to get here.''
Crean was talking from a courtside seat at Assembly Hall, having just wrapped up a practice.
Two guys walked in while he was finishing up and asked if he would mind if they filmed a little bit of the gym for a documentary on IU basketball they were working on.
Crean said sure, as if it were an everyday occurrence.
The two set up a camera, grabbed a ball and rolled it down the court over and over again.
Every once in a while, the filmmaker's daughter would accidentally run into the shot.
A toddler of maybe 3 or 4, she ran around the court with a big smile and the freedom of ignorance, not really aware she was running on sacred Indiana soil.
Or then again, maybe she did know.
She was, after all, wearing an Indiana cheerleader outfit.