Hoops history? Yes, the Butler did it
Hinkle Fieldhouse, the setting for "Hoosiers" finale, is a living legend among hardwoods
Editor's note: This is a reprise of an article that originally appeared on these pages in December.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Fair warning: If you just drive past Hinkle Fieldhouse, you won't be impressed.
The exterior of the red-brick building resembles a converted airplane hangar. Attached to the long horizontal line of dormer windows atop the structure are white, block, capital letters spelling out the name of Butler University's famous basketball venue. The understated sign is the only hint you'll get that you're entering hallowed ground.
Enter through the old-fashioned gymnasium doors, however, and it's like walking back in time. It's not just the elegant arcs of steel girders that soar overhead, or the celestial tint to the sunlight streaming through the bank of east-facing windows, but that's what you'll notice first.
It's the overall lack of pretentiousness that will make it feel immediately like home.
Players from both teams pass through the hallways before and after the game, mingling freely with spectators. Office doors in the athletic department are open, and administrators can be seen hosting friends and family at their desks. Booster club fetes and postgame interviews are staged in rooms that hold classes during the week; the uncomfortable desk/chair hybrids that any college kid knows and loathes are stored under the bottom row of bleachers when the classrooms are needed for games.
Hinkle Fieldhouse offers a direct education in not judging a book by its cover, and it's a lesson any visitor to Indianapolis should heed from the outset. The Midwestern city of 795,000 is one of the 20 most populous in the United States, and it is, without a doubt, one of the nation's top sports destinations.
Indy is the headquarters for the NCAA, as well as home to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NBA's Pacers, two Division I basketball programs (Butler and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis), the Pittsburgh Pirates' Triple-A affiliate and a mildly popular and presently undefeated professional football franchise known as the Colts. Even Peyton Manning might find it wild how many kids here wear a blue and white No. 18 jersey.
"It's really not until people get here and look around a bit that they say, 'Ahh, now I get it,'" said Mike Fox, director of the city's massive new Lucas Oil Stadium, which is set to host the 2010 Final Four and likely some NFL playoff games, as well. "Then they really see that this is a top-notch city."
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Coming from humble roots to make big-time waves is an Indiana tradition perhaps best exemplified by the Butler Bulldogs, who have called Hinkle Fieldhouse home since it was built in 1928.
The program has made a living recruiting scrappy tweeners often overlooked by in-state powerhouses like Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue. Unselfish team-oriented basketball has taken the 17th-ranked Bulldogs to six NCAA tournaments during the past decade, where they have upset big-time programs and twice advanced to the Sweet 16. Hinkle is their home, and they almost never lose there.
Knowing that, it may come as a surprise to hear that Hinkle Fieldhouse wasn't built expressly for the Bulldogs. It's too big. The building opened with a capacity of 15,000, serving a private, liberal arts school that enrolled but 2,000 undergraduates.
The $800,000 edifice was the first building completed on the school's new campus, which was being relocated from another part of Indianapolis. At the time it was simply known as Butler Fieldhouse. The university administration plunged ahead with construction based on a guarantee from the Indiana High School Athletic Association that the next decade of state championship tournaments would be held on its campus.
If you've ever seen the 1986 movie "Hoosiers" -- and who hasn't? -- you know why that makes sense. From 1911 to 1998, Indiana high schools had no classification system for basketball. A squad drawn from a farm town of 200 could challenge for the same trophy as an urban school of 1,200.
The meritocratic melee drew hordes of rabid fans from all over the state to the arena every year. The Hickory High team coached by Gene Hackman in the film was fictional, but it was based on the miracle 1954 run made by Milan High, which actually did win the state championship on a last-second shot, made by Bobby Plump, who later starred at Butler.
Despite the stirring message of the Hollywood story, small teams almost never made it to the floor at Hinkle, usually losing in sectional or regional matchups held elsewhere. So it's entirely possible the awe on the faces of the actors in the final scenes is an accurate echo of what Plump and his teammates felt at the time.
Hinkle Fieldhouse is on the official National Register of Historic Places, and not just for its basketball heritage:
Seven American presidents, from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama, have spoken in the legendary old barn. In March 1935, track star Jesse Owens ran 60 yards in 6.1 seconds, tying a world sprinting record; he had to crash into an improvised barrier of hay bales, lest his momentum carry him into the stands. Local residents are just as proud of the international volleyball tournaments the 1987 Pan Am Games brought to their beloved arena as they are of the 1955 state title won by Oscar Robertson and Crispus Attucks High. Big O scored 30 points in the championship game at Hinkle to secure the state trophy, which, according to the Indianapolis Star, was the nation's first won by an all-black team in an integrated sport and, oddly, the first won by a team from the tournament's home city of Indianapolis.
But that's all history in words. To really feel it, you have to attend a game.
When I first saw Myke Van de Voort and Tyler Van Bussum last month, I thought they were insane. It wasn't so much the bad sports coats and blown-out afro wigs that made me feel that way, as it was the shorts, tank tops and bare chests that went along with them. It was a clear, frosty, mid-December morning, and the two superfans were at the front of a long line of students hoping to get seats in the courtside Dawg Pound.
The raucous student reserve fills two sections, one under each basket. Former Butler player and coach Thad Matta was bringing his Ohio State Buckeyes into Hinkle, and the Bulldog faithful planned to make him regret it.
"We're going to be all over these guys," said 19-year-old Thomas Abner, who was at least sporting a T-shirt and jeans under his Day-Glo orange construction helmet.
When I met back up with the die-hard crew inside the arena, its choice of attire began to make sense to me. As sunlight streamed in the famous east windows, the old building began to heat up, and those of us who dressed for the outdoor temperatures were forced to de-layer. Butler Blue II, the school's live bulldog mascot, was panting slightly as he posed for pictures at an alumni gathering.
Blue's owner, Michael Kaltenmark, led the even-tempered pooch through the crowded hallways with a smile on his face.
"For 40 or 50 years, we always had unofficial mascots that would sort of come and go," Kaltenmark said. "But in 2000, it became an official post. Watch when the players are introduced. Each one comes up to pet him as they're announced, and then Blue and I run across the court and the Dawg Pound leaders give him a huge bone."
Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. Then Blue, with the huge rawhide still clenched in his jaws, sauntered up the bleachers to his assigned seat, accepting pats from spectators as he waddled along. He'd relax, chew and enjoy the game while his bipedal, costumed counterpart mascot, Hink, worked up a sweat, entertaining the crowd for the rest of the contest.
It really is a dog's life, eh?