INDIANA: WHERE ‘HOOSIER HYSTERIA’ MEETS HOLLYWOOD
By Mike May
When you visit the city of Indianapolis, there are a number of things to do and places to visit. They range from attending the Indianapolis 500 to visiting The Children’s Museum to strolling through the White River State Park to eating dinner at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse (always order the shrimp cocktail!). For sports enthusiasts, the city has its own athletic niche. It’s the home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, and the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. In the summer, minor league baseball is played at Victory Field by the Indianapolis Indians, the AAA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. For sports history buffs, a visit to the NCAA’s Hall of Champions is a must-see exhibit, as well.
For sports and movie fans visiting Indianapolis, it’s worth taking a short road trip to Indiana’s own version of Hollywood. It’s called Knightstown. Simply head east out of Indianapolis on Interstate 70. Less than an hour’s drive from Indianapolis, you’ll see an exit for the historic Hoosier Gym (www.thehoosiergym.com), which is located in Knightstown. Take the exit for Highway 109 and follow the signs to the Hoosier Gym. When you get to Knightstown, which is about a 10-minute journey from I-70, it won’t be hard to find the Hoosier Gym. All signs lead to the Hoosier Gym — Indiana’s version of Iowa’s Field of Dreams. When you arrive at the Hoosier Gym (355 North Washington Street, Knightstown, Indiana), park your car (for free) along the street, and then walk inside the facility. By the way, there’s no admission charge to the Hoosier Gym. How’s that for Hoosier hospitality! You will quickly realize that it’s the same gym used to produce the 1986 PG-rated movie Hoosiers, which starred Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, and Dennis Hopper. Do you remember that Hoosiers has been ranked by Sports Illustrated and ESPN as one of the top five greatest sports movies? In fact, when you walk in the door of the Hoosier Gym, you’ll hear the movie being played in the background and you’ll probably catch Hackman barking out instructions to his Hickory High School boys basketball team.
“The movie is always being played here, from the moment we open every day,” said Ed Ferguson, one of six volunteer tour guides at the Hoosier Gym.
As you recall, the movie is the story about the fictitious Hickory High School boys basketball team’s (the “Huskers”) march to the 1952 Indiana High School Boys Basketball State Championship. The movie is really an adaptation of a true story based on the journey taken by the Milan High School boys basketball team (the “Indians”) from 1952–54, that culminated with the Indians capturing the 1954 Indiana Boys Basketball State Championship, won by Bobby Plump’s game-winning 14-foot jump shot to secure a 32-30 victory vs. Muncie Central in a game played at Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in March of 1954. Hoosiers actually combined games played from both the 1952–53 and 1953–54 seasons for Milan — merging the 1953 quarter-final opponent, the South Bend Central Bears, with the scoring pattern from the 1954 championship win against Muncie Central. Hollywood has a knack for using poetic license from time to time. It’s important to note that Hickory’s championship win in the movie was also filmed at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse.
For a movie buff who likes basketball, the experience of visiting the Hoosier Gym is surreal, especially when you step foot inside the gym. You expect Coach Norman Dale (played by Hackman) to appear with a whistle telling you what to do, where to run, and how hard to do it. The gym, to this day, looks the same as the day that filming finished in 1985. And, it is kept that way on purpose. The movie also explains the phenomenon referred to as Hoosier Hysteria, which is the state of Indiana’s unique obsession with the game of basketball, especially high school basketball.
It’s worth noting that this specific gym was used by Knightstown High School (the “Panthers”) from 1922 to 1966. From 1966 until the day filming began for Hoosiers in 1985, the gym, for the most part, sat dormant. Now, it’s a tourist destination, a basketball ‘shrine,’ and one of the Hoosier state’s special ‘treasures’ — all because of a movie about a high school basketball team in a small, rural Indiana town in the early 1950s. In reality, as the Hoosier Gym’s brochure states, Hoosiers “was about positive values, friendships, family, strength of a community and second chances.” Hoosiers director David Ansbaugh, a graduate of basketball-crazy Indiana University (and the director of another Indiana-themed sports movie Rudy), succeeded in his effort to communicate that message.
“I think this place is wonderful,” says David Steele, a volunteer guide at the Hoosier Gym. “I grew up here. The movie saved our gym.” It’s worth noting that Steele played basketball at Knightstown High School and is a member of the graduating class of 1963.
When you enter the small lobby of the Hoosier Gym, your eyes wander to the many historical basketball trophies, treasures, plaques, pictures, and memorabilia affiliated with both Knightstown High School and Hoosiers. One of the first things that you will notice hanging on the wall is the scoreboard used in the movie, made by Fair Play Scoreboard. Another prominent item in the lobby is the photo of the Hickory High School basketball team (along with its Wilson basketball) and the head coach, played by Hackman. The eight players on the team were: #12 Merle Webb (played by Kent Poole), #13 Ollie McPike (played by Wade Schenck), #14 Buddy Walker (played by Brad Long), #15 Jimmy Chitwood (played by Maris Valanis), #21 Everett Flatch (played by David Neidorf), #25 Rade Butcher (played by Steve Hollar), #43 Whit Butcher (Brad Boyle), and #53 Strap Purl (played by Scott Summers). The star of the team was Chitwood, the movie’s version of Plump. When visiting the gym, you can take the same game-winning shot that Chitwood took and made — just as you remember from the movie. Out of respect, it is worth listing the names of the players on Milan’s 1953-54 roster. They are Bobby Plump, Ray Craft, Bill Jordan, Gene White, Ken Wendelman, Bob Wichmann, Ron Truitt, Glenn Butte, Bob Engel, Rollin Cutter, and Roger Schroder. Fred Busching was the manager. Milan’s head coach was Marvin Wood.
Another eye-catching item is the sign showcasing the Hoosier Gym records from 1922-1966. Those are the real deal. The categories include most points scored in a game, field goals made in a game, free throws made in a game, 500-point seasons and 1,000-point careers. The record for the most points scored in a game in the Hoosier Gym is 41. It was set by Knightstown’s Sam Chase in 1960.
The most unique award on display is a championship cup won by the Knightstown High School boys basketball team which captured the Basket Ball Tournament on January 31, 1925. The last names of the eight players on the team are inscribed on the cup along with the name of its leader, Coach Miller.
When you actually walk inside the Hoosier Gym, which has free guided tours, you’ll see two flags hanging on the far wall – the Star Spangled Banner and the Indiana state flag. You’ll also see the two pictures of the Hickory Huskers mascot painted on opposite sides of the gym – just as you remember from the movie. Seating wise, the gym holds 700 spectators – 325 on one side, 325 on the other side, and 50 on the stage. On one end of the gym hangs a big banner, which says GO HICKORY All the Way! There are also banners that indicate that the Huskers won the post-season Sectional tournament in 1931 and 1933. Again, don’t forget that the setting for the movie is the 1951-52 high school basketball season in Indiana.
The middle of the court features the big gold H in a ‘sea’ of maroon, to signify that this is the home court of the Hickory Huskers – just as you remember from the movie. As you walk around the court, you will notice that the foul lanes have modern configurations, but back in the 1950s, the ‘paint’ was actually narrower than the current basketball court dimensions. Those original lines remain visible on the court. The backboards and rims – made by Gared Sports – are the same ones used in the movie. The only significant change to the court is the addition of the three-point lines on both ends. Those, of course, did not exist in the sport of basketball at any level of play in the 1950s. A final comment about the actual basketball court focuses on the sidelines, which are painted within a few inches of the grandstand walls. That must have been quite disconcerting for players if they had to dive after a loose ball.
The tour of the facility also includes a look inside the locker rooms which really look like miniature basements, located under the stage and below the surface of the ground. When you leave the locker rooms, you truly emerge from the depths of the Hoosier Gym. The locker rooms remain the same — as they were in Hoosiers. There are three wooden benches that are somewhat cramped together with exposed piping suspended from the ceiling — just as you remember from the movie. By the way, the showers in the open stalls still work.
“When high school basketball was played here in Knightstown years ago, you had to buy your ticket on Monday because there were none left by Friday’s game,” says Ferguson.
Knightstown comes ‘alive’ every June when the Hoosier Reunion All-Star Classic is contested at the Hoosier Gym. This two-game series started in 2006 and features the top senior high school boys and girls basketball players in the state of Indiana. In the first boys All-Star Classic in 2006, soon-to-be NBA players Greg Oden and Mike Conley played in the game – on the same court with the same goals and backboards as were used in Hoosiers. Inside the Hoosier Gym is its Wall of Fame which has a framed T-shirt commemorating each of the annual boys and girls Hoosier Reunion All-Star Classic games. The respective rosters of the girls and boys teams from each year are on display as well. If you know anybody who has played in this game, their name is on permanent display at the Hoosier Gym. In this game, one of the teams is Team Hickory and the other one is Team Terhune, one of Hickory’s last opponents in this gym in the movie.
Of course, if you want to play a game in the Hoosier Gym or conduct an official basketball practice for your team, it can be rented for $50 an hour. It’s also open for class reunions, birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, and other special events. Reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Call the Hoosier Gym at 800-668-1895 or 765-345-2100 for details and availability. In addition to being a tourist attraction, the Hoosier Gym doubles as a community center for the residents of Knightstown.
A number of celebrities from the world of basketball have visited the Hoosier Gym over the years. Back on May 21, 2004, basketball legends Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Lebron James, and Carmelo Anthony gathered for a photo shoot by ESPN. A picture of those four basketball greats hangs in the lobby of the Hoosier Gym.
As you get ready to leave Knightstown, make sure you “take some tradition home,” as the gym’s website states. Any visit to this landmark is incomplete until you purchase a souvenir from the Hoosier Gym. You can buy a number of items that you can wear or use that will always remind you of your basketball ‘pilgrimage’ to the Hoosier Gym. The items for sale include full-size and mini Hickory High School basketballs (from Baden Sports), T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, plastic cups, writing pens, lapel pins, basketball piggy bank, a DVD describing the filming of Hoosiers, or a Hoosiers movie poster. If all of those items are too expensive for your budget, you can always buy a postcard.
Again, there is no admission charge to visit the Hoosier Gym, but donations of any kind are accepted. The Hoosier Gym is open every day of the year from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, with the exception of New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, and Christmas Day.
“It’s always basketball season in Indiana,” states Ferguson.
Now is the time to get your friends together for the ultimate basketball road trip – to the Hoosier Gym (355 North Washington, Knightstown, IN 46148; 800-668-1895)! Again, to play basketball in this facility will only cost $50 an hour, but the value of the experience will be priceless. Simply catch a flight to Indianapolis, rent a car, head east along I-70, and take the exit for Highway 109 to Knightstown. And, then come back to Indianapolis for dinner at St. Elmo’s……and remember to order the shrimp cocktail!
The author of this story is Mike May, a lifelong basketball fan and player. He is also an experienced high school basketball coach, who has watched Hoosiers on a number of occasions. While visiting the Hoosier Gym, he dribbled a basketball on the actual court and then made free throws on both ends before departing. He encourages you to visit the Hoosier Gym, as well.