The Indiana Pacers forever etched their name into the NBA history books Tuesday by winning the league’s first-ever play-in game, walloping the Charlotte Hornets 144-117. The Pacers will line up this Thursday against the Washington Wizards for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Wizards dropping a 118-100 decision to the Boston Celtics.
The Pacers are something of an anomaly in that despite being in the NBA, the crème de la crème of basketball worldwide, they are not the sport’s top dogs in their home state. College basketball is more popular, with Indiana and Purdue and Butler and Ball State plus others taking turns atop the higher education totem pole, yet even they pale in comparison to the overwhelming, omnipresent, universally beloved art of high school basketball. If you live in Indiana, and you go to high school — which, despite the state usually dismissed as flyover country, most residents do — the game is in your blood, and it remains there throughout your lifetime.
Exactly why and how high school basketball became such a fixation ranks alongside how Indiana residents got the nickname Hoosiers in things obscured within the mysterious mist of time. The most commonly accepted story goes that one Rev. Nicholas McCay learned the game from its inventor James Naismith, bringing it with him to the Crawfordsville, Indiana YMCA where he worked. However, contemporary research has brought this into question. What is not questioned is that the game rapidly caught the imagination of Indiana residents, quickly entering public and private school athletic programs. The first high school championship tournament took place in 1911, which coincidentally was the first year the Indianapolis 500 was run. Until 1998, all schools regardless of size competed in the same tournament; from 1998 to the present day there have been four divisions with school size being the delineation factor.
Being something of a cultural hybrid, with family roots firmly planted in Indiana soil (my mother was born and raised in Crawfordsville, while my father’s family moved to Indianapolis when he was two) yet having grown up myself in the San Francisco Bay Area during the ‘60s and ‘70s, I never quite caught basketball fever to the degree that doubtless would have been installed had I done my growing up in-between Illinois and Ohio. To me, basketball began and ended with the then-San Francisco Warriors. A statewide high school basketball tournament? Unimaginable. Besides, who needed that when you had Nate Thurmond going up against Wilt Chamberlin?
It was after my father retired in 1980, he and my mother moving to Greencastle, Indiana with yours truly in tow, that I first learned of the existence and depth of Indiana’s obsession with high school basketball. This was back when Bobby Knight was the undisputed king of Bloomington, but aside from that, it was all high school all the time. The poor Pacers were hardpressed to get a byline in the local paper, while the exploits of the Greencastle High Tiger Cubs were headline material regardless of how they played. This was the Stone Age of pre-Internet existence, so tracking my beloved Bay Area teams was a chore, especially when they were home and their games would end after the local paper’s closing time, thus instead of a final score, it would simply say “night” and you’d have to wait until the next day to find out who won two days ago. Thus, despite the meager coverage, I followed the Pacers if for no other reason than there was no other outlet for professional sports in the state, the Colts not moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis until 1984.
Personal and family history aside, one assumes the Pacers might possibly be drawing at least a modicum of home state attention during this run at the postseason if for no other reason than the high school championship tournament having concluded last month. At least the franchise knows its role, occasionally donning the uniform of the fictitious Hickory High School Huskers who in the movie Hoosiers win against all odds the state championship. It’ll probably take a similar run for the Pacers to advance to the NBA Finals this year, but this Hoosier by birthright will be cheering them on.