The Indiana high school basketball sectionals are underway once more. And once more, as has been the case for two decades, they don’t mean as much as they once did.
For reasons I can’t remember, and for reasons which are not that important, I sat in the upper bleachers in Greencastle High School’s McAnally Center and watched the Friday night semi-finals of the 1988 IHSAA sectional. I watched my alma mater (Owen Valley) lose to South Putnam, but I also watched the host Tiger Cubs upset the sectional favorite and defending champions, Rockville, in one of those last-second tip-in thrillers. Despite entering the sectional with a spotty 12-8 record, the Cubs would run deep into the tournament, missing a slot in the final four by a single game. More accurately by a single, final quarter in that game.
There’s no tragedy in that loss. No sorrow in missing that ticket to Market Square Arena. For one thing, they squared off against Bedford North Lawrence, a school some three or four times larger than GHS. For another thing, they lined up against the Stars’ star: one Damon Bailey, a phenom who still holds Indiana’s high school scoring title along with an IHSAA state championship and a college final four. As I said: not a tragedy.
What is tragic is what has happened to the high school game since then. Like the ’88 team, this year’s Tiger Cubs are finishing off their season on a bit of a run: winning 13 of their last 16 games; emphatically winning their last three to boot: first, in the form of a big upset over the conference champion and second, by posting two blowout wins punctuated by white-hot shooting.
I’ll be the first to admit that the objective reality of the past always surrenders to nostalgia. Those of us who finished off our childhood in the ‘80s, for example, cling to the notion that we grew up in a purer, more innocent time. We think fondly of our parachute pants, cassette tapes, and inflatable Reeboks with the longing affection of an elderly lover for the woman he lost decades before.
Sadly, the similarities end there. Unlike the ’88 team, these Cubs are not ending their season close to home. They didn’t get to spend the winter looking forward to a rematch against Cloverdale’s talented 18-win team, nor do they get to square off against the other county teams to their north and south.
Instead, they travel north…to Lebanon I think…or is it Crawfordsville? I could look it up, but that’s sort of the point. For decades no one had to look it up. For decades, everyone knew who was facing whom on McAnally’s hardwood. Sometimes they were bitter foes, hating the kid wearing the purple shirt because he was a “city kid” or disparaging the dude in the red jersey because he was a “country boy.” Other times they were 4-H friends, looking forward to the bragging rights they could bring up every half-hour as they prepped their steers for the judge’s gaze. But when the IHSAA dropped single-class sports for a four-tiered class system, David found himself zoned out of Goliath’s bracket. The two would never meet again.
Those old rivalries still live in a sense. The teams still meet for the annual County Classic as well as in their regular season matchups. But those games lack the power of force which old sectional once held. That was a spectacle on the order and magnatude of a World Series. What passes for it today feels like little more than a horde of middle-aged fat men airballing treys in Tuesday night church league.
That year was the first year high schoolers utilized the three-point line. It was also the 19th year the Tiger Cubs—a storied program with three final fours and some 30 sectional titles hanging from its rafters—had gone without a sectional crown. It was also the perfect time to play the game of basketball.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that the objective reality of the past always surrenders to nostalgia. Those of us who finished off our childhood in the ‘80s, for example, cling to the notion that we grew up in a purer, more innocent time. We think fondly of our parachute pants, cassette tapes, and inflatable Reeboks with the longing affection of an elderly lover for the woman he lost decades before. What we forget is how screwed up the ‘80s actually were. We forget about Bernie Goetz, Grenada, Morton-Thiokol’s O-rings, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, crack cocaine, urban rot, and The Men Without Hats. We forget too all those times we heard our own parents longing recollection of the glorious 1950s. It’s a seductive, surreptitious kind of irony. The facts hide under our chins while the dream dances in front our eyes. But it was our seductive past. It’s something we miss in too many ways to count.
Click the image above to read Donovan Wheeler’s 2015 commentary on why ’85 was the greatest year for high school hoops.
So maybe high school basketball was a rougher, uglier game than most of us remember it. Sure, the boys who played back then traversed the court in shorts so small that you can only find them today in the boxer-brief aisle. But those kids—my peers…my friends—screened well when they didn’t have the ball. When they passed off to a teammate, they didn’t rush to the three-point line and bunny-hop, hoping to snag a chance to heave a rainmaker. Back then they cut to the basket, willing to take a forearm to the cheek, eager for the chance to drain a pair of foul shots.
Back then, when the ball rolled across 60-feet of polished hardwood as seven to nine players clobbered each other trying to get it…somebody fouled somebody. The call was made. The crowd usually hated it. The eye-doctor’s charts popped up from under the nylon J.C. Penney’s coats which covered them. Boos cascaded and reverberated off the rafters. But someone made the call. There’s no way the ball rolls that far unless one player knocked the hell out of another. Today, the “jump-ball” is the go-to “I have no clue” call in high school basketball. Three players are planting elbows in each other’s eye sockets? Jump ball. The ball rolls out of the gym and into Grandpa Fred’s ’79 El Camino? Jump ball. The ball flies through the roof, clears the atmosphere, and wipes out HBO’s primary satellite…? Jump ball.
A game once defined by grace, fine-muscle motor control, eye-hand coordination, and deft lateral movement has become a grotesque chess board where ripped body-builders tear through the opponents hanging upon them as they take their seven un-dribbled steps (the ball securely tucked under their armpits) to the basket.
And none of it happens close to home. Today, Greencastle’s de-facto leader sits in my classroom, anticipating his semifinal matchup in the Lebanon (or Crawfordsville?) sectional. Colin is a great kid. He’s a hard worker. He does everything I ask in the classroom. He responds with a distinct “Yes, sir.” I don’t demand it or ask for, but he offers it. We talk about basketball often. We talk about life just as much. I think the world of this kid. And I feel for him, too. Based on the hot streak he’s on (he’s shooting the lights out right now), and the hot streak his team is on…they have a stellar chance at winning that sectional. But I know that Colin would trade all of that to play on his own court, in own town, against his own county rivals. And even though the odds of a kid like Colin staring down a kid like Romeo Langford were never better than rare, thanks to the switch to class basketball, we know for a fact those odds are zero.
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.