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Indiana basketball is in a sad state

WashPost: Once a source of pride, game losing its place in Hoosier hearts
Kentucky v Indiana
Indiana Mike Davis coach Mike Davis hasn't had a winning season since 2002.Andy Lyons / Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Indiana University Coach Mike Davis was sitting at his breakfast table one morning last week when his 5-year-old son, Antoine, walked into the kitchen. "Daddy, I had a dream last night," Antoine told him. "I was playing for Purdue and dunked."

"A dream?" Davis asked his son. "That sounds like a nightmare."

Many Indiana residents would argue that playing for either the Hoosiers or Boilermakers would be a nightmare these days. The state that produced legendary figures such as coaches John Wooden and Bob Knight and whose passion for high school basketball was the backdrop for the movie "Hoosiers" is experiencing an unprecedented malaise in its favorite game.

"It's a damn mess," Purdue University Coach Gene Keady said. "We had the magic and we lost the magic."

With a widely anticipated college basketball season in full swing, Indiana's two traditional powers are on the outside looking in. Indiana and Purdue have losing records entering their game here today at Purdue's Mackey Arena, and interest in high school basketball, the state's other passion, also is waning considerably. While the colleges' struggles can be attributed at least in part to changes at the top, interest in the high school game began to dissipate when the state abandoned its one-class, everybody-in, winner-takes-all postseason tournament in favor of a system that divided schools by size.

More Than a Game
Basketball in Indiana has long been more than a game. James Naismith, who invented the sport in Springfield, Mass., more than a century ago with a soccer ball and two peach baskets, once said that "basketball may have been born in Massachusetts, but it grew up in Indiana."

From Wooden (he was a Purdue all-American long before he became the "Wizard of Westwood" at UCLA) to Rick "the Rocket" Mount (the first high school player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated) to Damon Bailey (the first eighth-grader featured in SI), Indiana's best high school and college players became state-wide icons.

How else to explain the Steve Alford All-American Inn in New Castle, about 70 miles west of Indianapolis off Interstate 70, where rooms are decorated with jerseys, basketballs and other memorabilia celebrating one of the state's most beloved players. Or Plump's Last Shot, a bar and grill in the Broad Ripple district of Indianapolis, named after Bobby Plump, whose last-second shot lifted tiny Milan High School to the 1954 state championship and inspired the film "Hoosiers."

Before they were NBA stars, players such as Charles "Stretch" Murphy, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Glenn Robinson were stars of the phenomenon that became known as "Hoosier Hysteria," the state's unique high school tournament. Unlike the way virtually every other state divides its high school competitions among similarly sized schools, Indiana crowned only one state champion until 1998, staging a month-long tournament that once included more than 400 schools.

The state's controversial decision to buck tradition for four separate classes and four state champions is what basketball purists point to when they're asked about the deflation of the sport in the state. In 1990, more than 40,000 fans — a national high school attendance record — watched Bailey lead Bedford North Lawrence High to the state championship. Last year, about 16,000 fans watched Lawrence North High beat Columbia City for the Class 4A state championship.

"There's no interest," said Plump, who sells insurance in Indianapolis. "People don't care. Multi-class basketball just killed it. There's no interest in the sectionals. The two questions I get asked all the time are, 'How true was the movie?' and 'Will Indiana basketball ever be what it used to be?' "

More than a half-century after Plump held the basketball for more than four minutes, fired a shot and missed, but then redeemed himself at the buzzer in Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indiana basketball has mostly become distant memories. Instead of victories and championships, it's about empty seats, embattled coaches and mounting losses.

"It was something very, very special," said Purdue assistant Matt Painter, who grew up in Muncie, Ind., and played for the Boilermakers. "There's no doubt it's lost a lot of its mystique. It was everybody against everybody, and David versus Goliath. It's not what it used to be."

The Past Beckons
Fans of Indiana and Purdue can't let go of the past, either. The Hoosiers finished 14-15 last season, their first losing season since 1969-70, and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 19 years. Indiana opened this season with less than impressive victories over Indiana State and Western Illinois, and then lost six games in a row in December against a schedule that has been rated the toughest in college basketball.

The Hoosiers (6-7) lost to North Carolina by seven, at Connecticut by five and then lost at home to Notre Dame by 10, the Fighting Irish's first victory at Bloomington's Assembly Hall since 1973. Indiana followed that with losses against Kentucky, its fifth in a row in the series, and to Missouri and the UNC Charlotte. After rebounding to beat three lesser opponents, the Hoosiers lost their Big Ten Conference opener, 73-52, at Northwestern on Jan. 5.

When the Hoosiers returned to Bloomington to beat Wisconsin on Jan. 8, Davis heard a loud chorus of boos during pregame introductions. Despite leading Indiana to the NCAA championship game against Maryland in his second season in 2001-02, and averaging 20 victories in his first four seasons, Davis knows he probably won't return as Indiana's coach next season.

"You'd think I was averaging 10 wins," Davis, 44, said last week, during an interview in his team's locker room. "I just want to be sure my boys are protected. They're going to be a part of Indiana basketball for the rest of their lives. It's amazing they have to go through this. It's sad. They're getting booed. They need to be able to enjoy their college careers. I want them to have that great memory."

Knight's Legacy
In September 2000, Davis was given the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Knight, who was fired for violating then-Indiana University president Myles Brand's zero-tolerance policy by grabbing the arm of a 19-year-old student to lecture him about manners. Knight won more than 600 games, three national championships and 11 Big Ten titles during his 29 seasons at Indiana but had a volatile personality that sometimes overshadowed his success on the court.

"Any time you follow a legend, it's difficult," said Alford, a two-time all-American at Indiana, who led the Hoosiers to the 1987 national championship, and is now the basketball coach at the University of Iowa. "Look at the guys that have had to follow John Wooden at UCLA. There's not much more you can do at Indiana than what coach Knight did."

Davis said he has done enough in his five seasons at Indiana, becoming the first Hoosiers coach to win 20 games or more in each of his first three seasons. He is starting three freshmen this season, including all-American D.J. White, a center from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Davis has signed three more recruits for next season and two of his team's best players, forward Marco Killingsworth and point guard Lewis Monroe, are ineligible to play this season after transferring from Auburn.

"People think it's so easy to recruit for Indiana," Davis said. "But it takes a lot of character for guys to come play for me in all this. If you had a son, would you let him walk into this? I wouldn't. These boys deserve better than this."

Davis said a lot of Indiana fans come to the games rooting for the Hoosiers to lose, hoping a poor record will ensure his dismissal. The heckling has gotten so bad that Davis is considering telling his wife, Tamilya, and son to stay home. After the Hoosiers beat Wisconsin, 74-61, in what might have been the team's best performance in two seasons, one Indiana fan walked out of the stands of Assembly Hall red-faced and wearing a shirt emblazoned with a logo for Texas Tech, the school Knight now coaches.

"Anytime a player walks into that gym and looks like somebody who used to play here, that's who they want that player to be," Davis said. "They're living in the past."

Davis's players aren't sure what it will take to quiet their coach's critics.

"You never know what the people here want," said Hoosiers forward Patrick Ewing Jr., son of former NBA star Patrick Ewing and a former standout at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington. "I figured everybody in Indiana would be pulling for him since he took the team to the Final Four. If you're not supporting the coach, you're not supporting the team."

Said White after the Wisconsin victory: "It won't shut them up. It's only one win. They might be happy we won."

'It's Not as Much Fun'
Keady, 68, knows he's coaching his last season at Purdue after 25 years at the school. The Boilermakers (4-9) have played in the NCAA tournament only once in the past four seasons, and they haven't won 20 games in a season since finishing 24-10 in 1999-2000. Purdue has produced only one all-Big Ten selection in the past five seasons and hasn't had an all-American since Glenn Robinson in 1994. Things got so bad last season, when the Boilermakers lost eight of their last 10 games to finish 17-14, that Keady considered retiring or leaving to take a job at the University of San Francisco.

But Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke persuaded Keady to stay one more season. Keady reluctantly agreed to stay and was allowed to name Painter his successor. Painter coached last season at Southern Illinois, leading the Salukis to a 25-5 record and the NCAA tournament. Keady chose him over more established coaches such as Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, Illinois' Bruce Weber and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, who also were his assistants at Purdue.

Purdue entered this season with hopes of sending Keady to one more NCAA tournament. But the Boilermakers have lost nine of their first 13 games and are 0-3 in Big Ten play.

"I'm very frustrated," Keady said. "You work for 25 years to build a program and then after the 2000 season, nothing goes right. It's frustrating as hell. We've done a bad job recruiting the players. We're not developing players like we used to. The last five years, the players haven't gotten better. If we had gotten to the NCAA tournament last year, I would have walked away. If I had known this was going to happen this season, I would have turned it over to Matt and left. I think the kids have gotten used to losing."

Keady said basketball in Indiana hasn't been as exciting during the past five seasons, not since Knight left the Hoosiers. Knight declined to be interviewed for this story.

"It's not as much fun without Bobby around anymore," Keady said. "He liked to stir things up."

For more than two decades, Keady and Knight were the faces of basketball in this state. Keady, with his tanned, weathered face and comb-over hairstyle, led the Boilermakers to more than 500 victories and six Big Ten championships in the past 24 seasons. But Keady said he always felt like the red-headed stepchild when compared to Knight, who was the more popular figure in the state because of his success and unpredictable behavior.

"I never saw myself as that big of a deal in the state because I never won a national championship and never got to a Final Four," Keady said. "I always saw myself as a failure. I loved this place. I had a lot of chances to leave but never did. I guess my loyalty is my stupidity."

So today, as the Hoosiers and Boilermakers prepare to play for the 185th time, Indiana is bracing to lose yet a little more of its basketball identity.

"Growing up in Indiana, it's hard for me to imagine," Alford said. "I grew up there in the seventies and eighties and Coach Knight was Indiana basketball and Coach Keady was Purdue basketball. Things change, but it's going to be really hard to accept."