Before I type a word of this, I realize that I am running the risk of sounding like a crotchety old curmudgeon shouting down young whipper-snappers to get out of my yard and, perhaps, that’s an accurate description of me but, here goes.
Once upon a time, there was this phenomenon known as Hoosier Hysteria. You had to be here and experience it to really understand. In my opinion, if you were born much after say, the early 80s, you never truly experienced it, not so you could remember it anyway.
Hoosier Hysteria died in the late 90s. Before I go any further, let me define Hoosier Hysteria the way I see it. When I say Hoosier Hysteria, I am not talking about a great product on the court. That can still be found today every bit as much as it ever could. Pound for pound, Indiana still produces the best quality high school basketball to be found anywhere in the country. Rosters of the nation’s top college programs and the NBA bear that fact out. The Hoosier state is still a hotbed for great basketball talent. To me, Hoosier Hysteria was found not on the court, but off it. It was in the lines at the ticket booth and in the lines of fan busses traveling snowy back roads packed with a healthy portion of small town populations going behind enemy lines to do battle with hated rivals. It was found in gyms, big and small, packed to the rafters every weekend. It was found in the statistic that 15 of the largest 16 high school gymnasiums in the world were found in the Hoosier state (as reported by the New York Times) in 1998, the same year Hoosier Hysteria died.
The argument for class basketball is, undoubtedly, a strong one. To pit schools with a few hundred students against mega-schools of 3-4,000 enrollment seems unfair, if not downright cruel. Perhaps it is, but they don’t make movies about a school of 3,000 beating a school of 4,000 for the state title.
I was fortunate to play for a legendary coach (Garth Cone) of a smallish high school program in Alexandria. When I played, our enrollment was somewhere in the area of 650-700. Alexandria, at that time, had a population of somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000. Our gym had a capacity of 3,400…think about that, our gym could hold over half of the fannies in our entire town. That wasn’t an anomaly, lots of small towns could say that in the Hoosier state. Why, you ask, did they built the gyms so large? Because they needed all those seats, and sometimes more! That was back when Hoosier Hysteria was still alive. When they build new schools now, the gyms are usually smaller.
Alexandria played in the Anderson basketball sectional. Anderson, in my day, was an industrial city of between 60-70,000. When I was in high school, Delco-Remy was in steep decline, but was still kicking, and Anderson still had three high schools, Anderson, Highland, and Madison Heights, all of which were normally basketball powerhouses. Anderson High School boasted the second largest high school gymnasium in the world, the famed Wigwam (capacity, 8996, but let’s go ahead and call it 9,000). The largest gym is in New Castle, Indiana, which holds a little over 9,000 (having been in both gyms, I can assure you that the Wigwam actually felt much larger.)
That picture at the top is of the Wigwam at sectional time.
Some of my first sports memories are of walking into the Wigwam for sectionals. It was a magical atmosphere, just magical.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the magnitude of Hoosier Hysteria more than this memory; in my day, season ticket holders at Alexandria (and probably other schools, too, I would guess) actually had to enter into a lottery for a chance to buy sectional tickets! After the last regular season home game, season ticket holders wanting a chance to go to the sectional waited around after the game and there was a drawing for the privilege of buying one of the allotment of tickets for our school…this for a gym that sat 9,000 people!
There were 8 teams in the Anderson Sectional (in my time, at least), the three Anderson schools, my Alexandria Tigers, Lapel, Pendleton Heights, Frankton, and Daleville. If you are thinking that one of the Anderson schools won every year, you’d almost be right…almost.
I graduated high school in 1985. Every Alexandria kid my age could tell you that the last time the Tigers won the sectional was 1963. That was a legendary date etched in the brains of all young Tigers. We all dreamed of changing that date. Some got close. In 1982, Alexandria had one of their best teams. They were ranked 14th in the state (that’s way before class basketball, remember.) Hopes were high but measured because Anderson and Highland were both rated in the top 10. It is a shame that Tiger team came through in that particular year because they’d have won the sectional a lot of other years–but timing, as they say, is everything. That sectional turned out to be legendary. It came down to Highland and Madison Heights in the final. Hoosier Hysteria was at its peak before that game as the 9,000 seats of the Wigwam were not nearly enough for the amount of folks wanting to get in. Tickets were being scalped for ridiculous sums of money for a high school basketball game. Madison Heights ended up winning in a true classic as Stew Robinson (who went on to play at Indiana University) sank the winning free throw with no time left on the clock. I was a freshman and didn’t play on the varsity. I did get to play in the next three Anderson sectionals that followed it, though. I didn’t get to experience winning a sectional, but I got to play against the likes of Mr. Basketball (and future Purdue standout) Troy Lewis. My senior year, we drew Madison Heights in the first round. That game stands out as my most memorable Hoosier Hysteria experience as a player.
We got down early in the game. If memory serves, we trailed by as many as 16 or 17 points in the first half and just were not playing up to our potential. Then we started to turn the tables. Now, one of the coolest aspects of the brand of Hoosier Hysteria found in the Wigwam during sectional time was the way the crowd would take sides. You see, all schools’ fans turned out for every session, even if their team wasn’t playing. This created an electric atmosphere, especially if a small school was in a tight game with a city school. Often, one school’s fans, like Anderson, for instance, would start up a chant of SECTIONAL…SECTIONAL…and between their chant, all the oher schools would begin to chant NO WAY. Soon there would be a deafening cacophony of SECTIONAL…NO WAY…SECTIONAL…NO WAY…and so on. If I close my eyes, I can still hear it. Whenever a small school began to make a run at an Anderson school, all the other teams’ fanbases would swell with boisterous support of the underdog. It happened every year. I had sat in the stands many times and played a role in it. My senior year, I got to experience that on the court as a player. We began to play better and clawed away at the lead. By late in the game we had caught the Madison Heights Pirates, coming all the way back from a big deficit. The entire Wigwam crowd except, of course, the Pirates’ section, was raining thunderous support down upon us. Here is a picture of me during those moments that appeared in one of the local papers (note the sheer volume of people in the stands in the background–hard to find scenes like that anymore.)
My team ended up running out of steam after climbing all the way out of our hole that night and we lost a close one. Heartbreaking to be sure, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for a modern 2A sectional championship. That may sound crazy to you, but I mean it. In Alexandria, we were raised to want to beat Goliath. Guess what? David did beat Goliath in the Anderson sectional that very year as tiny Daleville shocked the world to take the championship.
Then, four years later, in 1989, I got to see my brother etch a new date into the minds of young Alex Tigers. Led by Derek Thurston, my brother, Chad, John Steele, and others, the 1989 Alexandria Tigers entered the Anderson Sectional as a bonafide contender, boasting one of their strongest squads in memory. I sat among the frenzied throng as the Tigers powered their way to the Sectional championship that year. I can’t remember a more euphoric sports moment that I have ever personally experienced (Colts’ Super Bowl championship, maybe…maybe.) A new date, 1989, could be added next to that fabled 1963 and a handful of other championship seasons before that. Alexandria would add another sectional (as well as regional) championship to the trophy case before the end of single class basketball, in 1995, with a team led by two all-state players, Mickey Hoosier and Chris Hahn.
Class basketball came in 1998 and Hoosier Hysteria, as we knew it, died a quick death. The state basketball tournament attendance figures took an immediate hit and have never recovered. From its peak years when state-wide tournament attendance topped 1 million, the first year of class basketball saw those figures fall below half a million and they have never surpassed that mark since.
A lot more schools have a lot more trophies in the case in the years since 1998. I suppose that has its merits. In fact, Alexandria, perhaps fittingly, won the very first class 2A state championship in 1998. I was mighty happy to see that, and especially proud to see my old coach, Garth Cone, get to be crowned with a state championship. Everyone in Alexandria is quite proud of that accomplishment, as they should be, but…
During the heyday of Hoosier Hysteria, young Tigers were taught that we were supposed to beat the schools our size. We were trained to seek out Goliath.
When I think about the greatest moments of Hoosier Hysteria I was privileged to witness, I think of those moments in 1985 when I experienced the thrill of potential victory followed the sting of ultimate defeat, 1989 when I watched my brother capture the prize, and 1995 when I watched the Tigers take it all the way to the Semi State in Hinkle Fieldhouse…the very same barn where the Milan Miracle happened in 1954. They made a movie about that.
I watched the 1998 2A state championship on television. I was extremely proud of my Tigers and my former coach. But that was the year after Hoosier Hysteria died. David beat David that year. They don’t make movies about that.