It was nearly midnight when the patrol car slid slowly through the high school parking lot, its tires hissing softly on the rain-slicked pavement. Stopping, the car spat the beam from its spotlight against the wall of the school. The beam moved methodically back and forth, occasionally forming luminous puddles in the classroom windows, when it suddenly picked up a solitary figure hustling toward the gym door. There would be questions to answer. Mike Copper put his head down and kept walking.
Copper is the basketball coach at Warren Central High in Indianapolis, the third-largest school in Indiana. He's 37 but looks young enough that, in the dark, he can pass for one of his players, which is one reason Copper had a problem with the officer when he tried to open the gym that night. Every time he tried to explain that the Indiana basketball season would officially begin one second past midnight, Monday, Oct. 8, 1984, the lawman snorted at him.
"But why midnight?" the officer wanted to know.
"We want to get a jump on the rest of the state," Copper replied, clapping. "We call it Midnight Madness."
With that, the officer snorted and squinted again, as if he were trying to commit Copper's face to memory.
"Bringing a bunch of high school kids out to play basketball at 12 o'clock on a school night," he said, "must be some kind of madness all right."
In the gym, at exactly midnight, Copper threw a basketball into the air, and when it came down, 38 young Hoosiers dived on it as if it were a dream just fallen from the sky. Before the month was out, almost half of them would be cut. "That's the hardest part of the job," Copper said. "You're taking away their dream. I tell the kids, 'You can no longer be a successful basketball player, but that doesn't mean you can no longer be a successful person.' It's hard to make them believe that, though, because in Indiana those two things are so intertwined."
As the players continued to battle each other for possession of the ball, Jerry Watts sat in the bleachers, watching, focusing on his son, Kwame, a 15-year-old sophomore trying out for the Warren Central Warriors. "Kwame means born on a Saturday," said Watts. "It's a Ghanaian name. He was born when African names were in vogue." Watts seemed slightly sheepish about this. A slender man with rimless glasses, he kept saying that for kids to be practicing basketball until 1:30 in the morning was indeed "crazy." But he was obviously enjoying himself and hoping that his son would make the team. If not, Watts knew that in a city the size of Indianapolis, Kwame would have other things to do besides playing basketball. "When I was growing up, that was the only outlet we had," he said, nodding at the floor, "bouncing that ball."
Bouncing the ball was precisely what junior Duane Sharpe was doing at that very moment as he made a beeline for one of the baskets. When his shot, the first score of the night, banked in, everybody in the gym stopped and applauded. The season had begun. Sharpe smiled bashfully. Six weeks later he would quit the team to become a rodeo cowboy. "He may be the first kid in the history of Indiana high school basketball we ever lost to the rodeo," said Copper.
Last year's high school basketball tournament in California—the most populous state in the U.S. and certainly one of the game's hotbeds—was considered one of the most successful ever, drawing nearly 200,000 spectators to the Division I, II and III playoffs. Indiana, by contrast, has 18 million fewer people than California and one-third the number of high schools, yet last year 1,036,261 people turned out for the Indiana state tournament, which, unlike most others, isn't divided into divisions according to the schools' sizes. From Bippus to Birdseye, from Holland to Peru, from places where the gym has more seats than the town has people, from all over Indiana, they came streaming off the farms and out of the auto factories, headed for the games. Before the tip-off, these gentle people had in common but a single secret wish for their teams' opponents. "They all want you to die," says Anderson High coach Norm Held, "and they don't care when. It's almost a kind of insanity. You know, like a cult."
That's Hoosier Hysteria—love and death and lunacy, one of America's goofiest tribal rites. "This isn't a game in Indiana, it's a religion," declares Howard Sharpe, who has coached in the state for 45 years. "There was a year once when nobody was buried in Indiana for a week. Big snowstorm paralyzed everything." Sharpe pauses to let this sink in. "And there were 250 high school basketball games played in the state that week. They just put the people on snowplows and brought 'em to the gyms." Sharpe doesn't say whether these were living people or the dear departed, all dressed up with no place to go.
There's no record of any fans dying because of a high school basketball game in Indiana, although over the years there have been some fairly close calls. At a tournament in Delphi during the late 1930s, feelings became so heated that every time referee Joe Dienhart made a call against the Oracles, the highly partisan home crowd jeered and rained debris onto the floor. As the evening wore on, the mood became increasingly ugly, until at last, after a call the fans found particularly unsavory, the entire crowd appeared on the verge of storming the floor in pursuit of Dienhart and his fellow official. Suddenly the Delphi High principal stood up in front of the bleachers and signaled for quiet. This was a relief to Dienhart, but his comfort was short-lived. When the gym had finally settled down to a low boil, the principal spoke. "Boys," he said, addressing himself to the angry crowd before him and jerking a thumb toward the referees behind him, "we know they're crooked. I'm with you on that all the way. All I'm asking you to do is wait and let them finish the game. Then we'll get 'em." On that disquieting note, the game proceeded. When it was over, the two officials, one wielding a baseball bat, had to back their way out of the gym.
It may say something about the rough-and-tumble atmosphere that surrounds basketball in Indiana that the first game in the state was played above a Crawfordsville tavern in the spring of 1893. That was also the first game ever played outside the state of Massachusetts, where basketball was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith. In 1925 Naismith himself journeyed to Indiana for the state high school final and, upon his return home, wrote, "The possibilities of basketball as seen there were a revelation to me." By that time the tournament field had increased from 12 teams in 1911 to 674, and basketball had become a statewide obsession. "Quite literally, the state was wild about it," says John Wooden, who as a junior played on Martinsville High's 1927 state championship team. Wooden, of course, went on to win 10 NCAA titles as the coach at UCLA, but he says, "For a high school player, winning the Indiana state championship was far more meaningful than winning the NCAA is today or has ever been." When Muncie knocked off Martinsville in Wooden's senior year, all the Muncie players were rewarded with new Ford roadsters.
Indiana's reputation as the basketball capital of America gradually spread to other parts of the country. "Thirty years ago, Indiana was where basketball was happening," says Jerry Hoover, who spent 16 years as a high school coach there before becoming an assistant at Indiana State. "If you went into the military and said you were from Indiana, they automatically told you to report to the gym. A lot of guys were saved from KP, guard duty and generally getting their asses shot off because they were from Indiana." Grantland Rice captured most of what America knew about Indiana in the poem Back in 1925.
Round my Indiana Homestead
As they sang in days gone by,
Now the basketballs are flying
And they almost hide the sky;
For each gym is full of players
And each town is full of gyms
As a hundred thousand snipers
Shoot their goals with deadly glims.
People in Indiana wouldn't actually say "glims," of course, because they are too practical to use words other Hoosiers wouldn't understand—and too stubborn to look up words they know they're never going to hear again. In fact, Hoosiers don't readily accept the unfamiliar, linguistic or otherwise. Probably the best expression of their conservative, eyes-on-the-road philosophy was uttered by a Hoosier congressman named Earl Land-grebe the day before Richard Nixon resigned from office. "Don't confuse me with the facts," said Landgrebe, a staunch Republican. "I've got a closed mind."
Nowhere is that kind of obstinacy more prevalent than in Indiana's small towns, where basketball—with its long tradition and ancient rivalries—is the strongest thread running through the most close-knit communities. "In the little towns, people sometimes run for the school board on a platform of nothing more than wanting to fire the basketball coach," says Hoover. "In Indiana, everybody thinks he's a coach because he either played basketball or studied the game. And usually he knows what the hell he's talking about."
When Copper went to Paoli in 1969 to interview for his first head coaching job, he was surprised to discover that the school board exercised control over the hiring and firing of only two school employees, the high school principal and the basketball coach. "During the interview, a board member actually jumped up and asked me to show him my end out-of-bounds play," says Copper. He wound up taking the job and spending three years in Paoli, a town of about 3,300 people, with a gym that seats 4,433. This is in Orange County, one of the poorest in the state.
The size of that gym probably said a good deal about priorities in Paoli. The basketball rivalry between Paoli High and the Stonecutters of neighboring Bedford High had become so bitter during the 1960s that the Paoli school board decided to make a direct and brutal assault on the Stonecutters' prestige. At that time Bedford had the biggest gym in the area, which generally meant that every season it hosted its own 10-team sectional—the first round of the state tournament played at 64 sites, followed by the 16 regionals, four semi-states and final four. At the urging of one of its members, the Paoli board poured all of its building funds into the construction of a gym that seated 400 more spectators than Bedford's. The following year Paoli, whose gym was now the showpiece of the county, became host to a sectional of its own.
When Copper arrived in Paoli, he found a world where daily life orbited almost completely around the two biggest buildings in town—the gym and the church. "They weren't going to the opera in Paoli," he says. "In southern Indiana, church and basketball are the focal points of people's lives, and as the basketball coach, your status is probably about as high as the local preacher's. If you live in Paoli, there are no other activities, unless you count driving over to Louisville to look at the moving staircases. If those people aren't going to the basketball game on Friday night, they're not doing anything."
Even in failing health, Sharpe, 69, hasn't been able to let go of Friday nights. Last June he underwent a heart catheterization, at which time his surgeon discovered that one of the arteries that had been used in a double-bypass operation in 1982 had become 100% blocked. But Sharpe, who's the second-winningest coach in the history of the state, needs just 20 victories at North Knox High to surpass the 734 chalked up by Marion Crawley from 1931-67 at Greencastle, Washington and Lafayette Jefferson. Sharpe is going to prove himself an immortal or die trying. "He's in a profession that's pretty tough on a younger man," says Tom Oliphant, 38, a rival coach at tiny L & M High, "and he's had some problems with his heart. But if he won the game that gave him the record for most wins, then keeled over on the floor, I believe he'd die a happy man."
Two days after Thanksgiving, most of the corn in Greene County is already down. The day has been balmy, and now as the light slips lower and lower in the sky, a thin layer of blue woodsmoke settles over the rolling stubble fields. At the L & M High School gym just south of Lyons, people are already taking their seats for tonight's game with Eastern High of Bloomfield. Because space in the 1,275-seat gym is first come, first served, L & M fans have been lined up in a corridor outside the gym since 5 p.m. The varsity game won't begin until 8:20 and won't end before 10. "It just became the thing to do last year," says Clyde Earl Hostetter. "It got so these people would show up at a quarter of six even for games where they knew there'd be plenty of room. It kind of intimidated them other teams to walk in from their buses and find a gym already full of people, I guess. Now everybody just keeps coming earlier and earlier."
Clyde Earl and his brothers, K.D. and Elmer, farm 2,300 acres of beans and corn around Lyons and Marco, the two towns whose schools consolidated 27 years ago to form L & M. Today the school has 132 students. Early in the basketball season, when game days come during the harvest, the Hostetter brothers do double duty so they can be sure to get to the gym in plenty of time.
L & M fans have been waiting for this season to get going for a long time. "This man who was about 70 years old came up to me one day," says Oliphant. "He looked me right in the eye and said, 'I don't have much time left on this earth, but I wish some of the time I do have would hurry up and go by so the basketball season would get started.' "
L & M could be this year's miracle team, and nobody would want to miss being part of that. The tiny school isn't supposed to be able to compete with the powers from the north, like Marion and Muncie Central. Yet last season the Braves were 23-0 before losing to Terre Haute South in the Terre Haute regional. As of last week, L & M, led by three seniors, 6' 6½" Jeff Oliphant, the coach's son, 6' 5½" Tony Patterson and 6'4" Chad Grounds, were 18-1 and ranked No. 4 in the state. In fact, the Braves were No. 1 in the UPI coaches' preseason poll. A 61-59 loss in December to the top-rated team, South Bend Adams, caused L & M to drop to No. 5. Adams was the first team L & M played this year with any black players on its roster, not to mention the first team the Braves had faced whose starting guards and center had shaved their uniform numbers into their scalps.
During basketball season, each week in Lyons is an agony of waiting that begins in church on Sunday, after which most of the men head over to Mike's garage. This isn't the kind of small-town filling station where everybody goes to watch a car get its tires rotated. It's just a garage, with a potbellied stove and a barber chair instead of a car in it, out back of Mike Terrell's house. Terrell is a 37-year-old biology teacher at L & M. It is a place where the men sit and talk about ball. Hoosiers rarely refer to the game by any other name but "ball." "Mike's pretty proud of his garage," Tom Oliphant says.
Oliphant is a 1964 graduate of L & M, and after a lackluster college baseball career at Indiana State, he followed in the footsteps of his father, who had coached basketball for 18 years, though never at L & M. "I moved away for 17 years, got married and then came back," is the way Oliphant describes his odyssey. The distant shores he came back from were Linton and Worthington—12 and 13 miles, respectively, from Lyons. "When we left Worthington," says Oliphant's wife, Renee, "there was a lot of dissension because people felt we were deserting them. There were a lot of rumors that Tom was taking a cut in pay because L & M had such a good team. That was crazy, of course, but you know, people get their feelings involved."
In most Indiana towns there are small groups of men who meet almost every morning and, over coffee, second-guess the local coach. In Lyons, the fraternity of drugstore coaches meets at Hamilton Pharmacy, and the Hostetter brothers are senior members. In fact, K.D. holds the rather august title of Drugstore Athletic Director—or, simply, K.D. the A.D. The drugstore coaches proved their clout in Lyons two years ago when they got up a petition against Dave Henson, who was then the L & M coach, and got him fired.
During winter, petitions fly like snow-flakes in Indiana. The community that hasn't used one to get rid of a coach is rare indeed. The owner of a gas station in one northern Indiana town decided he wanted to get the local high school coach fired, so he had every customer who drove into his station sign his petition. He even got people with out-of-state license plates to sign. Everything was rolling along smoothly until a woman who drove in for a fill-up turned out to be the coach's wife.
Actually, there were two petitions circulated around the drugstore in Lyons two years ago. One was to get rid of Hen-son, and the second was a sort of grassroots nomination drive for Oliphant. "We knew Tom because he's from here," says K.D. the A.D. "We knew he was a good coach. And, of course, we knew he had Jeff."
Henson's shortcomings, whatever they may have been, didn't include excessive losing. L & M was 14-7 the year he was fired. Henson, it seems, never tried to be popular with the people. The drugstore coaches form the Hoosier equivalent of a Greek chorus on this subject.
"He wasn't active in the community," says K.D.
"He was hard to talk to," says Gordon Grounds, Chad's father.
"I think," says Bob Montgomery, summing up, "his problem was he lived in Linton."
In this evening's game, the Eastern High Thunderbirds' main problem with L & M is anatomical, not geographical: Eastern's biggest player is 6'2". From there the drop is rather precipitous, down to one starter who measures 5' 4½".
Just a few minutes before the tip-off, the gym gets an almost palpable jolt when Indiana University coach Bob Knight and an assistant arrive to scout Jeff Oliphant. This is an event occasioning such intense communal pride that as the news of Knight's presence travels around the gym, heads turn and necks are craned. Knight merely stands in one corner of the arena, desultorily eating popcorn.
L & M leads 24-12 at the end of the first quarter and then runs off 22 straight points to go ahead 46-12. In the midst of all this there's a better drama going on. On the bench, the elder Oliphant has spotted Knight, still eating popcorn, and as the game progresses his eyes frequently wander back to the corner where Knight is standing. When Patterson, L & M's leading scorer and a candidate for the state's coveted title of Mr. Basketball, takes a long shot that rattles off the rim, Oliphant the coach barks "pass off once in a while" and then looks anxiously at Knight again.
Knight and his aide abruptly turn and march out of the gym with three minutes left in the first half. When Oliphant discovers that the object of all his attention has disappeared from sight, he begins to edge farther and farther down the sideline, trying to get a better angle on the corner where Knight had been standing. Soon he's almost oblivious to the game, intently following the popcorn trail with his eyes, until finally he finds himself practically in the lap of Gary Cook, the Thunderbirds' startled coach. When it becomes clear that Knight has vanished, Oliphant turns back toward his bench, still preoccupied with Knight's sudden departure. (Jeff plans to enroll at Indiana in the fall and try to make Knight's team, as a walk-on.)
After the game, which the Braves won 98-47, L & M's boosters are invited out to the home of assistant coach Larry Hasler. Hasler raises about 100 hogs on his farm, but most of the talk at the party is about basketball futures. The coaches and their wives get into a discussion about the bloodlines of prospective L & M players, hoping to determine which of the local progeny are likely to grow big enough to post up the coal miner's sons from Shakamak. "His father's six-foot," Oliphant will say ruminatively, "but he had an uncle on his mother's side who was real big." This is followed by a long, thoughtful pause. "And his grandmother was tall."
Outside, under a waxing moon, the hogs grow fatter and fatter. Soon it will be time for them to go to market.
Every spring the Indiana state tournament administers a kind of death in small doses, paring some 400 teams in a four-week elimination process that culminates with the final four. When the Milan High Indians made it to the final four in 1953, no one could have been more surprised than the 1,000 people of Milan (pronounced MY-lun) themselves. It wasn't uncommon for Cinderella teams to go that far in the tournament—Milan would lose 56-37 to South Bend Central in a semifinal game—but just a year earlier the Indians had been in such upheaval that no one knew from one game to the next who the players were going to be.
That was the season in which coach Herman (Snort) Grinstead summarily booted Milan's seven seniors off the squad after suffering a humiliating 85-40 defeat at the hands of hated county rival Osgood High. Snort was fired at the end of the season, and his replacement was Marvin Wood. Milan had been a run-and-gun team for decades, so when Wood put the Indians into a controlled offense later called the "cat and mouse"—a forerunner of the four corners—the townspeople weren't pleased. "The uptown coaches over at the Arkenberg thought Marvin was out of his mind," says Bobby Plump, now 48 and a general agent for an Indianapolis insurance agency, who was a junior in 1952-53 and just beginning to excite the town with his deadeye shooting.
Milan's uptown coaches gathered at Arkenberg's Restaurant, where each of them had been accorded that most signal honor of the American diner—his own coffee mug hung on the wall. On game nights in Milan, everything percolated through the Arkenberg. "When we'd come back after the game, the people would all be outside waiting," says Rose Arkenberg, 65. "Most nights it would get so crowded that when I took somebody's order, the ticket had to be passed hand over hand back to the kitchen. When the team came in a little later, the older people would get up and give their seats to the players."
In 1953-54 Milan High had 161 students, only 73 of whom were boys. Two of the starters on the basketball team that year came from Pierceville, a town three miles northwest of Milan with a population of about 50. The two were Gene White and Plump, who had practiced day and night at a goal—Hoosiers don't shoot at "baskets"—in the hayloft of teammate Roger Schroder's barn. The goal was hung directly above a door situated 10 feet above the barnyard and the Schroders' manure pile. Any player who went to the basket too hard was likely to go hurtling through the door with foul consequences.
"In the wintertime," says Plump, "the cold would crack the skin on your hands, and you'd have to play with all your fingers bandaged. Basketball was practically an all-consuming thing then. When my married sisters would come over to the house with their husbands, the women would sit inside and talk and the men would go out back and play ball. It was the way of life. I guess it's been that way forever."
Plump's grandparents had come to Indiana from Germany, settling in Ripley County, a place Plump recalls as being "as prejudiced and redneck an area as you'd have found in the state then." Plump's mother died when he was five, leaving six children. His father worked at the pump factory in nearby Lawrence-burg and ran a chicken-and-egg route to Cincinnati each Saturday to bring in a little extra cash. "He just didn't make very much money," Plump says. "We always had older cars. Sometimes they didn't have heaters in them, and we'd put blankets over ourselves when we'd go for a drive in the winter. Sometimes we'd be stuck behind a real slow car and I'd say, 'Dad, let's pass 'em.' He always looked at me very seriously then, and he'd say, 'Son, this isn't a passing car.' "
By the end of the 1953-54 season, the Milan Indians had proved that Wood's slow-moving, cat-and-mouse offense worked by beating teams like Rising Sun, Napoleon and Montezuma on their way to a 28-2 record. They had breezed through the sectional and regional until, at last, the only thing that stood between Milan and the state finals was Crispus Attucks, an all-black school from Indianapolis. Says White, "All I remember about that game was that our scouting report said their weakest player was this skinny sophomore named Oscar Robertson." The skinny kid served notice of things to come in the Milan game, but even his 22 points weren't enough to prevent a 65-52 Milan win.
The following week at Butler Field-house in Indianapolis, Milan played for the championship Muncie Central, a school with an enrollment of 1,400 that had won four state titles before that year and would go on to win three more. Because of Muncie's imposing height advantage, Wood had decided that Milan's only hope was to grab the lead early and try to hang on to it, by means of the cat and mouse. The strategy seemed to be working perfectly when Milan built a 23-17 halftime lead. But when the Indians spread their offense in the second half, the cat caught the mouse and nearly ate it whole. Milan failed to score a field goal in the third period, and went into the final quarter tied 26-26. Muncie scored after 19 seconds to go ahead 28-26.
The sheer brass of what Milan did next probably guaranteed that the game would be remembered and rehashed for a long time under any circumstances. But 1954 also happened to be one of the first years that the state finals were broadcast on television, and the black-and-white images that flickered in thousands of Indiana homes that night served to burn the game into the memories of an entire generation of Hoosiers. "It really is amazing," says Plump. "I'd say hardly a day goes by that I don't meet somebody who asks me if I'm the same Plump from the state tournament game. And when you think about it, 31 years is a hell of a long time to be talking about a high school basketball game."
So, trailing by two points in the fourth quarter, with the championship on the line and the whole state looking on in disbelief, the Mighty Men of Milan went into a stall. Stalls are never fun to watch, but at least when they are used, it is almost always because the stalling team has a safe lead. For a team to have engaged in such filibustering when it was behind was something surpassingly rare. Some would say stupid.
For four minutes and 13 seconds of the eight-minute quarter, the Indians never dribbled, never made so much as a single pass. Plump, standing with the ball on his hip near midcourt, never even twitched. "Some of my teammates were doing calisthenics to keep warm," he says. "I just stood there." The crowd kept up an unremitting din as the 253 agonizing seconds drained off the scoreboard clock. "It seemed like forever," says Arkenberg, who had made the trip from Milan. "One woman who was sitting with us, she fainted. I don't know just what happened to her, but I think she came out of it."
On the floor, Plump calmly stood and stared into the eyes of Muncie Central's Jimmy Barnes, who watched him warily all that time from a distance of no more than five feet. "I remember wondering what the hell we were doing," Plump says, "so I looked over at Marvin Wood on the bench. He was just sitting there with legs crossed as if he didn't have a care in the world." Wood later admitted he was trying—without much luck—to think of something to do.
When Milan finally came out of its stall with three minutes left in the game, Ray Craft hit a layup to tie the score at 28-28. Each team scored during the final 1:42 to forge another tie at 30-30, and then Milan, having regained possession of the ball, called time-out with 18 seconds left. Wood carefully drew up a play designed to give Plump most of the floor to work one-on-one against Barnes. When the ball was inbounded and got to Plump, the four other Milan players moved to the left side of the court, leaving Barnes and Plump alone in the middle, 23 feet from the basket. "I remember Barnes staring at me," Plump says, "and wondering if he was ever going to take his eyes off of me. I suppose he was more scared than I was."
Plump faked to his left, drove right and as Barnes dropped off, Plump pulled up sharply 15 feet from the goal and lofted a jump shot. The next day, the picture on the front page of The Indianapolis Star showed the ball frozen just as it was settling into the net, with the one-word headline 'PLUMP!' Milan had won 32-30.
There have been many wild victory celebrations in the history of the state tournament. One of the more bizarre took place in 1935, when the people of Montgomery got so lathered up over winning a sectional title that they decided to dispense with the traditional bonfire and proceeded instead to the outskirts of town, where they set fire to an abandoned house and burned it to the ground. The Miracle of Milan seemed to call for something of that magnitude, but on the biggest night of their young lives the Mighty Men could think of no racier thrill than to be taken to Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis and to be led by a city policeman—who was later reprimanded for his part in this wanton anarchy—the wrong way around a one-way traffic circle. Hellzapoppin!
Milan is still pretty much the same town it was in 1954. The basketball team has fallen on hard times—24-72 over the past five years—and interest has dropped off so much that the Arkenberg hasn't stayed open after a game for 15 years.
When the state legislature ordered the reorganization of Indiana's high schools in 1959, Milan was one of the few small towns that was able to avoid consolidation, probably a small concession to the Miracle. "I'm not so sure that any of the small towns in Indiana have the vitality now that they had before consolidation," Plump says.
"The small towns are still there," says Bob Williams, author of one of two recent books called Hoosier Hysteria. "But when you open the newspaper now and read the basketball scores, those towns no longer exist."
In September 1984 Milan High enrolled the first black pupil in its history. There are no blacks on the Milan basketball team, and until this year there never had been any black faces cheering for Milan in the stands either. "They don't come," says one resident, "and they wouldn't be welcome if they did." There are still many places in the state where that's true. Two-thirds of Indiana's black population lives in just two of its 92 counties, and the starting fives on the last four state championship teams have been all-white. At the final four last year there wasn't a single black player on any team.
Indiana's record of bigotry and intolerance is a long and regrettable one. The state had laws on its books encouraging school segregation until 1949 and forbidding interracial marriage as late as 1965. Until just a few years ago it was not uncommon in southern Indiana to see signs posted around towns that warned NIGGER, DON'T LET THE SUN SET ON YOU HERE.
In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan, under the hate-mongering leadership of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, so thoroughly dominated the Hoosier political scene that it could lay legitimate claim to controlling the governorship and the legislature, as well as many mayors' offices and judgeships around the state. When the Klan backed a lawyer named Ed Jackson in the '24 governor's race, Jackson swept 90 of the state's 92 counties. Stephenson frequently boasted, "I'm the law in Indiana," and before he was convicted of murder in 1925, he was. At its peak in the mid-1920s, membership in the so-called Invisible Empire was nearly 500,000 in the state, 28,000 in Indianapolis alone.
It was in that atmosphere that Crispus Attucks High—named for the first American, a black man, to die in the Boston Massacre—opened its doors on Sept. 12, 1927. Attucks was the first all-black school in Indianapolis, and it was built partly because powerful white civic groups such as the Chamber of Commerce had called upon the school board to create a segregated system. One group even warned of a tuberculosis epidemic—TB being a disease black children were supposedly more susceptible to than whites—as a scare tactic to hasten segregation. The week that Attucks opened, the Klan organized a parade down Washington Street, just outside the black district that many whites derisively referred to as Baptist Town. Row after row of hooded Klansmen marched slowly along to the beat of muffled drums. There were so many of them that it took an hour for the procession to pass.
For nearly 20 years, the only Indiana schools that would schedule games against Attucks's basketball team were Gary's Roosevelt High and Evansville's Lincoln High, the state's other all-black schools. The remainder of the Attucks schedule had to be filled out with games against black schools from as far away as St. Louis, Louisville and Dayton, Ohio. The Indiana High School Athletic Association did its part to perpetuate the state's de facto segregation by barring the three black schools from the state tournament until 1943, seven years after Jesse Owens had won his four gold medals in front of the Nazis at the Berlin Olympics. Not that admission to the tournament solved all of Attucks's problems. "The Indianapolis public schools were reluctant to schedule us for some time after that," says Ray Crowe, the Tigers' coach in the early and mid-'50s. "It was just prejudice, really. They didn't try to justify it any other way. Prejudice was a good enough reason at that time."
When Robertson enrolled at Attucks in 1952, the school was already becoming a state power. By Robertson's junior season, the Tigers had become sufficiently successful and enough of a novelty to arouse even the interest of the white community. Many white fans wanted to see what the blacks were doing with the game; others undoubtedly attended Attucks games expecting an outsized minstrel show in short pants. "If you were black, they always figured out some way to make you feel inferior," says Marcus Stewart, advertising director of The Indianapolis Recorder, a black-owned-and-operated newspaper. Stewart grew up near Attucks on the west side of Indianapolis, but attended integrated Short-ridge High. "I remember being at pep rallies and hearing speakers say that to beat Attucks, Shortridge would have to play its best game," Stewart says, "because Attucks players' hands were bigger and their legs were longer, and they could jump higher. It was never that they were just human beings playing basketball. It was as if black people had to be freaks to be good at sports. They couldn't just be talented."
For the city's blacks, of course, Attucks's basketball team was a source of immense pride. Says Stewart, "I can remember Joe Louis fighting for the heavyweight championship when I was very small. When he won, people in the neighborhood would drive up and down Indiana Avenue blowing their horns, feeling proud. It was like that with Attucks, except Attucks was ours."
Even as Attucks's following around the state grew, the players on the team remained blissfully ignorant of the news they were making. "A lot of times in the black neighborhood, people didn't talk about things," says Robertson, now 46 and a successful businessman in Cincinnati. "Everyone knew there were race problems, but you never said anything about them."
The Tigers were superb in Robertson's junior season, the year he won the Indianapolis scoring title with a 22.2-points-per-game average. They entered the tournament with a 20-1 record and ranked second behind Muncie Central in the polls, and then won their first seven playoff games by an average margin of 29 points. Two of the victories were by more than 50 points. After a 71-70 victory over Muncie Central in the semi-states, Attucks advanced to the final four with a chance not only to become the first black team to win the state championship, but also, amazingly enough, the first team to do so from Indiana's largest city.
What promised to be one of the most exciting weeks in the school's history began on a sour note. The Indianapolis school superintendent summoned Attucks principal Russell Lane to his office for a conference with several prominent city businessmen and a representative from the mayor's office. Their purpose was to impress upon Lane their concern for the safety of the populace should Attucks win the championship and, in the aftermath of that, should deliriously happy black people go rampaging unchecked through the city streets. "They were afraid that if we won, colored people would come downtown and break things up and turn over cars," says Lane, now an 86-year-old retiree. Lane assured them there would be no trouble and then went back to his school. He spent the remainder of the week trying to explain to his students why any victory celebration that could be considered even remotely disorderly would be seen by whites as proof that blacks were naturally prone to violence. "What they were saying," says Crowe, "was that blacks didn't know how to win."
Attucks proved that it did, and ironically the Tigers beat another all-black team, from Gary Roosevelt, 97-74, in the championship game. Afterward, the Tigers and their fans were led by police to Northwestern Park by a carefully prescribed route. There, upwards of 3,000 overjoyed people peacefully sang songs around a bonfire. "I was so happy to win," says Robertson, who scored 30 points that night for the Tigers. "Sometimes I can't imagine people's thinking. Didn't the white kids tear things up when they won? And yet they're supposed to be so religious, so moral and so white. I mean, how narrow could people be?" There was no parade through downtown Indianapolis for Attucks that year, just the bonfire and some scratchy recordings of Kokomo and Tweedlee Dee playing on car radios somewhere in the dark. "It was a tremendous bonfire," says Robertson. "I guess they thought they'd soothe the savage beast."