If Lafayette Central Catholic's victory in Indiana's inaugural
Class A high school boys basketball championship game was
supposed to feel strangely hollow or cheapened by an asterisk,
the sentiment was lost on the team's coach, Chad Dunwoody. After
the final buzzer sounded last Saturday, Dunwoody stood on the
floor of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, pumped his fists skyward
and, doing his best Molly Bloom impersonation, repeated a fervid
cry of "Yes!"
"There's no better feeling in the world," he said as he walked
off the court, dragging a small piece of history with him. "I
know being a Class A champion might be a little controversial to
some people, but how can you argue with something that gives the
little guy a chance to experience this?"
In other places the decision to modify the format of the high
school hoops tournament might have gone virtually unnoticed. But
in Indiana, where basketball is the statewide religion, the
decision has aroused a level of passion unknown in these parts
since the Battle of Tippecanoe. After a vote by the Indiana High
School Athletic Association (220 schools for, 157 against, 7
abstentions), the single-class tournament, a fixture since 1911,
was scrapped following last year's final game. In its stead,
each school was assigned to one of four classes based on the
size of its student body. Last Saturday, as each division
crowned its own champion, the debate over "class basketball"
raged as fiercely as ever.
Purists assert that disbanding the winner-take-all tournament
amounted to heresy, the change representing little more than a
clumsy attempt at political correctness. "Just the possibility
that tiny, rural schools could beat the bigger ones is what made
Indiana basketball so great," says Bobby Plump, who, in 1954,
nailed the winning jumper in the state championship game for
Milan High, the tiny, rural school on whose grand victory the
movie Hoosiers was based. Now a businessman in Indianapolis,
Plump is the leader of Friends of Hoosier Hysteria, a group that
wants to see the old format restored and that even received a
$10,000 donation from Nike toward achieving that end. "If the
goal is to let more kids experience the joy of winning, why not
have eight classes? Or 25 for that matter?"
"If David beat Goliath every time, it wouldn't be news; and if
Milan had only won a Class A title, they wouldn't have made a
movie," concurs Herb Schwomeyer, who has attended every boys
basketball state final since 1932. "I know of many people who
are boycotting this year's event because they're so upset."
Proponents of the new format maintain that Milan was more myth
than reality and that time and again, small schools with
perfectly talented, if undersized, teams would inevitably fall
by the wayside when they faced bigger teams from bigger schools
in bigger cities. "Basically, it came down to numbers, and all
the small schools finally got together and decided to change the
tournament," says Bob Gardner, commissioner of the Indiana High
School Athletic Association (IHSAA). "I don't think they felt
like they were getting a fair shot under the old system."
Indeed, without the classifications, teams like Lafayette
Central Catholic (enrollment 252) and Class 2A champion
Alexandria (a school of 572 students that had only one player
taller than 6'4") would likely have watched the state final at
home on television. But there they were Saturday, standing on
the winner's podium after beating like-sized opponents.
Old traditions die hard, though. The IHSAA has agreed to
evaluate the new format after next season, giving a glimmer of
hope to the nostalgic. What's more, the four winning teams will
return to Indianapolis on Friday and Saturday for the Tournament
of Champions, an ill-conceived compromise designed to appease
the traditionalists--and, many suspect, to keep the issue of
class basketball out of the state legislature's hands. Aside
from prolonging the season into April, another unfortunate
consequence of this battle royal is that three of the
championship teams will end their season on a losing note.
More important, the Tournament of Champions probably won't come
close to replicating the emotion and energy of last weekend.
Particularly in the day's final game, involving the largest
schools, in which Pike High of Indianapolis narrowly defeated
underdog Marion High to win the 4A championship, the crowd was
deafening. As nearly 17,000 fans filed out of the arena, the
prevailing opinion was that Indiana's finals were still
basketball distilled to its essence. Only this year, there were
four times as many winners.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Without the new classes, Lafayette and Alexandria would likely have watched the state final at home. [High school basketball player holding poster proclaiming his team 'CHAMPS!']