Over the last 10 days, we’ve been so bombarded with cataclysmic changes in the world of sports that it’s easy to get numb to it all.
The end of the NCAA Tournament, the end of spring sports at the college level, the suspension of the NBA and NHL seasons, the postponement of Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, among many other things.
Those of us who were paying attention to the developing coronavirus crisis knew this was all a possibility after having seen the virus ravage China, South Korea and Italy. You hoped it wouldn’t, but knew it could.
So, for me at least, a certain resignation washed over me in a prepare-for-the-worst, hope-for-the-best kind of sense. Even if I had been blissfully ignorant, events have moved so fast, one has hardly had time to absorb it all anyway.
Through it all, the Indiana High School Athletic Association held out hope it could get the in-progress boys basketball tournament back in gear after it was suspended at the end of last week. It seemed overly optimistic, but since when did a little bit of optimism hurt anyone?
On Thursday, the news came that many likely expected, but hoped wouldn’t come – the IHSAA boys basketball tournament was canceled.
This is where I first felt the gut punch.
Now, I recognize that not everyone is a diehard high school sports fan, but this isn’t true everywhere.
In many places, high school sports are the center of community life. As it is locally in Linton and in Rockville, Marshall, Bloomingdale and the other Parke County communities that make up Parke Heritage. Knowing folks in both places, you ache for the Miners and Wolves who didn’t get a chance to achieve their dreams.
However, whether you followed high school sports casually or lived and died by it, you knew it was always the foundation for everything above it. It was always there. So when IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox called off the tournament, I thought of that, and the enormity of the chain that’s been broken.
The tournament had been played uninterrupted since 1911. It was played through two world wars, the last flu epidemic in 1918 (which luckily for basketball, hit Indiana in the fall), the Great Depression, civil unrest and every other outside world distraction.
Think about it. None of the major sports have had a similar uninterrupted chain. Two of them (NFL, NBA) didn’t exist in 1911. Inside or near our state borders? The Indianapolis 500, Indiana’s other iconic sporting event, wasn’t contested during World War II. Only the Kentucky Derby can boast the continuity the IHSAA tournament has had. (The Derby is postponed, but is scheduled to take place on Labor Day weekend.)
You look back at the changes in Indiana’s educational system since 1911. Back then, there were township schoolhouses going toe-to-toe with city schools. In Vigo County, 20 schools have come and gone over the years, some with the brief moment on the stage like Holy Cross (just five appearances from 2005-09), and others that have had longevity (Garfield has still played the highest amount of tournament games among Vigo schools with 193). All the while? The tournament itself endured.
For me, though, it hit home because I realized how much the IHSAA tournament has been a part of my own life journey. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.
Professionally, I’ve covered high school basketball from the start. From my first game at Southern Wells in 1992 (I think Eastbrook was the opponent?) to my last one at Vincennes Lincoln, I’ve seen most corners of the state via high school basketball. I’ve written about now-legendary players and coaches. I’ve seen the sunset over corn fields on my way to a gym, and inspired by the idyllic tableau, was proud I was at least a small part of a greater tradition.
I’ve driven through blizzards, record cold snaps (I covered a game early in my career where the air temperature was minus-30. Look it up, it was during the 1994 cold snap), I had a game canceled mid-stream at Zionsville due to a leaky roof, I once saw a Scottsburg cheerleader take a swing at a Jeffersonville point guard who had chased down a loose ball and accidentally knocked her over. She got her swing in when he helped her up!
I love the gyms. I love seeing a new one. I love seeing the groundswell of enthusiasm when a team makes a run and makes it to a sectional championship. For all of the stupid arguing over the years about class basketball champions? With very, very few exceptions, for all schools, big and small, it’s always been about winning a sectional. Everything afterwards was gravy.
It’s personal too.
I moved to Indiana while I was in high school in 1986. I was lucky to move into a school (Lawrence North) that won the state championship my senior year. Without really appreciating it in the moment, I was fortunate enough to experience all of the lore of the tournament on a very personal level.
I got to storm the court at Hinkle Fieldhouse three times, just like in “Hoosiers”. I still get emotional when I watch the Hickory kids storm the court in “Hoosiers” because I’ve literally done it in the same place, and in the regional, via a buzzer-beater from the same spot on the floor that Jimmy Chitwood hit his fictional game-winner.
(Apologies to Indiana State Director of Athletics Sherard Clinkscales for conjuring a painful memory. His Brebeuf Braves were on the losing end of that Todd Richards shot in a taut 57-54 thriller. Though I must also say, his Braves deserve a tip of the cap. They gave the Wildcats, by far, their sternest test of that 1989 tournament and they also knocked out then-No. 1 Pike to get there.)
I think back on that time and how lucky I was. I also think of the current seniors and feel heartbroken that they won’t get the same moments. Unlike their college big brothers, there’s no eligibility relief to stop the clock.
I think the fact that I have a daughter who is a senior and is missing out on her own senior experiences drives home the heartbreak that much more.
It’s not fair. It’s not just. Life is unfair, we all know that, but life has never been so unfair as to take Hoosier Hysteria away from us.
Are there more important things to worry about right now? Of course, but this still hurts. We don’t have to spare our sadness only for the most serious moments in life. Losing the IHSAA boys basketball tournament is where the sadness hit home for me.