If someone asked you what the most important sporting events in your life are, what would your answer be?
The easy response is to look back to the highest highs you’ve experienced as a fan, such as your favorite team’s championship or the winning of a pennant, and to try and relive those memories as best as possible. For me, it never worked like that. Growing up in Chicago, my formative memories as a child mostly revolve around Michael Jordan and the Bulls, so the first time I got to see him live, in a preseason game in October 1995 (the only online trace of this game is here, a website that seemingly hasn’t been updated since the night of the game), marked a turning point where basketball changed from a casual activity in my driveway into a full-blown obsession. If my 5-year-old self’s memory serves me correctly, MJ played all 48 minutes of a preseason blowout against the Clippers, didn’t miss a shot on his way to scoring 75 points, and dunked from just inside the 3-point line multiple times (Try to prove me wrong - you can’t). In the big scheme of things, this was a meaningless tune-up for the regular season. Good luck telling that to my five-year old self though, as that game, on an otherwise unremarkable night at the United Center in Chicago on October 28, 1995, was the moment I truly found basketball.
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately in regards to my Indiana fandom, especially with the program in its current state. As Indiana transitions from one era to the next, it’s strange but true that this upcoming season will be my first time rooting for IU without Tom Crean as its coach. As an adopted Indiana fan thanks to my undergrad years in Bloomington, there have been plenty of moments that would be very easy to point to as the launching point for my fanhood - like the Wat Shot, Will Sheehey’s baseline jumper to get past VCU into the Sweet 16, or even the primetime beatdown of #1 Michigan in 2013. But to say that one of those moments in the 2012-13 glory years was when I fully committed would simply not be true, because in reality, I had already dove head-first into the deep end years before. Three years before, in fact, on February 4th, 2009.
The 2008-09 Season
It tends to get glossed over a lot these days, but it’s easy to forget just how dire of a situation the Indiana program found itself in during the fall of 2008, which just happened to coincide with the start of my freshman year in Bloomington. You know the story, but after being completely gutted aside from Kyle Taber and his 1.3 PPG, the Hoosiers, led by its shiny new coach Tom Crean, were headed for some bumpy roads ahead. Quite literally needing to fill his roster, Crean added 7 players from the class of 2008 that he probably knew did not fit with each other and/or in his style of play, but desperate times called for desperate measures. It got so bad that there were rumors of open calls at the HPER to fill the last walk-on spot, which was later substantiated when Mike Santa, a 5’9” team manager, was promoted to the active roster, where he eventually found his way onto the court in actual games. It was a very weird year.
The season didn’t start THAT bad though, as Indiana raced out to a 5-4 start with 3 of the losses coming at the hands of top 15 teams. Tom Pritchard, a top 150 recruit (seriously, look it up), started off the season very hot, averaging 14 PPG and 8 RPG over that span, giving IU fans hope for a future building block. Then the wheels fell off, both for Pritchard and the team. The Hoosiers didn’t win again for nearly two months, teams adjusted to the freshman big man, and Indiana’s mess of a roster began to show its true colors, accentuated by some truly ugly losses. When IU then lost its first 8 conference games with the meat of the schedule still to come and an actively regressing roster, an 0-fer in conference play became a legitimate concern.
The Iowa Game
By February, regardless of the large amounts of cognitive dissonance required to do so, Indiana fans continued to show up to every home game expecting to win, despite the product on the court. On February 4th, though, in front of a crowd of 14,000+ in Assembly Hall against a painfully average Iowa team, it was clear that the Hoosiers came to play. Leading the way was Devan Dumes, a JUCO transfer who was not afraid to shoot from anywhere on the court, was forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting - with mixed results - for Indiana throughout the year. On this night, though, he couldn’t miss. Seriously, look at the box score below. It’s a fascinating glimpse into just how dominant Dumes was on this night (27 points, 8-9 FG, 5-5 3PT), but also, as you scan the other names on the roster, to see just how far Indiana has come since then.
Largely behind Dumes’ shooting, the Hoosiers raced out to a 33-20 lead at half. But, after seeing its lead balloon up to 19 at one point midway through the second half, the Hoosiers were still a team made up largely of players spending their first year in Bloomington. Iowa quickly turned the tide and chipped away at the lead, eventually getting to within 3 with under a minute to go. Dumes took it upon himself to finish the job and came up with a huge steal to quell the momentum. After trading buckets with Iowa, Dumes calmly iced the game with free throws, and with the 68-60 victory, Indiana had its first conference win of the year.
There was no storming of the court, but in an objectively hilarious turn of events, the opposite occurred. The players actually went into the crowd and celebrated with the fans, hugging it out with random students and generally receiving a hero’s welcome while Tom Crean grabbed the PA mic and thanked the still crowd for its support before parading his team around the court in a victory lap reminiscent of a net-cutting ceremony. "This is your win,” Crean told the crowd, “There is no way we could do it without the best fans in America, the Hoosier Nation."
Indiana did not win another game the rest of the year.
Let’s take a step back for a second and think about this. An Indiana team, with 5 NCAA Championship banners hanging above them in the rafters, celebrated like they won a title after beating a 12-11 (2-8) Iowa team. That’s insane! And the craziest part of all, as I can personally attest to as a student in the crowd that night, was that it wasn’t weird at all. It felt like a moment of catharsis for everyone in the building in a season of misery. For that one night, fans could see the light of national relevance at the end of the tunnel.
Of course, that tunnel ended up being way longer than anyone hoped for, as the next two seasons were filled with a whole lot more mediocrity until Cody Zeller and co. helped make a surprise Sweet 16 run in 2011-12. For me, though, that random night in February 2009 was the moment I was sucked in, finding out firsthand what it meant to be an Indiana fan and forever changing my life as a sports fan. I have Devan Dumes and his unwavering confidence in his ability to hit 30-foot 3’s to thank for that.