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The State of Basketball in the State of Basketball

It’s Basketball Day in Indiana. What better time to reflect on how poorly it’s going?

2017 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony
Bobby “Slick” Leonard sits on stage during the 2017 enshrinement of George McGinnis into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Saturday marks the third annual Basketball Day in Indiana, a concept co-concocted by the Indiana Pacers, Indiana Fever, Fox Sports, and the Indiana High School Athletic Association that serves to highlight and celebrate all forms and levels of basketball in the Hoosier State.

The Fox family of networks will broadcast 14 hours worth of basketball coverage, including the Indiana-Purdue game, the Pacers-Mavericks game, and an array of high school games from North Daviess High School in Odon and Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

All parties involved love the opportunity to share their own version of the game with others in the state who are playing the same sport in a different form. In the December press release announcing this year’s schedule, Rick Fuson, President and COO of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, touted the event, saying, “Basketball Day Indiana fits perfectly with our brand of ‘We Grow Basketball Here,’ which celebrates and promotes our state’s beloved game at all levels.”

The press release’s description of the day echoed Fuson’s sentiment, noting, “Basketball Day Indiana is an annual celebration of the state’s unmatched connection to the sport. It showcases basketball at all levels with events and a full day of television programming that includes live games, interviews and features chronicling the impact of the sport in the state.”

It makes sense having such a day. Indiana and basketball are synonymous. The Pacers have known it for a while — while the club’s motto is now #WeGrowBasketballHere, we’re not far removed from “Indiana’s Game, Indiana’s Team.” In a commercial shot in the old Oolitic gym ahead of the 2000 Final Four in Indianapolis, John Mellencamp told the nation that even though basketball was born in the east, “it’s played best here in the midwest.” Some outside the state think so much of our old school basketball roots that they imagine Hoosiers shoot at baskets hung above barn doors no matter where their from.

The day unquestionably provides a nice opportunity to celebrate the three forms of the game — interscholastic, intercollegiate, and professional — as they have coexisted in Indiana since 1967 when a group of six investors banded together and founded the Indiana Pacers. And the event’s nightcap, the Pacers-Mavericks game, will tie the three together better than even the back-to-back-to-back-to-etc. broadcasts when the Pacers honor and celebrate Bobby “Slick” Leonard, an Indiana legend at all three levels of the game.

Leonard’s high school legend was borne out of his ability to thrive in the game at Gerstmeyer High School in Terre Haute despite his family’s destitution. In college, he sank two free throws to clinch Indiana University’s one-point victory over Kansas in the 1953 national championship game. And after spending time with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers, Leonard returned to Indiana to lead the state’s professional franchise to three ABA championships as head coach, and to ultimately save the franchise’s existence by hosting a telethon with his beloved wife Nancy.

And for nearly 35 years, now, Leonard has sat beside premier broadcasters Jerry Baker and Mark Boyle to provide color commentary for Pacers games, his trademark “Boom Baby!” the soundtrack not only for the glory days of the Reggie Miller years, but also for pickup games played in driveways and old gyms all across our state.

Leonard’s influence in Indiana is insurmountable. Are there Hoosiers who were better players? Sure. Better coaches? John Wooden comes to mind. But can you can you name a homegrown product that had more of an impact in Indiana? I’ll answer for you: no, you cannot.

Okay, so you might be upset that Leonard is the only bit of history I’ve discussed. Is Slick the only chapter in this state’s basketball history book? Hell no. Wooden, Robertson, Knight, Keady, Bird, Bailey, the Van Arsdales, the undefeated ‘76 team, Alford, Kemp, Robinson, Oden, Langford, and so many more that I do not have nearly enough time to name. I mention Leonard at length and at the exclusion others solely as an anecdote of the grand basketball tradition in Indiana and because he’s the subject of celebration Saturday night at the Fieldhouse.

But I’m here to talk about the present anyway. The point is really to ask this question: is this the low-point for Indiana basketball in the last 50 years?

I won’t ask you to look beyond 1967. The game (how it was played and who played it in Indiana) was far too different. The state did not have a professional franchise. The IHSAA didn’t host a girls basketball tournament until 1975. There is no question that, on the whole, things are better now than pre-Pacers, pre-girls basketball, no matter the quality of the product, the basketball.

But the basketball here and now? Yikes.

Let’s start with college, since that’s what CQ does. From 1969 to 2002, Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame, and Indiana State accounted for nine men’s Final Four appearances, or one every 3.5 years. In the 17 years since, Butler has the only two appearances, currently an average of one every 8.5 years, but surely soon to be one every 9 years and counting. It’s been 32 years since an Indiana D-I school has won a national championship. (And, really, when we talk about titles, it’s somewhat unfair to talk about Indiana University as being part of the problem because without them, the state would be fully devoid of hardware.)

But even in the title drought, there have been good teams. Indiana’s teams in 1992 and 2002 were as good as anybody in the country when they went on their runs. When Robbie Hummel was healthy, Purdue’s teams could make that claim as well. And even Mike Brey has had a few teams throughout the years that could put the fear of God into anyone.

In 2019, though? Well, we may be on the verge of one, or perhaps even zero, teams from the State of Indiana earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament. How unfathomable is that?

Well, it shouldn’t be very hard to imagine at all. It’s been just five years since the last time the state failed to put a team into the NCAA Tournament.

Save the Notre Dame women, there’s not a single D-I in Indiana with any realistic shot at winning a national title in 2019. And on the men’s side, where all the attention lies, unless the winner of Saturday’s Indiana-Purdue game is able to gain some momentum from the victory, or Ball State or Indiana State can make a run in their conference tournaments, we could be looking at no men’s program with even a mathematical shot at a national title come Selection Sunday.

And when you consider the inability, or lack of willingness, of Indiana’s major programs to land one-and-done phenoms (other than Langford) that seem to power programs to the kind of habitual success that puts them in position to win titles year-in and year-out, it’s not clear that anybody but the Notre Dame women will have a realistic shot anytime in the near future.

What about the high school game? Is there solace we can take there?

Sure. We can always celebrate the fact that whether it’s a small gym in a big town or a big gym in a small town, Hoosiers fill their local arenas and support the boys and girls at the nearby high school. But is that all it has going for itself right now?

Some of it is certainly Romeo-fatigue or a bit of a hangover from Romeo-mania, but is there a single guy or girl that excites you? A single guy or girl that really moves the needle? Trayce Jackson-Davis is one hell of a player. Has he captured the state’s attention? Hardly. The state’s best player? Well, he got poached by La Lamuire, a college prep and boarding school that is not an IHSAA member.

There are some nice stories (or maybe story, now that Lawrence Central has snapped the defending state champions’ 46-game winning streak) around the state. Heading into last night, Warren Central was five wins away from breaking the state record for most consecutive wins. But had you heard or seen it mentioned other than perhaps in a Kyle Neddenriep tweet when the Warriors were playing?

After last night, Bloomington South coach J.R. Holmes is seven wins away from breaking Loogootee’s Jack Butcher’s all-time wins record of 806. He’s got seven games left, with five or six against some real patsies. And he’s got a pretty good team himself. Even if the Panthers stumble in one of their final seven, he’ll break the record in the section unless South draws Columbus North, the only real threat to them cutting down some nets. Nobody really seems to care, though.

What about the morale surrounding high school basketball (or high school sports in general)? Well, the IHSAA just published an open letter to parents of its athletes titled, “Dear Mom and Dad: Cool It,” wherein the state’s interscholastic athletic administration admonished adults to stop verbally berating officials and coaches. What prompted this letter? A shortage of officials and referees that threatens the ability of your local high school to provide its students with athletics as an extra-curricular option.

According to the IHSAA and a recent survey by the National Association of Sports Officials, “more than 75 percent of all high school officials say ‘adult behavior’ is the primary reason they quit.” And in many areas in Indiana, there are more officials over the age of 60 than under the age of 30 because young officials tire of the abuse.

Make no mistake about it: the IHSAA is legitimately concerned about the ability of its member schools to host athletic events because of a shortage of officials. That alone is sufficiently frightening to not feel great about the state of high school basketball in Indiana. We don’t even have to begin the debate about classes.

That leaves the professional ranks. For now, the Pacers are actually the bright spot in Indiana basketball. Forget the 24-point beatdown at the hands of Philadelphia on Thursday night for a moment. The Pacers are young, talented, and exciting. They (usually) play great defense and exert actual effort, something that is not prevalent amongst most teams in the league.

But even with a team that is in the top half of its conference’s playoff standings with three or four young players to build the future around, there are some lingering concerns. The least of those concerns remains the ability to bring a big-name free agent to town, something that seems necessary to win a championship in today’s NBA. Others are an owner who will never go into the luxury tax in the way Golden State or Houston have in an attempt to compete for titles, which appears to be another new requirement for winning an NBA title. Add-in the fact that the Pacers always seem to be an afterthought for many of the state’s basketball fans, and regardless of how fun they are now and how high the ceiling might be for their young nucleus, it doesn’t seem that even the current state of the Pacers is enough to let you say that the sport is in a good place here right now.

So, just what is the state of basketball right now in the State of Basketball? Suffice it to say it’s a good thing we’re celebrating Slick Saturday night and can focus on the past rather than the present.