Real-life Hoosiers: Small towns across Indiana enjoy Butler’s improbable championship run

By John Marshall, AP
Monday, April 5, 2010

Butler catches attention of entire state

CONNERSVILLE, Ind. — Jagged, raised cracks spider-web across the court, the asphalt edges chipped and rounded by time.

The rim is loose and makes a loud Whangggg! with every shot. The steel-plated backboard, attached to an oversized, Easter-egg-yellow pole, is nearly rusted through and an old bird’s nest is wedged behind the support bracket.

Back on the courts of their youth, inspired by the latest and potentially greatest little Indiana team that could, Rodney and Bryon Walker couldn’t imagine a better place to be.

“We just finished off our Easter meal and we thought we’d come out and shoot some hoops,” Rodney Walker said on a warm Sunday afternoon, the day before the NCAA national championship 60 miles away in Indianapolis. “We were inspired by Butler.”

The Walker brothers aren’t alone.

An entire state of basketball-loving fans rallied around the Bulldogs in their improbable movie-in-the-making run to the championship game in their hometown.

They can’t help it.

The Walkers, like the rest of the people in the state, are Hoosiers. Not the big-screen version. Not from the massive school in Bloomington.

Real, pound-their-chest Indianans. Hoosiers.

And with of that comes an inherent love of basketball. Kids grow up playing it. Adults play it, and follow it like farmers watch the weather. Everyone watches, usually pulling for the underdog.

The fabric of the Hoosier State isn’t woven, it’s pounded together by an orange ball hitting hardwood.

“The romanticism the people of Indiana have with basketball is really indescribable,” said Chris May, executive director of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle.

The roots are deep.

Basketball in Indiana is believed to have started in 1893, when Nicholas McKay, a Presbyterian minister from England, was assigned to the YMCA in Crawfordsville. On his way to Indiana, McKay visited a YMCA camp being run by Dr. James Naismith, who invented basketball two years earlier.

McKay took Naismith’s peach basket idea a step further when he arrived in Crawfordsville, forging basketball’s foundation in steel when he asked a local blacksmith to create two metal hoops and attached coffee sacks to catch the balls.

The legend was carried on in tiny Milan (pronounced MY’-lan), where hero-for-alltime Bobby Plump and a school of 161 students shocked the big boys and won the 1954 state championship back when it was a single-class affair, inspiring one of the greatest feel-good sports movies ever.

It grew in French Lick, where a self-proclaimed hick named Larry Bird turned a small town into a mystical place by leading Indiana State to a national championship game and becoming one of the greatest players in NBA history.

It’s certainly in New Castle, where Steve Alford became Indiana’s Mr. Basketball 1983 and later led Indiana University to a national title. There’s a motel that carries his name in town, along with the hall of fame that lovingly preserves the state’s history, from John Wooden’s green beanie to a menacing cutout of Lawrence North’s Eric Montross.

Oscar Robertson, the Big O, from Indy’s Crispus Attucks, John Wooden of Martinsville, Damon Bailey of Heltonville, Columbus’ original All-Star Chuck Taylor, Scott Skiles of Plymouth, Indiana coach Bob Knight, Purdue’s Gene Keady — the Hoosier State’s hoops history is filled with one great name or great story after another, ingraining itself into the people who live here.

“You’d see a basketball goal in just about every yard,” said Connersville’s Mike Hunter, who decorated his house with homemade Butler signs. “Basketball’s a part of the people of this state.”

It certainly is in Brownsburg, hometown of Butler star Gordon Hayward.

Just eight miles northwest of Indianapolis, Brownsburg is a small town with a dash of big-city suburb and a strong sports history, including trips to the Little League World Series finals in 1999 and 2001.

The day after Butler’s win over Michigan State in the NCAA semifinals, basketball hoops around Brownsburg were being filled by all ages — from the shirtless teen shooting alone while his girlfriend sat bored at a park to the fullcourt game in the shadows of the water tower and the young girl heaving shots at an aging driveway basket.

Hayward himself returned for Easter services with teammage Garrett Butcher and both were lovingly mobbed by the locals.

“They’re just really passionate about basketball,” said Hayward, whose cousin played on one of those Little League World Series teams. “They’re passionate about sports overall and it’s just a great town. “

This Butler bandwagon has hitched up fans from all over the state.

The hall of fame in New Castle has seen an uptick in visitors this week, including a visit by West Virginia’s team and a basketball fan from Italy. The town is home to Butler players Zach Hahn and Chase Stigall, assistant coach Darnell Archey and a half-dozen other Butler players through the years, a connection that’s created a hoops hysteria unlike any before in this town of about 18,000 people.

“New Castle is Butler crazy right now,” May said. “A lot of people are as anxious for this almost as anything they’ve experienced in their life.”

Same could be said in Connersville, hometown of Butler forward Matt Howard. Signs abound, including one at the First Place Sports Bar and Grill, on Highway 1 just before the endless fields of mowed-down corn stalks start, that says simply: “Git ‘er Done Butler.”

The town is filled with basketball hoops: rusted-out rims on courts covered with grass, portables with sand-filled bases in driveways, parks with weather-worn backboards. And at Roberts Park, there were the Walker brothers, shooting around with their kids — encouraging 6-year-old Bryce to take a dribble before he shoots, letting out a “Yes!” when he heaves one through.

The sun is shining and feels just like it did 35 years ago, when they’d grab a a Milky Way and a Bubble-Up, play until dark, occasionally grabbing a sip of the well water next to the pavilion on the hill.

“We grew up a block from here and played here all the time as kids,” Rodney Walker said. “It’s fun to get back out here and shoot some hoops again.”

For a hoops-loving state, this is as good as it gets.

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