It was in 1891 when James A.
Naismith invented the game of basketball for his physical education class at a
YMCA in Springfield, Mass. They played with a pair of peach baskets and an old
soccer ball. It was just a year later when Rev. Nicholas McKay brought the game
to Indiana. McKay was taking charge of the Crawfordsville YMCA. He felt this new
game of basketball might help keep Hoosier athletes active in the winter months.
McKay hired a local blacksmith to forge two hoops. He attached old coffee sacks
to catch the ball. And an Indiana tradition was born.
It didn't take long for this sport to catch on, with players from Crawfordsville spreading the word about this new game of hoops to nearby communities. As the game spread, innovations began to appear. Like backboards, to keep partisan fans in the balconies from interfering with visitor's shots. And bottomless nets so the ball no longer needed to be pushed out with a pole.
Although Naismith had published 13 original rules to govern his game, the actual interpretation of these rules varied widely among Indiana communities.
By 1911, the state had a state high school basketball tournament, won by none other than the team from Crawfordsville. In 1913 and 1914, the state saw its first back-to-back champions from Wingate High School: a team led by six-foot, four-inch Homer Stonebraker. It was said that Homer Stonebraker could launch his shot from anywhere in the gymnasium with deadly accuracy.
Teams from Thorntown, Lebanon and Lafayette Jefferson dominated the sport in the early years. And through the 1920s and 1930s basketball spread throughout the state, earning converts in schools from Evansville to Gary. And the state tournament grew as well.
In 1925, James Naismith himself visited Indiana, to see what enthusiasm his game had inspired among Hoosiers. He watched the state finals among 15,000 screaming fans of Hoosier Hysteria. Later he wrote, "Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport."
Each year, hundreds of thousands of fans and players in gymnasiums around the state offer their own testimony to the truth of Dr. Naismith's observations. Because, since the first game was played in Crawfordsville a hundred years ago, basketball has remained Indiana's sport.
WELCOME TO THE CRADLE
The previous is a script for the "Cradle of Indiana Basketball" display at the Hall of Fame Museum in New Castle. It is noteworthy that the first eight state champions came from a three-county, 30-mile radius: Crawfordsville, 1911; Lebanon, 1912, 1917, 1918; Wingate, 1913, 1914; Thorntown, l915, and Lafayette Jefferson, 1916.
Recently, I took a trip to the cradle and the towns that the aforementioned schools call or called home.
I thought I had an idea of what to expect from each of the communities and how they celebrate, honor, remember these champions:
Crawfordsville: The birthplace of basketball. I knew the YMCA no longer was standing, but I expected a historic marker standing in its place. Also, a sign on one of the roads entering town proclaiming the town of the birthplace of basketball and the home of the great state's first-ever basketball champions.
Lebanon: A result of the three state champions was a new gymnasium, built not too long after the 1918 title.
Wingate: I had seen pictures of the billboard and the gymnasium.
Thorntown: I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
Lafayette Jefferson: I expected very little if anything. The Bronchos had won state championships since then, been to a couple state finals recently and it is a college town, home to a major university.
I'll just quote from an article by Bill Benner written as part of the series The Indianapolis Star published celebrating the 100th anniversary of the invention of the game:
"Imagine, if you will, the genesis of this phenomenon we've come to know as Hoosier Hysteria. Imagine, you must. Because the birthplace of Indiana basketball is now a parking lot for a bank. And only newspaper archives, long memories of local citizens or considerable investigation by an outsider can tell you this.
"That's because, in the 100 block of West Main Street in this Montgomery County seat, there are no signs, plaques or anything else to let passers-by know they have arrived at the place where the fires of a state's passion for basketball were first lit.
"The place that should be a Hoosier shrine -- the place that hosted the first practice game, the first official game and the first collegiate game in the United States outside of Massachusetts -- is now nothing more than a nondescript patch of asphalt behind a bank."
This is what I found when I arrived in Crawfordsville, but it took me an hour to discover that the birthplace of basketball in the state disassociates itself from that fact.
In the local gas station, the barber shop just off the courthouse square, and the three antique shops on Main Street, nobody knew that Crawfordsville was the birthplace to Hoosier Hysteria.
Finally, the Visitor's Bureau was able to point out where the YMCA used to be, but had no knowledge that Crawfordsville is the home to both the first state champions and the individual behind the push for class basketball.
I went to the bank, for which the parking lot serves. Inside, I asked a secretary, a loan officer and a teller for information about the old YMCA. No one in the bank knew they were working in a building that stands where the birthplace of basketball in Indiana once stood. Finally, in a little alcove, a newspaper clipping about the building being torn down was displayed. No pictures, no tributes, just an obituary.
Just as much as Crawfordsville disappoints a basketball fan or a historian, Wingate surprises.
The billboard greets each visitor to town, proudly proclaiming: Welcome to WINGATE. STATE BASKETBALL CHAMPS 1913, 1914.
It goes on to say, "National Champs 1920 & 3 Hall of Fame Members and 2 Football Hall of Famers. First Electric Scoreboard in the Nation made by 2 local men. Mechanical Part by Lee Haxon. Electrical Part by Roy MeHarry."
I learned an identical sign was on the north side of town as well. Whether you visit Wingate from the north or south, using State Road 25, you'll be greeted by the sign.
In 1954, Wingate closed its doors and consolidated with New Richmond to form Coal Creek Central High School, which, in 1971, consolidated with Darlington and Linden to form North Montgomery.
In 1975, the city tore down the old Wingate High School and the residents did not want the lore and history of Wingate to be forgotten. Thus, the billboards were erected. The cornerstone which reads, "In Honor of 1913 - 1914 State Basketball Champions" was placed at the city park.
Travel on Ind. 25 into town and you'll eventually come to High Street. Look west at the intersection and you'll see the post office and the infamous Wingate Gymnasium.
The gym, built in 1917 as a livery stable, is still standing and has the original sign painted on the side (although it has been touched up a few times over the years).
The gymnasium is now a supply barn for The Paper Shoppe Inc. The president, Larry Stewart, says he would like to restore part of the gymnasium for the hundreds of school children who visit it every spring. And the many basketball fans from throughout the country who visit it every year. But the bottom line is finances. It definitely qualifies as a historical marker and will not be torn down, to the great disappointment of the basketball enthusiasts like the Crawfordsville YMCA was.
According to Naomi McCulloch (the official Wingate Gymnasium historian), in 1925 the city purchased the livery stable turned implement dealership and, with some modifications, Wingate had its first and only gymnasium. The court was 60 x 28 feet and the roof peaked 20 feet in the center. The city charged the school $3 for each practice and $6 for each game to rent the gym. Therefore, the boys who put the WIN in WIN-GATE were no longer known as the "Gymless Wonders."
It was heated by stoves and it was the job of a city employee to stoke the stoves with lumps of coal to warm the building.
In the 1940s and '50s, Harley Pevler had that job and the stove would get red hot and it was a wonder that the barn didn't burn down.
In 1934, the gymnasium was home to a first in the country: Wingate had the first electric scoreboard in operation. Lee Haxton was a radio repairman and was assisted by Roy MeHarry and built the first electric scoreboard in the country.
Before I left town, the post master told me to stop at the Spartan Inn (201 E. High St., Wingate, 47994). It was here I met Barbara Kelp (Class of '53) and Junior Haas (Class of '49). The Spartan Inn is a diner decorated with pictures of the Spartan greats.
The first basketball team at Wingate High School was 1907, and the "Wonderful Five", won the inaugural game 70-4 over Hillsboro en route to a 6-0 record. All games were played on the road, as was the case until 1925.
The Wingate News, a special edition printed in 1976 in observance of the country's bicentennial, wrote, "During all the years since 1907, all the teams in every year played their very best for dear old Wingate, they were not all tournament winners, but we have never really had a loser."
The building is owned by the Spartan Group, of which Haas is Treasurer/Secretary.
The Spartan Group was founded "Because there wasn't anything left in Wingate. Some of the fellas pooled their money." Originally, the group had 10 men and Dick Cheek named it after the athletic teams of Wingate, which had about 120 kids in 12 grades at its peak. In 1913 and '14, the school had 71 pupils in 12 grades, 35 of which were boys.
At one time in Indiana, the school and its activities (especially the basketball team) was the center of community life. The residents of Wingate -- although there no longer is a school -- have not forgotten that.
Thorntown, named after the grove of Thorntrees that inhabited the area, is the second-oldest incorporated town in the state.
It's now known for its Turning of the Leaves festival, when 8,000 people visit the town and the SPIH Museum the last weekend in September.
But other than the Indian artifacts in the museum, George Gideon has the game ball from Thorntown's 1915 state championship team and the cornerstone of the old high school.
In 1945, when Thorntown consolidated with Western Boone, there was nothing that recognized Thorntown. There was some effort that went into obtaining and merely locating the game ball.
But maybe in the same vein as the Spartan Group, when the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame accepted Thorntown's Championship Shield, the 12-member board of directors for the SPIH Museum voted unanimously to keep the ball.
Outside the museum, at an antique store down the street, a drug store and a market, residents know of the great team in 1915. The Opera House, where home games were played, is now the home of a gas station. But the small-town spirit is still alive.
This is a college town and, unlike the rest of the schools, enjoyed much more success later. The Bronchos, under Marion Crawley, won state titles in 1948 and 1964.
In the beginning, Lafayette Jefferson was at the state finals virtually every year. This is a town that was involved in the first-ever interscholastic game at Crawfordsville.
But the basketball tributes in Lafayette are reserved for the teams at Purdue and the "Crawley Men" who would dominate the area in the decades to come later.
Lebanon played in the first two state championship games, winning in 1912. Then they came back to win back-to-back titles in 1917 and 1918. To honor the great teams, the city built a new gymnasium. It, along with the old school, is being renovated and turned into "Memory Hall", a senior apartment building.
But, just the same, it isn't three state crowns for which Lebanon is remembered. It is "Rick the Rocket". The high school player of the year in 1966, Rick Mount wore the black and gold of Lebanon and brought the pride enjoyed by the town in the 'teens back in the '60s. And, driving around the courthouse square that was a site for the Sports Illustrated photo shoot for the cover story on Feb. 14, 1966, brings a sense of history. The place almost looks the same.
THE CRADLE'S LEGACY
There really is no explanation for why the Cradle became so. Other towns have enjoyed more success since then (Muncie, Marion and East Chicago), other towns have had their own individual heroes (Fuzzy Vandivier, Oscar Robertson, Scott Skiles and Damon Bailey).
But basketball got its start in towns like Crawfordsville, Wingate and Thorntown, enjoyed early success in towns like Lebanon and established long-standing traditions in towns like Lafayette.
It's the Wingates and Thorntowns that gave Indiana basketball its identity, the Lebanons that captured the state's imagination, the Lafayettes that everyone loved to hate.
And then Crawfordsville causes everything to come full circle.
Jason Crowe was previously executive director of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and publisher of Indiana Basketball History Magazine.