Where basketball really matters -- Indiana


"Where the Game Matters Most: A Last Championship Season in Indiana High School Basketball" by William Gildea. Little Brown. 232 pages. $22.95.

In the pantheon of Indiana hoops heroes from John Wooden to Oscar Robertson to Larry Bird, Bobby Plump is the name least known to outsiders. But among Hoosiers, the still-slender Plump enjoys exalted status for sinking the jumper in 1954 that defeated much bigger Muncie Central and crowned the hamlet of Milan (current population: 1,529) as the basketball champion of a state fanatic in its devotion to the sport.

When Robert and Helen Lynd came to Muncie in the mid-1920s to research their landmark sociological work, Middletown, the frenzy was already apparent: "During the height of the basketball season when all the cities and towns of the state are fighting for the state championship amidst the delirious backing of the rival citizens, the dominance of the sport is ... all-pervasive."

The year after Plump sank the shot he had perfected on a crude basket nailed to the family smokehouse, Robertson's team, Crispus Attucks of Indianapolis, won the first of two state titles. Never again would a small school win the single-class state tournament, popularly known as "Hoosier Hysteria." And yet the almost biblical lesson of Milan - that the small could smite the mighty - lived on as the sport's guiding myth, one vividly brought to a broader audience in the movie "Hoosiers."

So when the Indiana High School Athletic Association decided to tamper with the myth by eliminating single-class basketball and replacing it with four divisional championships based on enrollment, chronicling the final, pure year of the sport in Indiana seemed a perfect book.

William Gildea, a sports writer for the Washington Post, spent the 1996-1997 season in Indiana and has produced a leisurely travelogue of Hoosier hoopdom, an otherwordly landcape where, James Naismith, the inventor of the game, once remarked, "The possibilities are endless."

Naturally, we meet Plump, now an insurance man and the proprietor of the Last Shot restaurant, leading the charge against change. We learn how the old Brooklyn Dodger Carl Erskine and actor James Dean were Hoosier hoopsters. We visit Milan, where the town's great triumph is still proclaimed on the water tower, and the Anderson Wigwam, the second largest high school gym in the whole world, with its nearly 9,000 seats.

Gildea's writing is smooth, his accumulation of anecdotes and ,, lore impressive, but the book rarely springs to life. This is largely, I think, because, aside from his portrait of Anderson coach Ron Hecklinski - a man so driven that he staggers from a hospital bed after a liver transplant to resume coaching - few of the characters who populate the book are vary compelling.

The publicity material compares "Where the Game Matters Most" to another recent basketball book, Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot," a graphic and evocatively written account of Coney Island teens clawing to achieve court stardom. But Frey's book is much more richly textured and more sharply focused on its young stars. When they speak, their words are unvarnished. In Gildea's book, Indiana's Mr. Basketball, Luke Recker, never ventures beyond the platitude and we encounter him largely in formal, game-related situations.

Part of the book's problem is its predictability and Gildea's seeming unwillingness to adapt to a changing format, much like the adherents of single-class basketball. At the outset, it is clear that he has picked a few teams he will follow to the bitter end, and for all the end is bitter.

As a result, he gives only scant attention to what may have been a better story, that of the eventual state champion, Bloomington North, whose star players were so different from Bobby Plump, it's as if they came from the other side of the planet. Which, in fact, they did. Kueth Duany was from the Sudan and Djibril Kante from Mali. Strangers in a strange land, they were the last single-class champs of Hoosier hoops.

Mike Leary is the editor for amateur sports at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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