Wander the backroads of west-central Indiana today and you will see rusted basketball goals nailed to the sides of rotting barns, relics of a time when little giants once lived here in this sea of cornfields, dotted by isles of small towns four or five miles apart. Before super highways crisscrossed this area, before TV could provide a picture that wasn’t dominated by snow, before the internet provided national and international news as it happens, people living in these small towns, farm communities with populations of 100 to 600, led lives with little contact with the larger world.
The largest and most dominant building in these small towns was the school, a building that housed twelve grades, each grade enrolling ten to twenty-five students. Every one of these schools had a high school basketball team. Basketball was the ideal sport for these small schools, needing only five players, a ball, and two goals to field a team. The league in which these high school basketball teams competed consisted of other small-town schools, usually in the same county and hardly ever more than ten or fifteen miles away.
High school basketball games provided the only community-wide entertainment available to people in these small towns, especially during the winter months when it was too cold to be outside. The high school gym was the social center of the town, and the whole community was the basketball team’s booster club. Friday night games were the social event of the week, when almost everyone in the community, people of all classes and all ages, got together to socialize, eat a ham and bean supper prepared by the PTA, and cheer for their local team. These high school basketball games served to knit the community together.
The high school basketball team also was the main thing that brought status and glory to these isolated farm towns. The performance of the high school basketball team got a town’s name in the county newspaper and provided something concrete that residents could brag about. Talk at the local barber shop, beauty parlor, grain elevator, and on church steps on Sunday mornings was dominated by the Friday night exploits of the local team and its star players. An iconic image of this “Hoosier Hysteria” was the long caravan of cars following an old school bus carrying the town’s basketball team to an away game—an image that reflected a vestige of a tribal past when our ancestors would head out to do battle with a neighboring tribe a few miles away. Now, these warriors, on the march to do battle for the glory of their town, were high school boys with a basketball. A town’s pride rested squarely on the exploits of its high school basketball team.
Teenage hometown heroes regularly emerged in every one of these small towns. Star players were talked about incessantly—who were “the best players this year” or was a current player “the best ever” dominated conversations of the town folks. Since hardly anyone in the community had ever seen a college basketball game, the standards used by local fans to evaluate the quality of local players were other players in neighboring small towns or their memory of local players of the last few years. Standards were not high. It didn’t take much talent to play on one of these basketball teams since these high schools enrolled only 20 to 40 boys from which to choose a team of 10 players. Still, even with such a small pool of talent to draw from, one player often would rise above the rest and stand out as a star.
The sphere of influence of these teenaged heroes was limited to about a ten-to-fifteen mile radius from their hometowns, and their reign was short lived, the one to four years they starred on the basketball team. Still, being a hometown hero was a real honor for these high school boys who were enthusiastically celebrated by the townspeople. These boy heroes had their “day in the sun” in their local communities—the world that mattered most to them.
Being a local hero was not something that was sought by these boys—it just happened to them if they were good enough to play on the basketball team, and if they had enough talent to be star players in this league. It was likely that these boys were unaware of the larger role they played in sustaining their communities. They were just teenaged boys playing a game. Sure, the star players read about their exploits in the county newspaper’s sports page, and they overheard the talk among townspeople about their performance on the basketball court, but few, if any of them, thought of themselves as having an impact on the life of their communities. Even so, these high school boys, young and unassuming, did have a huge impact on creating a community spirit in these small towns. They were little giants.
This era ended suddenly when the small high schools in all of these little towns were consolidated and replaced by large high schools, built in cornfields not in towns. Without their high school basketball teams, the spirit of these small towns withered and died, and the raison d’etre for these little giants, who brought pride and glory to their hometowns, ceased to exist.