There’s a reason the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four is played regularly in Indianapolis.
And it’s the same reason the NCAA, with headquarters located in downtown Indianapolis, chose to host the entire 2021 tournament in Indiana when the COVID-19 pandemic continued to force changes just a year after the entire tourney was canceled.
James Naismith introduced the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1892. But that’s merely the date of its birth.
The most important game played in the history of basketball? The one that kickstarted a game that has grown into one of the world’s most popular sports.
You’ve heard the story a million times, but I’m going to tell you again. Because it’s that important. It’s our community’s heritage, our claim to fame. From Charley Bowerman’s long-range at Alamo, to Matt Petty’s sectional winning shot in 1989, to Linden’s Daryl Warren’s high-scoring mark.
The date was March 16, 1894. The location was 100 West Main Street in Crawfordsville, Indiana. The teams were the Crawfordsville and Lafayette YMCAs. One of Naismith’s students in the game, Nicholas McCay had brought the game to Indiana.
“Basket ball is a new game, but if the interest taken in the contest last night is any criterion, it is bound to be popular,” the Crawfordsville Journal Review said the next day.
Popular? Yes, but I’m not sure anyone was prepared for what would happen next.
Crawfordsville was the most successful high school team in the state, the Indiana High School Athletic Association was formed and Crawfordsville under the direction of Glascock won the first state title in 1911. Wingate became the first back-to-back title winner in 1913-14, while the first eight state titles were won by teams within 30 miles of Crawfordsville.
Wabash College started having success too.
The first weekend of the tournament this March, I received a text from my Uncle, Joe McMurry, with a thread from Beth Swift at Wabash. The Little Giants in 1922 beat Purdue to secure the midwest bid for the national tournament, which Wabash won and claimed “The Champions of the World.”
It’s the lesser known of two national championships claimed by Wabash, as coach Mac Petty and Pete Metzelaars led the Little Giants to the 1982 Divison III title.
And so the sport grew rapidly throughout the Hoosier State, ultimately creating Hoosier Hysteria.
By the 1950s, the IHSAA would regularly accept 900 teams to the annual state tournament.
When we now think of the month of March, we think about March Madness produced by the modern NCAA tournament, but its origin is without a doubt the basketball state tournament in Indiana.
After attending the state title game in 1936 between Frankfort and Fort Wayne Centra, Naismith said “Packed with 15 thousand people, gave me a thrill I shall not forget. Basketball really had its beginning in Indiana which remains today the center of the sport.”
We all hear about the 1954 Milan team, the last small team to win the IHSAA tournament, but there were plenty of memorable moments after. Oscar Robertson and Indianapolis Crispus Attucks forever changed the culture of the game by winning the state title in 1955 as the first all-black team to win a title in the entire country.
But what about College? I’m getting there.
That Crispus Attucks team opened the door for Texas Western, who started an all-black team in 1966 — defeating Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats for the national championship.
Lebanon’s Rick Mount, the first high school athlete to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, became a scoring legend at Purdue in the late 1960s.
And that hick from French Lick, Larry Bird? Well he’s the only person to date that has won NBA MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. More about him in a minute.
The games’ greatest coach? John Wooden, from Martinsville, Indiana, who helped lead Purdue to the 1932 Palmetto National Championship, before guiding UCLA to 10 National Titles.
The games’ first star? Wingate’s Homer Stonebraker, whose legend has it, shoveled snow from Wingate to New Richmond just so his back-to-back championship teams could practice.
The games’ best high school player of all-time? Damon Bailey, who Bob Knight, a hall of fame coach in his own right, leading Indiana to three national championships, recruited in middle school and led Bedford North Lawrence to a state title as a senior in front of a record 41,046 fans at the Hoosier Dome in 1990.
Still, what does all of this have to do with the NCAA tournament?
It all matters. Every bit of Indiana’s basketball history has helped us get to this moment. It’s a driving force in the NCAA being housed in Indianapolis, and for Indiana Sports Corp to continue its reputation as the best sports event planner in the land.
UCLA’s run to the final four, and magnificent showing at that, can you fathom how proud Wooden would be?
Baylor, a team led by Indiana’s own Scott Drew has finally got over the hump and into Monday’s National Final.
And, who will they meet?
“For all the small schools, who never got here.” Remember that line from Hoosiers?
It’s the Bulldogs time to shine on Monday, especially after Jalen Suggs heroics on Saturday night.
CBS Sports Twitter said it best.
“Gordon Hayward walked so Jalen Suggs could run.” As Suggs sunk a 35-footer to down UCLA in overtime.
The last undefeated team to play for a national title was Bird led Indiana State in 1979. Until now.
Gonzaga wants to look right past that mark though. They have their eyes set on Indiana’s 1976 team, the last undefeated team in college basketball. They want to achieve perfection — something Wooden and UCLA did a record four times.
All the Indiana ties, past, present, and future.
This has been a special March. One we will never forget. But at the end of the day, it was 127 years in the making, all starting in the small town of Crawfordsville.
‘We grow basketball here.’
And never forget it.