The old CHS gym played host to the original Montgomery County Tournament. This picture is from the 1949 county tournament between LInden and Ladoga. PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL BOONE
Dusting off the old Crawfordsville High School Gym means dusting off a gigantic stack of memories.
Actually, two stacks.
There are the games and the players and the memories from CHS itself, with a gym built in 1940 but attached to a building that went up in 1910 and was literally the home of the first Indiana high school state champions.
That story is for tomorrow.
Today we reminisce about everyone else in Montgomery County, the games and the players and the memories of the County Tourney.
From 11 to 10 to eight as consolidation closed a couple, the “other” high schools in the county converged on Crawfordsville High School and played for yearly bragging rights.
The atmosphere was electric - it was truly a tournament.
The atmosphere was also hot and stuffy - it was a packed house every session and there was little ventilation.
“The Tournament was our showcase,” said Fred Johnson, who attended, played and coached in some. “That place was our Mackey Arena, our Assembly Hall or Hinkle Arena.”
“History oozes out of every brick, every ounce of mortar,” added Bill Boone, himself a player in a couple tournaments and a treasured historian of county hoops.
“When you think of Montgomery County basketball, that old gym certainly comes to mind,” said Terry Cain, who, along with five brothers, played in a lot of those tourneys.
The County Tournament showcased a lot of local talent through the years. Some became legends, some went on to college ball, all left with lifetime memories.
Every town/school in the county won at least one County Tourney. For a couple, that one was the only one, but every year, hope sprang as everyone converged on CHS, because no team won more than seven in all those years, and there were plenty of years where the favorite wasn’t around for the championship game or lost on a hot Saturday night.
Tickets were pieces of hoops gold.
“We sold 2,200 tickets for the county tourney and when we hosted sectionals,” retired Crawfordsville Athletic Director Bruce Whitehead said. “Capacity was listed at 1,500 so that first meant being friends with the fire marshal and second putting another 700 fans somewhere. We sold sitting space in the aisles, put folding chairs on the ends, and packed them in.”
It was packed, hot, and riveting.
Not just the Saturday night championship game, but every game, on every day.
The tournament played during the week, as CHS school was in session literally on the other side of a wall.
There were those afternoon games, and night games, all getting to four teams left for an Indiana traditional basketball tournament Saturday.
Two semifinal games in the late morning/early afternoon and then a championship game that same Saturday night.
It was exactly the same way the state finals were played out in March, and there was that same air of excitement as whichever teams left played it out. Hinkle had nothing on the old gym on Championship Night.
And the remaining teams fans still showed up, to cheer for someone, or better yet, to cheer against someone.
“The amazing thing was that there was never an empty seat,” Johnson noted. “The four teams playing got the seats on the main floor, and the fans of the other teams each got a corner up on the second deck. There was a little room in the middle for folks like administrators or business people or the handful of “neutral” folks, but usually overflow from one corner or another just filled in those few seats.”
“The Saturday of the county tourney was what every kid looked forward to growing up,” Boone said. “The intensity of the memories is just so strong. I’ll never forget being a 15-year old freshman, walking into that gym with my little ratty satchel back in my hand, and the entire Ladoga cheer section got up to yell for us, and they yelled for us as we warmed up, and for the entire game. It just makes chills go down your spine.”
“Probably the highlight of any Montgomery County basketball player’s final journey was going to play there,” Cain said of the old gym. “Watching your brothers play, watching friends play and then finally as a 15-18 year old, getting to get on that stage. The awe of being there was like playing at Market Square Arena. It was the biggest stage around.”
Johnson, who has been involved with running the Montgomery County Basketball Hall of Fame since it started, recalled those days.
“My dad took me to some games when I was little, like 1951 and ‘52,” he started. “We won the County Tourney (with Linden) and we were even able to win a sectional at Crawfordsville. It’s been 63 years since I played in my last county tourney, but the nostalgia of the old gym never goes away.”
Johnson recalled one year when the area farmers had to plow some snow to get ball players our of their yards so they could get into town to play, or other years when players had a long walk from some place to another to catch a ride. It was a total town effort.
“Everything closed up in every town during the tourney,” he said, “and usually the parents would have to go home between sessions, so they left all the kids in town to fend for themselves. That doesn’t happen today.”
Boone also recalled time between games.
“Just about everyone went to the Strand Theatre to watch a movie,” he said, “and everyone sat in groups with their schools. The cheerleaders would walk into the theatre and lead a couple cheers so you knew where to sit and who to sit with. That energy carried right over to the theater, especially when your school won!”
That energy also went back to each of the eight or 10 or 11 county towns.
“The support from the community was so great, and so good,” Johnson said. “Everything revolved around the school, and the team was what the town cheered for and supported.”
“It was a religion,”Boone added, “a community-related religion. People with no kids, or kids out of school, went to games. Growing up, we watched the guys in our towns play, and how much it meant to us when they went to play at Crawfordsville in the County Tourney. We looked up to those guys, and when they won, we had to repeat that win. If they didn’t we had to go win for them and for our town.”
And once in a while a coach made an impact.
Pat McDowell, who went on to become the first football coach at North Montgomery, was the hoops boss at Coal Creek and in 1965, promised his team that if they won the tournament, he would walk home.
“They won it, and he did,” said Johnson, who went on to become McDowell’s brother in law in addition to winning games as coach at Linden.
“The guys I played with (at Darlington) are still friends to this day,” Cain said. “Going into the CHS gym and seeing all the banners, and all the great supporters, of your team and everyone else. We had full gyms and it kind of felt like home, but you just add about a thousand more folks. I feel so bad for the kids today who don’t get to experience that. There isn’t the crowds, the energy or even the coverage of local sports like there used to be.”
There were two constants always present at the Montgomery County Tournament.
The first was the energy and intensity of the crowds and fans. All that mojo packed into a gym with everyone playing for the common goal of winning, the championship and bragging rights.
The second was the incredible quality of play and players.
“So many great players,” Johnson said.
“They were our heroes,” noted Boone.
“It’s hard to imagine we had so many great players,” Cain said.
It was Hoosier Hysteria packed into a week-long, yearly event, right at the end of Green Street.
Best player? Best team?
Just get out the rosters of every team, from every year. You’ll find a candidate. The event outweighs the details.
Go find a player, or anyone else who was there and ask them. They will have a reply, and be ready for the extended explanation.