In Indiana they feel about basketball the way Texans feel about football or Minnesota folks about hockey. They game wasn’t invented there, just perfected there.
Which means virtually everyone has played the game, watched the game, maybe coached some 10-year-olds for a winter or two, which makes them an expert.
My side gig has kept me in and out of gyms for a long time. But it’s been probably 30 years since I’ve been in Assembly Hall to see a Hoosiers game. A friend and fellow alum passed along a couple of tickets last weekend, so Mrs. Dull and I drove 3 1/2 hours through the pouring rain see IU square off with Ohio State. The athletic department was putting on an alumni weekend with former players from the Final Four and National Championship teams lining the court. It was a treat to see guys like Damon Bailey and Landon Turner on the floor, but the highlight came when Alan Henderson was given the honor of addressing the crowd. For obvious reasons:
“We know how badly you all wanted us to win. But, trust me, we always wanted to win even just a little bit more than you wanted us to win. One thing I was thinking about coming in here was, if you do lose, the next practice is something you’re not really looking forward to. I remember walking into Assembly Hall, and almost wanting to sneak through like a ninja, so Coach didn’t see me, or anyone else, just get to my locker, tryna make it through, you know? So just keep in mind, these young men are competing as hard as they can, the coaches are doing the best they can do, so through the ups and downs of the seasons, I just want you to know how important it is that you all stay behind the team, stay as positive as you can, and just keep moving the ball.”
I love Alan Henderson. As a young broadcaster I got to call his final high school game, an Indianapolis Brebeuf loss to Glenn Robinson and Gary Roosevelt at the RCA Dome. The rivalry between the state’s two best big men continued as Big Dog went to Purdue, Henderson to IU where he led the Hoosiers to the 1992 Final Four. Henderson got a huge round of applause when he called Assembly Hall the best place to play college basketball in the country. But I think his aim was something else. I had heard that he went “off script” a little bit. The fans are a little down on Archie Miller right now. Like, “ready to help him pack his bags”-level down. You know how they say the most popular man in Chicago is the Bears backup quarterback? In Bloomington it’s the next IU basketball coach. They are all chasing the ghost of Robert Montgomery Knight. Since Knight was fired after the 2000 season, IU has had five coaches who have won about 58% of their games and made the NCAA tourney 10 times in 21 seasons. Despite his brilliance as a coach, Knight is a sad, petty, bully who has consistently refused to attend events at the university honoring his players and teams. But the fans look up and see the championship banners and judge every coach by that (unattainable) standard. Ask UCLA fans what it’s like to see the game pass you by, right?
If Henderson had all this in mind as he wrote his speech, it was the most savage two minutes in that building maybe ever. One of the state’s greatest players, a Mr. Basketball runner-up and NBA mainstay, put a statewide fan base on blast.
Watch a game surrounded by Indiana basketball people, and you’ll notice a few things. They definitely have opinions about the “right way” to play the game. Check what they cheer for – the 25-second defensive stand, the extra pass, the unselfish play, the kid who bypasses an off-balance shot in traffic to pull the ball back out top and reset the offense (“set it up!”). I swear when I heard someone yell “set it up” I wanted to walk down the aisle and ask them “set up what?” Like, diagram a play for me. Where are those guys supposed to be right now?
I thought so.
And yeah, those are all good things. To be honest, the current team stands around a little bit too much on offense for my taste. But that’s not ’70s nostalgia, that’s the inability to be successful playing 1-on-5 every time down against modern-day Big 10 players.
I’ve been thinking about that speech a lot lately, thinking about it while I’m in the classroom and while I plan lessons and while I get ready to host my unannounced evaluation. And yeah, I think about it while I grade papers. Darryl Thomas was a member of the 1987 National Championship Hoosiers team, a Chicago-area guy and genuinely good person who died too young. At 6-foot-7 he was undersized at the position he was asked to play. But he showed up every day and had a hand in the greatest in-person basketball moment of my life, taking a low-post pass, sensing a double-team and kicking to Keith Smart in the corner for the game-winner against Syracuse:
In his book Season On The Brink, John Feinstein wrote that Bob Knight once put feminine protection products in Thomas’ locker as a comment on Darryl’s perceived lack of toughness. Later, Knight sat with Thomas and said, “Darryl, sometimes I think I want you to be a great player more than you want you to be a great player.”
Do I think I want my students to be successful more than they want themselves to be successful? Do my administrators want me to be a good teacher more than I want to be a good teacher?
I feel like sneaking into the building like a ninja some mornings, that is for sure. And if I do, I bet my kids do sometimes too.
During an interview I had an administrator tell me once “our students are the children of doctors and lawyers”. And yeah, they are. But thinking about that conversation later, I thought, yeah but they are also children of single moms who wait tables and work at K-Mart and dads who fix cars and grab their hard hat and steel-toes and work midnights at the mill.
As Alan Henderson might say, hey, these students are doing the best they can do, the teachers are competing as hard as they can, maybe it’s time to stay behind them and be positive.
Because when we do, this is the greatest job in the country. I might even have One Shining Moment before the year is up.