sports blog by andy shenk

Tuesday. Elkhart. Class 4A Sectional First Round

In At The Game, Elkhart Basketball on February 27, 2013 at 10:51 PM

Sectional time in Indiana is special. For decades, counties up and down the Hoosier state filled packed out gyms in late February, even the 7,000-9,000-seat facilities built post-World War II to accommodate basketball fever. They came to watch their school, no matter what size, match up against local rivals in a winner-takes-all knockout playoff that was relived in dining rooms, bars, church basements, and corner shops for months to come.

Legends got their start under the bright lights of Anderson’s Wigwam, the New Castle Fieldhouse and Elkhart’s very own North Side Gym, the largest high-school gym in the country at the time of its opening in 1955. With pro basketball just getting started in those years and college basketball a far cry from the billion-dollar NCAA business of the 21st century, little could compare to the scrutiny faced by teenage hoop stars in Indiana’s state tournament.

Those years are long gone, however. More than a decade into the new millenium, Indiana basketball has waned in popularity dramatically. Gradual, unyielding industrial decline hit blue-collar towns hard, many home to the state’s largest gyms and most fanatical basketball populations. Increased competition from other winter sports, after-school activities, and big-screen TVs have also taken a toll. If the state’s high school athletic association, IHSAA, counted a paid attendance of 1.5 million in the 1965 state playoffs, then 2012’s tournament drew only 385,000.

The biggest change, of course, came in 1998, when Indiana abandoned its single-class playoff format. Schools now compete in four classes, 1A to 4A. Fan interest had already slipped when the controversial move was made, but from 1997 to 1998 attendance fell by almost 50%, 786,024 to 434,752.

Numbers like these are enough to make a nostalgiac like myself curl up and cry.

I love basketball. Almost every 3-pointer or defensive stop at a game has me jumping from my seat, whether I’m in an NBA arena or my alma mater’s 1500-seat bandbox. Crowd size and apathy, to my own embarrassment, makes little difference.

When the crowd’s roaring alongside, though, crammed in up to the rafters, something changes. Basketball is built on runs, surges, momentum-breaking and dynamic-shifting heroics and for most of a century, Indiana natives celebrated the sport night after night with an unbridled enthusiasm that may never again be matched.

But old memories can cling to a place, even when a new generation has moved on. As long, at least, as someone still remembers.

Nikki and I set out for the opening night of Elkhart’s Class 4A boys sectionals about 4:40 pm, an hour and twenty minutes before tip-off between Elkhart Central and Warsaw. Light rain fell most of the way, turning to wet snow nearer to North Side Gym. From a distance, we could see fans gathered by the doors, waiting to be let in at 5.

Squad cars and parking attendants in the adjacent lots anticipated the big crowd on its way over from home, work and school. North Side may not fill to its 7,373-seat capacity anymore, but several thousand still show up at sectional time.

By the time we got to the doors, they’d opened. We grabbed $10 all-session tickets at the box office and filed into an almost empty gym. About 25 fans sat scattered throughout the lower bowl. We took prime seat three rows behind the Central bench and settled in for a night of Indiana high school basketball.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe I sat on that hard wooden bleacher for four and a half hours, through two games, two overtimes and more than an hour of warm-ups. I didn’t move once, standing only to cheer, pen clutched in one hand, notebook on the bench below me.

At the end of it all, after local schools Central and Memorial bowed out by a combined three points, the accumulating snow and dark parking lot pulled me harshly away from the court I’d watched all night. I didn’t want to go, not this night.

Nikki and I fell in love again this season with the snake-bitten Elkhart Central Blue Blazers. Through eight home games, two wins and six losses, we found our own Hoosier hysteria in the hard-working, hard-luck team. Surrounded by the biggest crowd of the year, the memories from last night when the crowd stood and cheered the boys on are hard to shake.

They led 12-2 early in the first after Jaron’s dish down low to Blake. Brouwer, who led the team with 15 points on 5-5 shooting, charged up court, eyes gleaming. The crowd rose, roaring its support as Warsaw called timeout.

Thanks to our proximity, I caught snatches of Coach Noble’s pep talks in between periods and during timeouts. “You deserve to win this basketball game!” he half-pleaded, half-affirmed before the start of the second quarter.

Brouwer made us erupt again in the fourth quarter, punctuating Central’s 10-0 run with his fourth ‘3’ of the night. John Stahl whooped and hollered from the bench with his teammates.

At the end, during the final two minutes of regulation and two extra periods, each moment was precious. Turnovers, baskets almost impossible to come by, rebounds, and the refs’ whistles swung the momentum back and forth mercilessly.

The final break went to Warsaw, free throws for their best player, with the score tied and one second on the clock in double overtime. It hurt. I wanted to give up and forget. But I watched him hit the game-winning attempt and I saw Troy Noble below me rally his men for the desperate, full-court in-bounds play still available.

He never wavered, even with his assistant coaches muttering glumly on the sideline. Deep down, I didn’t want to fold either, even when Jaron’s last-second shot fell short and the Warsaw crowd went wild. It hurt that all I could do was clap for the team as they shuffled off to the locker room. The season, the team, the game had sucked me in. Now sadness refused to let go.

Elkhart Memorial’s clash with Goshen distracted me some. I hoped the Chargers would win to send at least one Elkhart team through to the semis, but most of the time I had to keep myself from constantly glancing at the Central players now scattered around the gym. Some looked happy, chatting with friends. Others hardly lifted their eyes from the floor, sunk deep in thought.

Back-and-forth all night, Memorial went out in similar fashion, losing 44-42 after Central fell 45-44, Nikki and I could only muster wistful smiles. The second loss slightly dulled the first, but it was hard to get up and physically let go. Blazer senior John Stahl, my favorite player since our first game on January 3, sat motionless on the bench a few rows down, staring across the court.

I felt the intensity on the court and the drama Tuesday that once drew towns together on sectional nights, then split them apart a few hours later. Though Nikki and I finally trudged off into the snowy gloom, it still hurts that I won’t get to see Central play again.

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