Harold Lang and Bill Mills can't complain. Their season tickets for Muncie Central High School's basketball games put them on the eighth row off the floor, almost dead-on center court. In a gym that holds 6,576, theirs are some of the best seats in the house.
Still, if two season passes become available in the next row back, Lang and Mills are poised to snatch them up. A low wall running behind those seats makes for a nice backrest. Next year, maybe.
Tonight, like most Friday nights, Lang and Mills arrive at the Muncie Central Fieldhouse as the doors open. As usual, Mills sits on Lang's left so as to turn his good ear to his friend. Both men are retired auto workers; each put in 31 years with General Motors. Although neither played basketball in high school--Lang had asthma, Mills was too short--they both got hooked on the game at an early age and never broke the habit of Friday night basketball. Lang, 72, purchased his first season ticket 51 years ago. Mills, 53, joined him courtside in 1979.
In their mind's eye, both Lang and Mills can see the fieldhouse as it was in years past. Not so long ago, Muncie families would pour from their homes hours before tip-off and fill the gym like a cup. This was before a fire marshal made the school cut wider aisles into the stands, so people packed the rows, elbow to elbow, a blanket of Muncie Central purple and white. "If you weren't there, you were out of it,'' Lang remembers. "You got 7,000 people in here, and what's the rest of the city doing? They were missing it all.''
Back then, you counted yourself lucky if you got any seat to a Bearcat game. Every game sold out well before the season began. To hear Lang and Mills tell it, the only way to get a ticket was if someone willed it to you when he or she died.
Tonight, however, Lang and Mills look around and see what only a few years ago would have been unthinkable: empty seats. Not just one or two, but thousands. And not just tonight, but every night. In Muncie and in towns across the state, Hoosiers in growing numbers are taking a pass on boys' high school basketball. Crowds are shrinking, interest is flagging, and what was once a sacred Friday night tradition is losing its grip on the Hoosier imagination.
The biggest change may be yet to come. Each year, the basketball mania known as "Hoosier Hysteria'' peaks in March with the state tournament. The tournament's format is sacred: Small rural schools square off against their big-city neighbors, and if they have enough luck and pluck, they can knock off a few giants and capture the state title. This March may be one of the last times such a dream can come true, though. The guardians of the game may soon divide schools by enrollment size for competition and name two, three, or even four champions. Such a change would be a gamble. It could revive interest in the game and return some of the luster lost in the march of time, or it could sever one of the state's last connections to the simple, wholesome life of its rural past.
In the day's last wintry light, the massive red brick Muncie Central High School Fieldhouse seems to squat beside the White River that divides the city into northern and southern halves. Muncie Central's boosters built this basketball behemoth in 1928, the year their beloved Bearcats won the first of what is now eight state championships. Writer Donald Hamilton's Hoosier Temples tells the story of how one month after the team brought home its trophy, a citizen's committee was pushing $50, five-year season tickets on Muncie residents to help fund a new 7,500-seat gym.
Muncie was not the only Indiana town digging deep into its pockets in the 1920s to give its basketball team bigger quarters. Hamilton estimates that more than a hundred gyms were built during the decade. By 1927, the combined capacity of all the state's high school gyms reached almost 1 million--roughly one-third of Indiana's population at the time.
Today, Indiana boasts 14 of the 15 largest high school gyms in the country. Although Muncie Central's fieldhouse reigned for some 30 years as the biggest gym in the state, Bearcat fans now have to settle for the 15th largest and the 16th largest in the country.
The tip-off of tonight's game between Muncie Central and Anderson High School is still more than two hours away, but Beverly Jones is already waiting outside the shuttered ticket office to buy her $3 seat. A 1966 graduate of Anderson, she has pinned to her white blouse a green and red corsage with the plastic monogram, "AHS.'' Jones' son, Tyson, a freshman at Anderson, plays for the Indians. When he was only a baby, Jones remembers, she would take him in her arms, look down at his face, and say over and over, "One day, you will be an Indian.'' Freshmen rarely get playing time at Anderson, so Jones is beaming with pride that her son's luck and talent are getting him floor time. "I can't believe it happened so quickly,'' she says.
Earlier in the week, Jones and 50 other members of the Anderson boys' basketball booster club met in the Anderson band room for cookies, coffee, and talk about the Indians. Talk in the meeting's opening minutes was of T-shirt sales, a season-ending banquet, and other fund-raising schemes, but the agenda quickly moved to its most important item: the coach's report.
For this, Ron Hecklinski dropped his 6-foot, 5-inch frame onto a stool at the front of the room. The team's second-year coach, he's 39 years old with the brown hair and youthful, broad smile of Joe Montana. But as he dissected the team's two recent losses in a hoarse voice, he looked even younger. Most of the boosters at the meeting were graying with age, and as they peppered him with questions, Hecklinski occasionally bowed his head and looked at his sneakers, the Indian warrior shamefully explaining a failed hunt to his elders. "The game preparation was not good,'' he explained at one point. "I'm the coach, and I take the blame for that.''
The team had not reacted well to the back-to-back losses. Some had mouthed off to opposing fans, and others had sulked when they were pulled for a substitute. This rankled the boosters. "They ought to just thank God they're on the team,'' said one wiry man with a nose as sharp as his point.
Occasionally, club president Frank Graham stepped up to defend Hecklinski. Graham's opinion carries a lot of weight: A 1960 graduate of Anderson, he refereed high school basketball for 23 years. Also, Marilyn Dorris, 61, the club's secretary, made it clear that the boys act no different on the court than their peers do in class. Dorris has been a substitute teacher at Anderson for 15 years, and before every game--home and away--she gives players bags of gum. Juicy Fruit, Big Red, bubble gum--a wide variety, but always the same mix. "They aren't perfect,'' she said of the boys. "They aren't perfect players, and they aren't perfect kids.''
Although it was a Tuesday night, the meeting stretched on for almost two hours. Afterward, Graham tried to explain how it is that a kid's game could hold the attention of so many adults for so long. Basketball in Anderson, the club president said, is best regarded as a social phenomenon. "It's a tradition to a lot of people that is like going to church on Sunday. If it's Friday night or Saturday night, you're going to spend the night in the gym.''
Indiana's obsession with high school basketball dates almost from the sport's introduction to the state more than a century ago. In 1893, a Presbyterian minister taught YMCA members in Crawfordsville to shoot a ball into iron hoops hung with coffee sacks. Some 30 years later, more than 700 high schools were sending teams to the state championship.
"Basketball sweeps all before it,'' Robert and Helen Lynd wrote of Muncie in 1929. Amateur sociologists, the Lynds had arrived in town five years earlier to document life in a typical small city. What they found was a town that had turned its heart, soul, and much of its good sense over to the new game of basketball. "More civic loyalty centers around basketball than around any other one thing,'' the Lynds reported in their study, which they titled Middletown to hide Muncie's identity. Allegiance to the Bearcats was such that when the local newspaper once installed a new telephone system to deliver returns from a critical out-of-town game, "several hundred citizens of all ages stood in the street outside the newspaper office that night chanting themselves hoarse in a chorus of 'Fight! Fight! Bearcats!' ''
Bearcat mania infected many areas of Muncie life studied by the Lynds. The new schools superintendent, for example, was elected to the job for the sole reason that "he put [Muncie] on the map as a basketball town,'' the Lynds found. Even church leaders had to wrestle with their parishioners' passion for the Bearcats. Middletown relates a conversation between a clergyman and a Muncie Central fan who had lost faith in prayer when his petitions for a Muncie Central win had gone unanswered. The clergyman responded that prayer should be devoted to moral or spiritual issues, but he added, "God could favor the weaker team, but that would be unsportsmanlike of God.''
The junior varsity Bearcat game is under way at the fieldhouse, and Harold Lang is bearing down on his game program with a pencil. By game's end, thick, dark lines by each player's name will sum up his performance and become part of Lang's assessment of his potential for moving up to varsity.
Lang was a student at Muncie Central when he bought his first ticket to a Bearcat game in the late 1930s. The price: 20 cents. After graduating and enrolling at Ball State University in Muncie, he still went to games on a student discount, but at some point the cost jumped to 28 cents--something about a war tax on entertainment, he remembers now. Finally, in 1943, Lang bought his first season ticket for $3.30. Even after moving to Indianapolis, he kept his ticket and journeyed to Muncie for Friday night games with his parents.
Now living back in Muncie, Lang goes to as many games a week as is humanly possible--eight, maybe nine games--boys, girls, junior varsity, varsity--both home and away. "It's a way of life,'' he explains. "Every Friday night, I just want to be in a gym someplace. I think it's something that you're raised on, and you just don't know any different.''
Lang's pal Bill Mills watches the play closely, too, but he seems more absorbed with the ebbs and flows of momentum in the game than with numbers. Both men are decked out in Muncie Central purple, but it's Mills who boasts owning 40 or 50 Bearcat sweat shirts. Tonight, he is wearing one where the letters spelling "Bearcat'' start on one sleeve, run across his chest, and spill down the other arm.
Mills grew up in Hartford City, a town north of Muncie but close enough for him to follow the Bearcats as his own heroes. Although he could never wangle tickets, he read about the team's exploits in The Muncie Star's sports pages and listened to games on the radio. "All I ever heard about was Muncie Central and the Bearcats,'' he remembers. "I always envied the tradition they had over here. There is a charisma about Muncie Central basketball that people don't realize until they walk in and see the championship banners hanging from the ceiling.''
Morry Mannies winces as he remembers his rookie days as a Bearcat broadcaster back in 1956. He was 17 years old and a freshman at Ball State when he first climbed to his perch in the WLBC radio booth, high atop the fieldhouse. "Being the young broadcaster, I tried to be very objective,'' he remembers. "And when the Bearcats made a mistake, boy, I'd be sure to point that out. Well, we got calls at the station wanting to know who this young kid was criticizing the royal purple and white.''
Mannies soon realized that Muncie took its basketball seriously. The fieldhouse held 7,500 in those days. Only 50 seats were sold to the opposing team's fans, and their tickets usually stuffed them deep in a corner. All the remaining seats went to season-ticket holders.
A native of Peru, a small town in north central Indiana, Mannies marveled at the Bearcat loyalty. Season tickets were such a hot commodity that they were included in divorce decrees. When the school held a lottery for state tourney tickets, fans slept outside the fieldhouse for two days just for the chance to put their names in the hat. Even in defeat, Muncie Central fans smothered their teams with affection. In 1960, an unbeaten Muncie team was upset by East Chicago in the state finals. But upon returning home from Indianapolis, the team walked into the fieldhouse and was greeted by 10,000 fans who had turned out to pay tribute. The sting of that defeat is such that Mannies can still reel off East Chicago's starting lineup: Turpin, Lamar, Williams, Rodriguez, and Cantrell. "It was the lowest part of my broadcasting career,'' he says, "the saddest night of my life.''
The game tonight marks the 126th meeting of Muncie Central and Anderson, a rivalry that is one of the most intense in the state. Both schools are charter members to the Hoosier basketball legend: Muncie Central won its first state title in 1928; Anderson in 1935. Twenty miles separate the two cities, but in look and feel, they are as close as cousins. Both are county seats, and both rode the industrial boom of the early 20th century and became auto towns.
Over the years, however, the transformation of Ball State from a teacher's college to a 20,000-student university has given Muncie an almost cosmopolitan feel. That change has, in turn, given the rivalry a new edge. "Anderson prides itself on having a little more grease than Muncie,'' says Bruce Geelhoed, director of Ball State University's Center for Middletown Studies, a research center devoted to the study of Muncie and named in honor of the Lynds' study. "Muncie is more the big city to them, with a little more money. It's more white collar, more silver spoon by contrast with Anderson.''
Muncie Central's eight state titles make it especially hated at Anderson. The Indians are perennial also-rans; in 17 trips to the state's Final Four, they have brought home the championship trophy only three times, the last in 1946. Occasionally, the rivalry between the two teams boils over. In 1963, after an Anderson win during a holiday tournament, a brawl broke out in which a Bearcat fan punched out an Indian cheerleader. The fight landed Anderson on probation, and Muncie Central was suspended from state athletics for one year.
From the opening tip of tonight's game, both teams run hard. Before the first minute has ticked off, an Anderson steal leads to an alley-oop and a thunderous slam-dunk attempt that caroms off the rim. "This is like being on a Los Angeles freeway,'' Lang says, and the game is on.
No one knows exactly when basketball's grip on the state began to slip. Crowds for the month-long state tournament have shrunk steadily from their 1960 peak of 1.5 million. In 1990, it was easy to laugh off the notion that the game was in decline. That was the year that 41,046 fans packed the Hoosier Dome for the state final, nearly doubling the national record for attendance at a high school basketball game.
But since that game, the decline in attendance has accelerated. Last year's attendance at the state final was only 16,185, the lowest since 1971 and the last title game played in the 15,000-seat Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University. Even worse, the crowds for the early tournament rounds played outside Indianapolis are way down, too. A survey by The Indianapolis News of the 1993 tournament showed that none of the 64 sectional rounds sold out. And last year, total tournament attendance just topped 775,000, roughly half of its 1960 peak.
The statewide frenzy over the tournament has fizzled, as well. "It used to be that during the month of March, everything stopped,'' says Tom Hession, a former Shelbyville teacher and football coach who has broad-cast state final games for television and radio since 1966. As a boy, Hession remembers, his school principal would announce the sectional pairings over the PA system, and his teacher would chart them on the blackboard. Often, on the Friday of sectionals, classes would be canceled so children could watch the games.
"Today, fans only go when their team is playing,'' Hession says. "Game one ends, fans from those two teams take off. Whereas when I was growing up, you felt like you knew the teams because you'd read about them and heard about them so much. You stayed for all the games because you wanted to see who won and then talk about how they'd do that night. It was a big occasion.''
Most agree that the slip in interest has little to do with the game itself and much to do with changes in the world outside the gym. For one thing, school closings and consolidation have shaved the number of teams that compete in the state tournament from a high of 787 in 1938 to less than 400 today. Fewer teams means fewer players and, naturally, fewer fans. Consolidation has ripped many schools and teams from the hearts of small towns and torn at long-held allegiances.
And while boys' basketball reigned supreme for decades in part because there were only a few other sports to challenge it, today the state athletic association sanctions 20 sports for both boys and girls, including the increasingly popular girls' basketball and volleyball. As a result, students, parents, and school supporters now have a full menu of sporting events to choose from each week.
What's more, the seemingly round-the-clock television coverage of pro and college basketball--and their increased popularity over the last 15 years--means that on any given night, fans can watch a game from the warmth of their own homes. "The people in my community, they probably know the Georgia Tech players better than they know the Shelbyville players,'' says Hession. "They've seen them more frequently.'' The state tournament's fan base, he and others point out, has been plundered by "March Madness,'' the national college tournament that runs concurrently with the Hoosier tourney.
But perhaps more than anything else, Hoosier basketball has fallen victim to the modern lifestyle. The sport put down its roots in Indiana at a time when the state was still a collection of small towns; there was little else to do on a Friday night other than go to the game. Today, distances have closed, and many of those small towns have grown up into big cities. Even in small communities, basketball has to compete with the movies, videos, arcades, teen clubs, and other new entertainment forms. Also, many businesses offering such fare hire teenagers. As a result, students who were once fans in the stands now flip burgers or scoop movie popcorn on Friday nights.
The eight state championship banners that hang from the rafters in the Muncie Central Fieldhouse practically guarantee that the Bearcats will always have their fans. But nowadays, even a winning tradition puts only so many people in the seats. Witness the 1993-94 season. Throughout, Muncie Central was ranked among the top 10 teams in the state, and for a time it was ranked number two. The team advanced to the final eight in the state tournament, and its talent was so deep that four players won college scholarships.
Despite this impressive performance, attendance dropped for the third straight year. The biggest crowd was just 5,000, when only two years earlier, a Bearcat squad that didn't fare nearly as well drew that many three times.
The fans who are most noticeably absent are the students themselves. Muncie Central students used to purchase a third of the 7,500 Bearcat tickets. But in 1993, only 78 students bought season passes. As a result, games have lost some of their energy.
Morry Mannies remembers climbing to his booth and looking across the gym at the girls' cheering block--row upon row of girls dressed in identical blouses. These days, though, many Muncie Central girls are athletes themselves. Nearly a third of the school's 1,400 students play a sport in the fall, and the numbers are also up for winter sports. A swimmer who has to be up before dawn for a Saturday swim meet is not likely to be out late at a basketball game the night before.
Adults, too, have found other things to do on Friday nights. The Muncie of Middletown fame has almost doubled in size to 71,000. It now boasts its own symphony, a civic theater, at least 12 shopping malls, and even a children's museum. The growth of Ball State has also expanded Muncie's universe, adding an art museum, a theater program, and a basketball program that regularly draws crowds of 7,000 or more.
What all this means is that the Muncie Central Bearcats are no longer the only game in town. On the morning of the Anderson game, the front of The Muncie Star's sports page carried stories about the departure of Ball State's athletic director, the latest trials of Indiana University's basketball team, and a wire story about former wide receiver Steve Largent's election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The boys' basketball county tournament got a headline, but the Bearcat game got not a word.
"That is kind of hard to believe,'' says Mike Lee, athletic director at Muncie Central. "But newspapers' priorities have changed, too. Muncie Central does not sell papers, I guess. And their concern is selling papers. But I have to believe people want to read about Muncie Central.''
Not all Hoosier fans subscribe to the notion that interest in the game is fading. Anderson fans, for one, puff up and explain that there is no place like Anderson for basketball. Their gym, the Wigwam, seats 8,996, and most game nights find some 6,000 screaming Indian fans there. Players are such celebrities in town that before Christmas this year, they visited sick children in local hospitals and delivered stockings stuffed with team souvenirs.
Anderson coach Hecklinski, meanwhile, has his own radio show. The focus is basketball, of course, but the talk on the program a few days before the Muncie Central game turned to the 60 pounds of Polish sausage that he cooked with his brother before Christmas. "There's not a better high school coaching job in the state of Indiana,'' he says. "If I leave on my own terms, or if I'm not good enough and get fired, that's it. This is my last coaching job. There would be no other place that I could coach that would top this.''
Still, Anderson's reputation as a basketball hotbed could easily cool in the future. The Indians' most loyal fans are the city's older residents. The average season ticket holder is 60 years old, says booster-club president Frank Graham, and some of these folks already skip the regular season to winter in Florida.
The Indians might be able to hook a new generation of fans, but consolidation threatens the school's basketball tradition. In December, the city's superintendent of schools, Jane Kendrick, outlined a plan to merge the three city high schools into one and raze Anderson and the 120-year history of the Indians. While Kendrick touted the cost-savings and educational advantages of such a plan, many Indian fans saw in it only broken traditions and fewer opportunities for students to play sports. At a public forum on the plan a few days before the Muncie game, dozens of parents and residents threatened to shorten the political careers of any school board member who voted for it. "There is absolutely no reason we can't have traditions and excellent academics,'' one parent told school officials. "You do not have the right to destroy what has taken 120 years to build.''
The meeting topped the late news broadcast on one Indianapolis television station and made the Anderson Herald-Bulletin's front page the next day. Both accounts carried the superintendent's most pointed response. "You can kill the messenger,'' she said, "but the message remains--our kids are entitled to the best education and the best of technology.''
Americans have wrapped rural life in the warm glow of nostalgia almost from the day the country was born. The Founding Fathers "made the farmer a symbol of the new country and wove the agrarian myth into its patriotic sentiments and republican idealism,'' historian Richard Hofstadter writes in The Age of Reform. With the country's industrialization and modernization, Hofstadter argues, Americans' "sentimental attachment'' to rural living has grown even stronger and with it the notion that small towns are more wholesome and godly than big cities.
If any state ever lived the rural ideal, it is Indiana. For much of its history, the state's landscape and rhythms of life have been dominated by small towns. Almost always, the anchors of each of these communities were the school, the church, and the families who earned their livings by the sweat of their brow.
While Indiana remains rural in many ways, the small town is dying out, and the city now sets the pace of life. The Indianapolis metropolitan area alone is home to more than a quarter of the state's population.
Once a year, however, small towns get the chance to dominate the state once again. With Delaware and Kentucky, Indiana is the last state with a one-class high school basketball championship tournament. Rather than group its schools by enrollment size for competition, as most states do, Indiana throws all its teams together and hands the state title to whatever school is left standing after the one month of single-elimination play.
Hoosiers love this tourney format because it produces David-and-Goliath struggles between tiny country schools and their big-city neighbors. In 1985, noted author David Halberstam visited Indiana and was struck by how the tournament fosters a dream throughout the state that reconnects Hoosiers to their rural past.
The dream, he writes, "is that a tiny school with a handful of boys will go to the state finals and fulfill the ultimate destiny--beating one of the big-city schools....[And] when the dream happens, or at least almost happens, the state rests again comfortably in its myth, that this is still a simple and quiet rural life.''
The last time this dream came true was in 1954. That was the year that tiny Milan High School, enrollment 161 students, took on mighty Muncie Central, already a state champion four times over. That night, David's slingshot found the mark as senior guard Bobby Plump swished a 15-foot jump shot in the game's last seconds for a 32-30 Milan upset.
The underdog Milan stole the game and Hoosier hearts. A Milan car dealer loaned the boys Cadillacs for their victory parade home. The motorcycle policeman who led their caravan out of Indianapolis was so touched by the victory that he cried. Milan was only a town of 1,000 at the time, but newspaper accounts from the day report that 40,000 people packed the town and the 13 miles of highway leading to it.
More than 30 years later, Hollywood turned Milan's finest hours into the hit movie Hoosiers. Although the movie took poetic license with the Milan story, real Hoosiers praise its portrait of small-town basketball. A few small schools have come close to repeating what is now known as the "Milan Miracle,'' but all have fallen short.
This year's tournament may be one of the last in which small schools have a shot. Concerned about the declining attendance figures and pressured by small schools that increasingly find it difficult to compete, the Indiana High School Athletic Association last year assigned a committee of eight principals and athletic directors to study class play for all high school sports. Talk has swirled about such a change for years, but Hoosiers this time sense that the association will take the plunge.
The move won't be popular. Traditionalists fear that it would wreck the game, not rescue it. Despite the declining attendance, they say, high school basketball in Indiana still draws more fans than any other state. "I'm a purist,'' says Mike Conner, the girls' basketball coach at Lafayette Jefferson High School and a former player for tiny Otterbein High School. "I don't like the designated hitter in baseball, either.''
But officials at many of the state's smaller high schools think it's time to break with tradition. Jack Butcher is the last coach you would expect to call for a class tournament. After 38 years at the 350-student Loogootee High School, his nearly 700 victories make him the winningest small-school coach in the state. He has taken his team to the state finals once and the Final Four twice, and his teams regularly slay Goliaths with a delay-game strategy that levels the talent.
But as consolidation has produced bigger and bigger schools, Butcher says, the talent gap between teams has widened and turned more tournament games into blowouts. Also, crowds at Loogootee games have shrunk over the years, and unlike the past, people don't seem to get worked up about the team until tournament time. "It's almost sacrilege to say that you would favor class basketball, but I think it would be worth trying,'' Butcher says. "It could rejuvenate basketball in small towns and take it back to the days of yesteryear.''
Just hearing the name Bobby Plump takes some people in Indiana back to the days of yesteryear. He was the triggerman who put Milan over the top in 1954, and his life's story is perhaps the perfect allegory for Hoosier Hysteria.
Plump was born in Pierceville, Ind., a town of about 45 people. The last of six children, his father bought him a basketball hoop when he was in 3rd or 4th grade and nailed it to a backboard fashioned out of packing crates. Plump and his friends soon were shooting baskets around the clock. For night games, they'd string a wire with a bulb and reflecting tin across a couple of poles. At times, it was so cold that when they went inside to warm up by the fire, the skin on their fingers would crack. When that happened, Plump and his buddies would simply wrap their fingers in tape and head back to their game.
"You gotta understand,'' Plump explains today. "There wasn't a whole hell of a lot to do in Pierceville or Milan. You either played ball or worked in the garden or worked in the farm or went to bed.''
During their senior year in high school in 1954, Plump and his friends would engineer the "Milan Miracle.'' Plump's game-winning shot still echoes around the state. His championship letter jacket hangs in the state museum in Indianapolis, and his phone rings off the hook with requests for speaking engagements and celebrity-golf outings. His autobiography, Bobby Plump: Milan's Miracle Man, will be published soon. The proposed cover photograph is a shot of Plump, hands on hips and wearing an open-collar shirt and his black-and-yellow Milan letter jacket. Behind him, in soft focus, you can see a grain silo, and a cornfield edges into the left side of the frame. In Plump, it seems, there is a symbolic melding of Indiana's basketball traditions and its farming past.
A few days before the Muncie Central-Anderson game, Plump arrived early at Bobby Plump and Associates, his suburban Indianapolis insurance agency, to talk with yet another reporter who wanted to hear about his famous shot. At 58, he still resembles the skinny teenager with the crew cut whose picture hangs in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. But now, gray touches the hair at his temple, and the uniform and high tops have been replaced by a suit and tasseled wingtips.
Asked about changes in the game since he played, Plump talked not about declining attendance but about the increased emphasis on winning. Kids no longer play for the love of the game, he said, they play to win. And if they lose, everyone--the parents, the newspapers, their friends--rates them failures. The hype and media attention focused on the game increase this pressure while at the same time giving players the sense that they are something special.
"In Milan, people didn't look at us as if we were something special,'' he said. "We were just part of the community. The only way I knew we were special was when the motorcycle policeman revved up his motorcycle and took us through all those red lights.''
Changing to a class tournament would only fuel the notion that winning is the only purpose of the game, Plump said. "How many classes are we going to have?'' he asked. "Why don't we have 20? And then we'd have all those champions. Or 10? Or 5? I hope they don't go to the class system. I think there's a lot of pressure for them to do so. But I honestly believe that some years down the road--I don't know how many--they'll look back on it and think it's a mistake.''
It's the fourth quarter now at the fieldhouse, and although Anderson has dominated the game, Muncie Central has mounted a comeback to cut the Indians' 12-point lead in half.
"Hold on,'' Morry Mannies tells his listeners. "You always feel like the Muncie-Anderson games will go down to the wire, and this one could very well do that.''
With one minute and 10 seconds to play, an Anderson turnover and foul puts Muncie Central's Arwin Strong on the line with a chance to tie the game at 71-71. Strong is one of the Bearcats' best players off the bench, but he clanks the front end of his one-and-one off the rim. In the stands, Harold Lang marks an "L'' on his program by Strong's name for a "lost opportunity.'' The final score is Anderson 77 and Muncie Central 73.
Lang and Mills bundle up for the trek home, but they wait for the crowd to thin out before heading for the door. This was a good game, they agree, but next week the Bearcats take on Muncie South, the other high school in town. That game is almost always a barn-burner.
As for the potential change to a class tournament, the two are resigned to it even if they aren't happy about it. "The people down in Indianapolis are in charge,'' Mills says. "They will do what they want. I just hope they don't ruin it.''
"I'd hate to see them change it,'' Lang adds, "but you have to realize: I've seen it the other way, and I don't want to change anything. When you've had it your way for all these years, you hate to give it up.''