By Pat Forde | ESPN.com
"In 49 states it's just basketball ... but this is Indiana."
-- Video boards in Conseco Fieldhouse.
INDIANAPOLIS -- That declaration is meant as a rallying cry, a point of pride. These days in the humiliated Hoosier state, it should be viewed as a call to arms.
The state of basketball is lamentable in the state that loves basketball the most. And something needs to be done about it.
The nation's capital of hoops is convulsed in a full-blown, honest-to-Hickory identity crisis. The Final Four, the ultimate celebration of the game, returns to hardwood Mecca for the first time in six years -- and finds the holy land desecrated by bad ideas, bad decisions, bad teams and bad actors. From preps to pros, the franchise sport of Indiana is in lousy shape.
If the Wizard of Westwood has one more magic basketball act in his wand, he should use it to heal his home state. Alas, John Wooden is 95. The Martinsville native and Purdue graduate won't be here for the Final Four.
Perhaps it's a good thing, because Wooden wouldn't like what he would see:
The Prep Tournament
World-famous Indiana high school basketball, the stuff of myth and legend, ruined perfection by switching eight years ago from a single-class state tournament to four classes. The ultimate meritocracy in youth sports has become the ultimate mediocrity. More trophies are awarded; far fewer fans care.
"We had a national heritage that they just gave up," said Bobby Plump, the man who hit the most famous shot in the history of Hoosier Hysteria. It was the shot that gave little Milan High its miracle state title in 1954 over powerhouse Muncie Central and spawned a Cinderella story told a million times over, most notably in the movie "Hoosiers."
In 1962, a reported 1.55 million fans attended state tournament games. Now, Plump says, attendance is about one-third of that. In 1990, 41,046 fans flocked to the then-Hoosier Dome to watch Damon Bailey close out his legendary high school career with a state title. This year, having long since downsized from the dome to Conseco, a total of 31,828 fans watched all four state title games.
"The people have not embraced it," Plump said. "But I don't think they will admit they made a mistake."
The Prep Players
High school basketball has forfeited its charm, but not its talent. The state that produced Oscar Robertson, Rick Mount, George McGinnis, Larry Bird, Steve Alford, Glenn Robinson, Bailey and countless others still churns out great players today.
Problem is, they can't wait to get out of Indiana for college.
Last week Indianapolis Lawrence North High won its 45th straight game and third consecutive state title behind 7-foot center Greg Oden, potentially the best Hoosier baller since Bird, and guard Mike Conley Jr. Their college destination: Ohio State.
The two best talents in last year's class were big man Josh McRoberts of Carmel and point guard Dominic James of Richmond. They started as freshmen for Duke and Marquette, respectively.
In recent years the talent drain has taken Zach Randolph to Michigan State, Jason Gardner to Arizona and Sean May to North Carolina. In 2007 it will take Indianapolis guard Eric Gordon, possibly the best junior in America, to Illinois.
"About all our good high school players are going out of state," said Bird, now president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers. "...That's something that probably hurts more than anything. It's very important to try to keep our kids in-state. That's how you have an identity."
College basketball in the state has lost its leadership, lost its star power and lost far too many games. Ultimately it has lost its place among the elite.
Flagship programs Indiana and Purdue are enduring brutal times.
The five-time national champion Hoosiers have stumbled through four undistinguished, acrimonious seasons since a surprise 2002 run to the NCAA title game. That resulted in the firing of Mike Davis and the tepidly received hiring of Kelvin Sampson from Oklahoma -- neither a glitzy name nor an "IU family name."
Upon the announcement of his resignation in February, Davis declared, "What I want is for this program to be united."
Former Hoosier Ted Kitchel told the Indianapolis Star this week, regarding the Sampson hire: "I wouldn't hire that guy to coach my fifth-grade girls team."
So much for unity. The struggle for the soul of the Hoosiers rages on unabated, six years after it began with the firing of icon Bob Knight.
"The program has definitely been in disarray," said Bailey, now the coach at his alma mater, Bedford North Lawrence High School. "I don't ever want to put the blame on coach Davis; I think he was in a no-win situation from day one. He had some seasons a lot of programs would be happy with, but Indiana wants an opportunity, year in and year out, to compete for a national championship.
"It's lost a lot of support. Hopefully coach Sampson can get back some of that support. ... With the possible candidates out there, I don't know if we could have gotten anyone better qualified. I'm very happy with coach Sampson."
That's part of the problem: getting the top-shelf coaches interested in IU. You know the program has lost something when it offers hefty bank to the coach at Gonzaga and gets turned down.
The Boilermakers are working their way through the Comb-over Hangover, after excessive loyalty to coach Gene Keady led a declining program to rock bottom before the rebuilding could begin. Purdue has made just one of the past six NCAA Tournaments and is trying to relocate its old spunk.
The once-rabid rivalry between the two barely registers nationally and doesn't stir the same passions within the state.
"You don't have the dominant personalities that you did at Purdue and Indiana," said the coach who replaced Keady at Purdue, Matt Painter.
"Matt Painter will do well there, give him some time," Plump said. "They're so far down you have to give him some time."
Nobody else in the state is picking up the slack. Notre Dame barely made the Big East tournament this year and hasn't seen the NCAA Tournament since 2003. The normally reliable mid-major class of Butler, Valparaiso, Ball State, IUPUI, Evansville, Indiana State and D-I newcomer IPFW has combined for one bid the past three Marches.
From 1975 through 2003, the state put a minimum of two teams in the NCAAs every year but one. An Indiana team made the Final Four every year from 1978 through '81 -- and each year it was someone different: Notre Dame in '78, Indiana State in '79, Purdue in '80 and national champion Indiana in '81. Participation peaked in 2000 with six bids. Victories peaked in 1987 at nine, as IU won the national title.
Now look at Indiana's feeble contribution to March Madness: Over the past three seasons, teams from the state have earned two NCAA bids and won exactly one tournament game -- on a last-second shot at that, two weeks ago by Indiana's Robert Vaden against San Diego State. That's it since 2003. That's the worst three-year stretch in this state since 1966-68, a time when far fewer teams got in the tourney.
The NBA's Indiana Pacers, for years one of the most consistent and stable franchises in a turbulent league, lost their all-time most popular player last year: Reggie Miller. Simultaneously, they've had their franchise sabotaged by the man talented enough to succeed Miller but misanthropic enough to undermine everything instead: Ron Artest.
Artest has poisoned the past two seasons for Indiana. In 2004-05, he touched off the infamous Malice in the Palace brawl in Detroit, resulting in a record 73-game suspension that torpedoed the Pacers' chances of seriously competing in the Eastern Conference. They plummeted from 61 wins the previous year to 44.
Then, after Indiana brought Artest back this year and Bird publicly stood behind one of the most unpopular players in the league, Artest repaid him by demanding a trade in early December. The Pacers deactivated him Dec. 12 and went 9-13 without Artest before finally unloading him to Sacramento for Peja Stojakovic Jan. 25. Indiana is currently 35-35 and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings.
"I ain't gonna sit here and blame it all on Ronnie, because other things happened, too," Bird said. "But in the pros, when you don't win, people are disappointed. I see it and I'm disappointed, too."
The State Tournament
The biggest disappointments in Indiana lie below the pro level. The college disappointments are significant, but none is bigger than the atrocity committed upon Hoosier Hysteria.
Understand that Indiana is home to 19 of the 20 largest high school gyms in America, topped by New Castle High, Alford's alma mater, at 9,325 seats. Understand that the Indiana State Library's Web site lists no fewer than 33 books on its shelves relating to high school basketball, including, "Somebody Stole the Pea Out of My Whistle: The Golden Age of Hoosier Basketball Referees." Understand that if there were such a thing as a state sound, in Indiana it would be a basketball slapping off a wood floor in an empty gym.
If you understand all that, if you grasp the folklore and the sport's place in society, you can understand what the state tournament used to be. For that, take a drive through the rolling hills of Southern Indiana.
On Indiana Highway 37 you'll see a sign outside Mitchell, pop. 5,000. It commemorates the 1940 state tournament runner-up, the Mitchell High Bluejackets.
Not the champions. The runners-up. From 66 years ago.
Now drive down the serpentine stretch of Indiana Highway 58 that leads you to Heltonville Elementary School, in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana. The limestone building was once Heltonville High, before it was swallowed by consolidation to create a larger countywide school, Bedford North Lawrence.
Go in the gym. There on one wall, near the exit, is a yellowed photo of the 1954 Heltonville basketball team -- the team that won the school's only sectional championship. Damon Bailey, Heltonville product, says the photo is still there.
The high school was closed 20 years later, but that team lives on in eternity in a town of about 500 souls. That's what this tournament once meant.
The 64 statewide sectionals were the foundation of the tourney: the first round, the local scrum that produced one champion to go to the four-team regionals. From there the regional champ went to the four-team semistate, and from there to the four-team state finals in Indianapolis -- where only one team was crowned king of the state.
In Lawrence County, the sectional was an eight-school brawl back in those days -- the little rural schools like Heltonville trying to knock off the "city" school of Bedford. School would be canceled and opening-round games would be played all day. It was the social event of the year.
And if a little school won a sectional, it was a ticket to local immortality. Just ask the guys from that '54 Heltonville team.
"For smaller schools, the state championships were the sectionals," Bailey said. "If you could come through the sectional and win it, you had that one great weekend of games to remember."
And there are road signs and faded pictures and old trophies all over this state, commemorating those victories.
That's the thing the Indiana High School Athletic Association missed when it dismantled Hoosier Hysteria and replaced it with its four-class, four-champion system, which sometimes sends teams long distances for smaller, sparsely attended sectionals and regionals.
Bird is one of the five most accomplished players in the history of the sport. He's done everything there is to do with a basketball: three NBA titles, three straight NBA MVP awards, an Olympic gold medal, first-ballot Hall of Fame status, ad infinitum. But ask him about the Indiana state tournament from his days at tiny Springs Valley High School, and his recall is as sharp as the epic '84 finals against the Lakers.
After winning its sectional, Valley was in against bigger Bedford in the regional and had a six-point lead with a minute and a half left -- and lost.
"My best friend missed three one-and-ones," Bird said. "I still get mad at him for that."
Larry Legend laughed.
The big thing that loss cost Bird was the chance to play a truly big school, Jeffersonville, in the regional final.
"That's what the state tournament was all about," he said. "You wanted to play against the best. We were a small school, but our goal was to get to the state finals. I'd rather play for one title."
Bailey makes a compelling case for a co-conspirator in the demise of Hoosier Hysteria: consolidation. The number of high schools in the state has dwindled from a high of near 800 to about 400, robbing small towns of their identities and rooting interests along the way.
"If you have seven varsity teams in a county, that's 70 to 80 varsity players," Bailey said. "If you consolidate to one school, that's 12 players. A lot of the consolidated kids' kids are now at the high school level, and their parents didn't grow up playing basketball like mine did. They didn't go to the gym every Friday night.
"That's what my dad did, and his dad did, and his dad's dad did. The student interest is not there as it once was."
Bailey, Bird and Painter all prefer the single-class tournament -- but they pale in intensity to Plump. The 69-year-old Indianapolis businessman who put Milan on the map led an impassioned fight for years against class basketball.
There would be no Milan miracle under the current format. Nothing to talk about for the next 50 years.
"Since they went to class basketball, Milan has been to the semistate twice, and nobody knows it," Plump said. "That gives you the idea that people don't care. The sectional winners in the old days will be remembered a long time after the four state champions are remembered.
"When you can play, you want to play against the big boys. You might get your brains beat out, but it won't be the last time that happens in life."
Basketball in this state is getting its brains beat out on every level these days. For the good of the game and the good of the people who love it more than anywhere else, that needs to change.
After all, in 49 states it's just basketball. But this is Indiana.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.