Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hoosier Memories

by Ben Small

This is Indiana's Southport High School gym a week ago, during the Semistate Class 4A Boys Basketball Championship, one week ahead of the State Finals in Canseco Fieldhouse.

Yes, a high school basketball gymnasium.Indiana has many like this one.

Basketball is king in Indiana, nothing else compares to it. Kids go through basketball shoes as if they were made of cotton, and nothing, not even a fuel shortage during a blizzard, like occurred in 1977 and 1978 -- scientists were warning of long-term global freezing and the possibility of new glaciers -- sufficient to close the schools, blocked the playing of the game. Games were played throughout the state, despite lack of heat and with most roads closed. Those who couldn't make the games, passed their tickets to those who could, and instead listened to the games on radio or watched them on television. Yes, television, for high school basketball games.

I grew up in Indianapolis to a rich basketball heritage. As a kid, every waking moment out of school, I spent on a basketball playground, or on weekends in the Indianapolis Athletic Club, a downtown club my father belonged to. He'd drop me off on the way to work and pick me up late in the afternoon.

On the playground, we would play pretend scenarios, adopt fake personas, our favorite high school or college player, of course. "Okay, I'm Oscar," I'd say, as I signaled I was gonna drive to the bucket or take a jump shot. "Ten, nine, eight, seven," and I'd start to make my move. "I'm Bailey," a teammate would yell, informing everybody else he was going for the rebound. "Yeah, but I'm Tech," a defender would yell, referring to the largest high school in the state, the hated Tech, which was short for Arsenal Technical High School, an inner-city, blue-collar high school which focused more on manual skills rather than college-prep.

Tech was always a tough out in the state high school basketball championships, the dream game of every Indiana boy.

So we'd play, and as kids were unaware of the irony of our roles. See, Oscar Robertson and his brother Bailey played for Crispus Attucks, the only designated "Colored School" in the state during the '50s. Attucks played those games it could schedule on somebody else's floor. Whites wouldn't attend games at Attucks, so one only scheduled Attucks, if at all, on one's own court. And that was rare: Attucks had the Robertson brothers, the best basketball players nobody'd ever seen, and Ray Crowe, a brilliant tactician, who was believed to be a black fire-breathing dragon. One didn't schedule Crispus Attucks unless one wanted to lose.

As kids, we didn't care about all that racial stuff. We wanted to be Oscar and Bailey because they were the best. Color of skin never entered into the equation.

And then Oscar broke our heart, went to Cincinnati instead of Indiana, and he won the national collegiate championship. Then to the NBA, where he won a championship, too. And in playing pro ball, Oscar did something nobody else had ever done, hasn't done since either: He averaged a triple double for an entire professional season. That's double figures in points, rebounds and assists in one game.

Oscar became The Big O, until Michael Jordan, the unquestionable best ever. His brother Bailey? Some argued Bailey was the better basketball player, but that argument can never win. Bailey injured himself before college and never played again. Ah, the quirks of fate... 

I play basketball to this day, albeit in the pool. And often, as I get ready for a jump shot against my wife, I yell, "I'm Oscar. Three, two, one...."

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