Monday, April 5, 2010

Deserving Cinderfella

by Ben Small

I'm gonna depart from the usual and write today about something not mystery-related. Gotta rest my trigger finger... for the clicker, as I watch Butler win the NCAA National Men's Basketball Championship. Replays, you know. I plan to make my own.

And there's more: I'm on the lam. Dog-catchers... Dog-catchers sporting blue horns -- just like Coach K. Guess somebody didn't like my barking around the neighborhood.

Musta called him,. Coach K. Ratface the UNC folks call him.

Yeah, somebody ratted me out.

Why on the woof? I was born and raised a Hoosier, which means I was raised with a basketball as my best friend. I slept with one, rolled one under my feet as I ate, and played basketball every day after school, snow or not. We played on cement, gravel and dirt, even on uneven ground or hilly driveways. The surface didn't matter. Hoop and ball, that's all we required.

My best buddy's father had season tickets to Butler Bulldogs games during the sixties, which meant I was a frequent attendee. Plus, Butler Fieldhouse was the home of Indiana High School Basketball. It was where tiny Milan High School made history, beating mighty Muncie Central for the state championship in 1954, a feat made legendary on the same floor by the movie Hoosiers.  But contrary to the movie, Milan's victory was no fluke. The year before, Milan had been the state's highest ranking team, small though they were, and Milan beat the awesome Crispus Attucks team, which started the Robertson brothers, Oscar and Bailey. Milan didn't win in 1953, however, their year was 1954. A few years later, the Milan coach, Marvin Wood left the smallest school in the state for the largest, my high school. I knew Marvin Wood; he was my coach and my Driver's Ed instructor. A nice guy who got lucky.

The Milan tradition, the pride, lives on, and this year, Butler is the Milan of college basketball. Butler has only 4200 students, and they're playing for the national championship just six miles from what is now Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler's home floor.

How's that for cool?

Every basketball kid in Indiana knows about Butler basketball and about Tony Hinkle, for whom Butler Fieldhouse was re-named. Tony was Butler's coach forever, it seemed, and what a coach he was. Tark the Shark was famous in part for towels in his mouth. Tony Hinkle pulled on his white socks; he had to change them at every halftime.

Tony Hinkle didn't get the talent the big name schools got, schools like Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue. Tony got what Indiana talent was left over after the name schools ran out of scholarships.  His center was often only about six-foot-five. Tony got by with strategy  and gamesmanship, and his kids went to class. No team played with more intensity than the Butler Bulldogs, and the Bulldogs were tough to beat. Indiana and Notre Dame wouldn't play Butler; they didn't want to lose. Each year Tony would schedule the Hoosier Classic Tournament, and he'd invite Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame. Since Indiana and Notre Dame wouldn't accept the invitation, he'd replace them with Ohio State and Northwestern. And Butler would fare well in the tournament, despite facing the likes of Jerry Lucas and Terry Dischinger, future all-pros. Butler even won some of these games.

Butler made the NCAA tournament once during the sixties, back when the tournament was only about sixteen teams, but it lost its first round game. Who cared? Butler had made the tournament, and all of Indiana celebrated.

But there is more to the Tony Hinkle story. During WWII, some coaches who were drafted or enlisted were assigned coaching positions according to merit. Branch McCracken, Indiana University's legendary basketball coach was assigned to a secondary Army soccer team. Tony Hinkle became coach of the Army's primary basketball team.  He was that good.

And Tony Hinkle loved kids. As a friend reminded me the other day, Tony cut a hole in the fence behind the Butler Bowl, where Butler played football, so kids could sneak in. And during basketball season, Tony cracked open a door in the back of Butler Fieldhouse, by the heating plant and utility facilities.

Needless to say, every kid in Indianapolis loved Tony Hinkle.

Like John Wooden, a close friend of his, Tony was a soft-spoken guy. I never saw Tony raise his voice. He'd show his concern by tugging on those white socks.

Tony Hinkle is gone now, but his legacy lives on. And so does the legacy of Butler Basketball, except now, Butler is playing for a national championship, something that's long overdue.

In this age of one year players, shoe contracts, shots behind the NBA arc instead of the college arc, World Wide Wes, faked SATs and John Calipari's sleaze, Butler is a throwback to days gone by.

But don't bet against Butler. And don't be surprised to hear the name Tony Hinkle. The legacy lives on.

Hollywood Meets the Heartland at Hinkle


Sheila Deeth said...

Me, I grew up on Georgie Best and Manchester United soccer. I had to learn some basketball when we moved here with the kids, but now I'm back to watching soccer, or reading books while the guys watch soccer.

Chester Campbell said...

Well, Ben, they barely missed sinking the Blue Devils. I didn't see it, but it must have been some game.

Jaden Terrell said...

Our office has been abuzz with basketball talk lately. No one predicted the way March Madness would end, but everyone had a good time speculating.

Me, I know so little about the game, I might as well just close my eyes and circle teams at random.