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Craig Sanders on the Knightstown Gym and covering L&M

Musings About Writing, Photography and Teaching

Hickory’s Home Gym and Memories of Covering Indiana High School Basketball

Sitting in these bleachers was the once the place to be in small town Indiana on a Friday or Saturday night.

Once a high school gym, then the set for a movie, the Hoosier Gym is now a community center.

Of course the door leading into the gym are made of dark wood. Norman Dale’s voice still echoes off these walls.

The dressing rooms in the 1950s were quite Spartan.

Some lines from the movie are scrawled on the board inside the dressing room.

I was driving home Ohio in August 2012 on Interstate 70 in central Indiana when I noticed a sign advertising the Hoosier Gym.

I knew it was where the local basketball scenes had been filmed for the 1986 movie Hoosiers. Set in the fictional village of Hickory, the gym is located in Knightstown and used to be that community’s high school gym. It wasn’t far off the interstate so I made a detour and go see it.

Earlier in my life I had spent time as a newspaper reporter in small gyms like this one covering high school basketball. That included two years in Indiana in the middle 1980s so the Hoosier Gym had a familiar and comfortable feel.

I was transported back to the days when I covered a small school in Greene County that had a storybook season much like the one that inspired Hoosiers.

If you know anything about Indiana high school basketball you’ve heard or read about the 1954 Milan state championship team on which Hoosiers is loosely based.

L&M was a consolidated school for the towns of Lyons and Marco. In the 1984-85 season, the Braves were for a time ranked the No. 1 team in Indiana. They were the subject of stories in Sports Illustrated and Esquire because many thought L&M might be the next Milan.

But their dream was crushed on a Saturday night in Evansville in March 1985. Had the Braves won, they would have gone to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

I covered that L&M basketball team for two years for The Herald-Telephone, the daily newspaper in Bloomington that has since been renamed The Herald-Times.

I was a part-time sports writer attending graduate school at Indiana University. Covering L&M was one of the more memorable experiences of my journalism career and the loss that knocked them out of the tournament would be the last basketball game I covered.

I thought a lot about that L&M team of long ago as I walked around the Hoosier Gym trying to visualize the scenes in the movie that were filmed there.

Hoosiers has a connection with that L&M team. One of the actors in the movie was Wade Schenck, who played the role of equipment manager Ollie. He’s the guy who sinks two free throws to win a key game. Schenck also played on that L&M team that had dreams of being the next Milan.

Hoosiers was not expected to become the big success that it did, making $28 million. Two of the film’s name stars, Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, had doubts about it.

But critics have said it resonated because it seemed authentic, even to those who know little to nothing about Indiana high school basketball or life in small town Indiana. That authenticity extended to the gym used in the movie, which still feels like it’s 1952 even if there are some modern touches, e.g., the scoreboard, that are out of  historical context.

But walk around the gym and you can feel like it is 1952 again. You can see the townspeople of Hickory sitting on those hard wooden bleachers on a cold winter night in January and cheering for the Huskers as though that was the most important thing they would do that week with the possible exception of going to church the next morning.

Whatever the outcome of the game they will talk about it all week until the next game. And if Hickory wins that year’s sectional tournament, they’ll talk about that for the rest of their lives.

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