My Town: Gyms and the Making of Small-Town America

by Stephen Webb ’83

July 10, 2008

Indiana basketball exemplified the first rule of communitarian philosophy: The local should have priority over the national. Hoosiers identify with their hometowns, and they express that pride by rooting for the high school basketball team. Towns in Indiana are still known by their best players: "Lebanon: Home of Rick Mount."

This was especially true 50 years ago. High schools were the center of attention because a high school diploma was sufficient for finding your place in the local economy. And at the center of every high-school was basketball. This lack of diversity had its limits, but when people know each other and identify with their community, they take more responsibility for each other and for their own actions.

Communitarians think that communities are created and sustained by intentional activity. Communities cannot be left to chance. One of the most important ways to build a good society is to make buildings that enable people to make connections with each other. For small towns in Indiana throughout the 20th century, basketball gymnasiums served this precise purpose.

Of the 16 high-school gyms with the largest seating capacity in the United States, 15 are located in Indiana. Broaden that list, and Indiana has 26 of the largest 28 gyms in the nation. The largest of them all is the fieldhouse in New Castle, IN, which seats 9,314.

There are many reasons for these remarkable statistics. Indiana had good roads for driving from one game to another, long winters to encourage indoor practice, and many towns too small to field a good football team.

Indiana also had early dibs on the game itself. The Rev. Nicholas C. McKay, a protege of James Naismith, brought the game to the Crawfordsville YMCA only two years after it was created. He substituted iron hoops for peach baskets and used coffee bags to hold the ball. Someone soon got the idea to cut the bottom of the coffee bags so they would not have to push the ball out with a pole. The game was born in Massachusetts, but it grew up in Indiana.

The One Place All Could Gather

The first basketball games were played in attics, Masonic halls, barns, and churches. The first gyms were so irregular in size, with protruding walls and low ceilings, that local rules took effect, allow-ing players to make bounce shots and eliminating out of bounds.

Many gyms looked like barns for obvious reasons. Less obvious was the egalitarian impact of the gyms on town life. People of all incomes and religious affiliations sat together and rooted for the same cause. Schools were not desegregated for years to come, but Indiana gyms helped begin the process of creating unity amid diversity.

The state tournament—first held in 1911, when it was won by Crawfordsville High School—gave Hoosiers a sense of identity and allowed small towns to express their loyalty and pride. Towns competed to be sectional and regional hosts, so they began building gyms that often held more people than the number of residents who lived there. In many Indiana towns, the gym was the largest building and thus the one place where everyone could gather—and gather they did. The gyms held dances, school plays, and graduation ceremonies, as well as basketball games, but the games gave the gyms their most lasting significance. Even as late as the 1990s, when there were more entertainment options for young people than ever before, nearly one million Hoosiers annually attended the various rounds of the state tournament. At the same time, California, with six times as many residents, was drawing only 250,000 fans to its state tournament.

Not many of the gyms built in the 1920s through the 1940s remain in use today. Many of these buildings were rendered obsolete by school consolidations that began in the late 1940s. In 1950, 766 high schools competed in the state tournament. By 1990, that number was reduced to 386.

For many communities, the closing of the gym meant the end of their existence. In 1950, Life magazine covered the closing of Onward High School, when state troopers were sent to evict the parents who surrounded the school and the students who stayed inside. The struggle lasted two years, ending only when the state nullified Onward High School’s accreditation.

In many cases, old high-school gyms became elementary schools or community centers. Some became churches or business. Others were preserved only to remain empty, abandoned to the weather
and the elements but full of too many memories to be torn down.

Anyone driving by these old, decaying gyms today is led to reflect on the radical transformation in the way many Americans find meaning in their lives. Small-town life used to have precedence over big cities and national news in a way that is hard to imagine today. People lived in face-to-face communities where they shopped at stores owned by their neighbors and rooted for the boy who lived down the street.

Television dramatically changed the way athletes are treated. Athletes who are intimately known by their community are expected to uphold the local values. Athletes who are national stars are held to more rigorous competitive standards, but unfortunately, less rigorous standards of behavior. National stars get away with outrageous behavior because they are essentially entertainers who have no direct impact on the lives of their fans. Local stars are asked to do their best and to behave in the process.

One way of understanding the impact of television on sports is to draw on the distinction, often made by communitarian philosophers, between virtual and real communities. Virtual communities exist more in the imagination than in concrete reality. They are created by magazines, newspapers, television, and, increasingly,
the Internet. They are sustained by advertising and merchandise.

Towns used to be united by the team they rooted for. Now you do not know who your fellow citizens root for unless they wear the logo of their favorite team. Virtual communities can be exciting and engaging, but something is lost when the local is replaced by the national or international.

When people no longer feel like they belong to local communities, their basic human need for belonging is replaced with nostalgia for the past. Take Conseco Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, for example. With a vintage scoreboard, a roll-out bleacher section, a brick concourse, and ushers dressed in uniforms that look like they were pulled from a Hollywood costume rack marked "50s," it looks like a high-school gym. The arched roof brings back memories of the old field houses that dotted the cornfields of Indiana. A ticket gets you not just a ballgame but also a set of memories and a feeling of warmth about the past.

Conseco Fieldhouse has been praised as one of the most attractive stadiums in the nation, but it cannot replace the social functions of the gyms it is meant to imitate. The tickets are expensive, so only the relatively well-to-do can afford to attend games on a regular basis. The gym is in the middle of the state’s largest city, so people in small towns are made to feel on the margins of the action, isolated and left behind. Finally, there is undoubtedly a diverse crowd at the games, but the fans come from all around and so have little to talk to each other about except the game itself. The most interaction takes place in the expensive suites, which businesses rent to entertain their clients. Rather than being active participants in the meaning of the game, fans are passive consumers of a product. The particular and local have been replaced by the general and universal.

The Unmaking of Small-Town Basketball

Ironically, the very state that perfected small-town basketball has threatened its viability, so Indiana can be considered a laboratory of sorts for the plight of small-town sports in a culture obsessed with national fame. This is because Indiana officials decided to phase out single-class basketball by the end of the 1990s.

The decision to eliminate the single-class system was hard fought and emotional—and for good reasons. Single-class basketball actually was the secret behind Indiana’s small town traditions. When only one team from the state is the champion and a single loss is grounds for elimination from the tournament, every team has a chance. The smallest schools can dream of glory and the largest schools have to agonize over the possibility of an upset. Players from the smallest schools have an opportunity to prove themselves against the very best.

The founding legend of Hoosier basketball concerns just this scenario. On March 21, 1954, little Milan, with an enrollment of 161 students, battled powerful Muncie Central, which was 10 times bigger, to a tie in the championship game. When a farm kid named Bobby Plump hit the last shot, Indiana had its own version
of the David and Goliath story. The next day, 40,000 people descended upon Milan, a town of 1,500, to celebrate the victory.

The Milan miracle was never repeated, which is one reason why state officials decided to disband the single-class system.

But the whole point of the single-class system was twofold: give everyone a chance and teach young people to handle adversity. For everyone to want to have a chance, however, there must be something nearly unachievable to strive for. Larry Bird, for example, called himself the "Hick from French Lick," but he just wanted a shot at the state title. Oscar Robertson, perhaps the greatest all-around basketball player Indiana has produced, overcame prejudice and discrimination to lead Crispus Attucks to the state championship in 1955 and 1956. In fact, until Robertson stormed through Indiana basketball, small towns were more likely to have integrated teams than big city schools, because there was just one high school in a small town that everyone attended. In 1930, Dave Degernette was the first black student to play for a state championship team, and the school was located in the very small town of Washington, IN.

The people who wanted to eliminate the single-class system had the noble goal of increasing the number of championship opportunities, but their plan also sent a less positive message to kids from small towns or underprivileged schools: You cannot compete with the big-city schools and the wealthy programs. Small-town basketball is small time.

Why I Don’t Watch the NBA

Small-town basketball rewarded the kid who was willing to put in hours of practice, even though he was not very tall or very fast.

When Larry Bird enrolled at Indiana University in the fall of 1974, the size of the campus—30,000 plus students—was too overwhelming. He fled home and played on the playgrounds in his small town. He was not a sophisticated kid, but he would become one of the world’s best basketball players. There was a popular poster in the 80s that showed him diving for a loose ball. The caption read: "It makes me sick when I see a guy just watching it go out of bounds." Bird used every bit of energy he had in the most efficient manner to overcome his physical limitations and make the big plays.

Communitarian philosophers remind us that bigger is not necessarily better. Players who scramble hard after loose balls can show more excitement for the game than weary millionaires sweating for a mega-paycheck. Small-town basketball is about the virtue of hard work, equal opportunity, and impossible dreams. Professional basketball is fast and furious, with the victory going, more often than not, to the strongest and tallest team, especially when referees hesitate to call fouls and let players take dancing lessons on the way to the basket.

The problem with professional basketball, communitarian philosophers would argue, cannot be blamed on any single individual. Instead, the plight of basketball reflects a reversal of priorities that permeates all aspects of our culture—we have let the global and the national take priority over the local. Communitarians argue
that what is most important should be what lies closest at hand. Family, friends, the corner store, the neighbor, the local church or synagogue—all of these things should be held in higher esteem than people and institutions that we read about in the papers or see on TV without having any personal knowledge of them. The local theater, for example, should be where we learn about acting and stagecraft, rather than television and the movies. We should draw our morality from our friends and relatives, not from the stars
who are created by the power of the screen.

Communitarians can be accused of nostalgia, but for a time, anyway, basketball really worked the way they want everything to work. In Indiana, high school ball was everything. Even when the local stars went off to fine college careers, interest in them just wasn’t the same. That way of being a fan seems strange to us today, but that says more about us than about the way thing used to be.

Stephen Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash. "Gyms and the Making of Small Town America" is an edited excerpt from Basketball and Philosophy, ed. Jerry Walls, University of Kentucky Press.
Contact Professor Webb:


Wabash College • P.O. Box 352 • Crawfordsville, IN 47933 • 765.361.6100