NEW CASTLE — Whether it is Oscar Robertson talking about how basketball taught him to compete or Larry Bird relating how lines of fans around his high school's gym were “mind-boggling” for him, the film “Only in Indiana” puts what Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame visitors are about to view in perspective.
The exhibits displaying uniforms, trophies and memorabilia from the hundreds of high schools that made Hoosier Hysteria a national byword are just part of the experience in the shadow of the nation's largest high school gymnasium.
The brief film presented at the hall's entrance also features comments from Damon Bailey, Stephanie White, Steve Alford, Katie Douglas and George McGinnis.
They talk about what the game means to them and the sense of community it engendered, uniting them all as Hoosiers as they greet guests at a “Taj Mahal tribute to Indiana basketball.”
The hall's board of directors were striving for that caliber of facility in the late 1980s when they moved the museum from office space in Indianapolis to New Castle, a basketball hotbed 35 miles east, said Chris May, the current executive director. There, a local bank donated land, sponsors supplemented a local 1 percent entertainment tax and the local organizing committee promised a dedicated staff of volunteers.
The executive director then was Ron Newlin, this year's Silver Medal winner for an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to Indiana high school basketball other than as a player or coach. He will be recognized at the hall awards ceremony March 22.
“He had a museum background,” said May, who credits the late broadcaster Tom Carnegie, “the Voice of the Speedway,” with being among the prime movers for the hall in 1962. “He (Newlin) was the right guy at the right time.”
Newlin fleshed out the displays and made exhibits museum quality. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily what draws the younger set these days. That's where May, 34, comes in.
Faced with trying to lure younger visitors in, May has a display of current Hoosiers in the NBA, including E'Twaun Moore, of East Chicago, Cody Zeller, of Washington, and Glenn Robinson III, a Lake Central High School grauate.
Facebook has increased to some 12,000 followers since 2009 and special exhibits have become more interactive, including taking the Game Winning Shot, where if you sink the basket the crowd erupts in cheers and the score change flashes. Visitors can become a sportscaster at a microphone on You Make the Call, test their trivia knowledge or see what it takes to block the shots of the “Big O” and Wright.
There is a “theater” where renowned UCLA coach John Wooden gives a video pep talk.
Still, like most museums, the hall's stock in trade is nostalgia. This basketball-crazed state has been churning out hardwood heroes since the 1890s and the hall has enshrined more than 800 individuals and teams.
A ramp reminiscent of those at Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of the Butler Bulldogs and for many years the state high school tournament championship, leads to a display space packed with exhibits dedicated to such legends as Robertson, Bird and Wooden.
Special sections feature memorabilia from boys and girls titles won by East Chicago rosters, the back-to-back state championships won by Crispus Attucks High of Indianapolis in 1955 and 1956, girls basketball history, a wall of records set by coaches and players and a section for the 1954 Milan Indians, the inspiration for the move “Hoosiers.”
May suggests the undefeated 1971 East Chicago Washington state champion team would make a great ESPN 30 for 30 documentary film. The Senators featured hall of famers Peter Trgovich Jr., who was on two UCLA national champions; Junior Bridgeman, the Louisville University star whose Milwaukee Bucks number was retired; and center Tim Stoddard, who played collegiately at North Carolina State. He went on to fame as a pitcher with several major league teams. Trgovich is the East Chicago Central coach and Bridgeman is a highly successful businessman.
May is poised for the hall's busy season which starts in March, coming off the facility's two slowest months. Attendance picks up during state tournament time and the hall's annual awards ceremony. Last year's ceremony was a sellout at 1,200 and May hopes for a similar turnout this year.
The hall is just 5 miles north of Interstate 70 and near the historic Hoosier Gym, “Home of the Hickory Huskers” of the movie “Hoosiers” fame, in Knightstown, which also helps draw cross-country travelers.
“We play off one another,” May said, noting visitors can see the reel-life story of unlikely state champion Milan that Knightstown provides, or the real-life mementos on display in New Castle.
“It's not like we're selling icicles to eskimos,” May says of the area's marketing challenges. “It is basketball … and this is Indiana.”