This past weekend I found myself in Paoli, Indiana, with nothing much to do. I’d been roped into a large outing to Paoli Peaks, the ski slopes just outside town (yes, you can ski in southern Indiana, believe it or not; the slope is down what appears to be an enormous glacial moraine), but was able to escape being expected to hang out with everyone and his cousin.
I’d had the foresight to check ahead of time and found that Springs Valley High School was having a boys’ home varsity basketball game that evening.
Springs Valley High was organized in the late 1950s as a consolidation of three even tinier high schools. By a good margin its most famous alumnus is a feller y’all might have heard tell about: Larry Bird.
I was in junior high school the year that Larry Bird took Indiana State to the NCAA final. He wasn’t much to look at, but boy he could play the game. He was a hero to every awkward-looking, slow, skinny, small-town white kid in the country. And not only could he play the game like few before or since, but he was just a classy guy. In a world of flash and bang and strut and mouthing off, he satisfied himself with quietly making it rain buckets and passing the ball like a magician. I don’t recall ever hearing a single instance of his having behaved — either on the court or off — with anything other than dignity, integrity, and a recollection of where he came from. As successful as he’s been, and few who’ve played the game have ever been more so, he’s never got above his raisin’, as we say around here.
In any event, it’s long been a bucket-list item to go to a game at Larry Bird’s home gymnasium. It’s still the original gym from when the school was built. According to the fire marshal’s sign it seats 2,700. The seating is arranged around all four sides of the court, which I’ve not seen in a high school before. There aren’t all that many rows, either, maybe ten or fifteen, so it produces a very intimate feel; you’re not that far above floor-level even at the very back. The walls are covered in team photos, mostly of teams which went various distances in the state tournament (Larry’s 1974 team won their sectional tournament . . . anyone want to bet that the guys who eventually beat that team still remember the night they took one off Larry Bird?). As you would expect, there’s a very large picture of Larry right over the main entrance, in his Springs Valley jersey.
The crowd wasn’t either all that huge or all that raucous. It was full, of course, but I’d half expected standing room only for Indiana basketball (I have a copy of Where the Game Matters Most, the story of Indiana’s last — in 1996-97 — single-class state basketball season, and I remember the pictures of entire towns driving to away games). It was remarkably quiet, though, well-mannered; even around here, where basketball ain’t the religion it is in small-town Indiana, the crowd at schools no bigger than Springs Valley is something reminiscent of the night Bryan gave his Cross of Gold speech. But these folks were there to watch some ball, visit with the neighbors, and generally enjoy an evening of remarkably clement weather for early February.
I’m no aficionado of basketball, and I not infrequently have to have a friend of mine who is (and to whom I gave my ticket stub yesterday; he and I shot many a basket back in the day, and Larry Bird was there for every one of them) explain the finer points of the game to me. But I could, and did, pick up on a few things. For starts, both teams were much more reluctant to fire off the 3-pointer than around here. This was even though several were scored; in fact, although I don’t have the game stats in front of me, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that both teams shot better than 50% from the 3-point lines. I also noticed that the shooters seemed to put a lot more wrist action on the ball when they shot, and put a higher trajectory on it, than what I’m used to seeing. Both teams also seemed very generous with the ball, in that four- and five-pass possessions weren’t at all unusual.
Inside the game was mismatched. The visitors had a center — No. 45 he was — who took up sea room like a Nimitz-class carrier. Springs Valley couldn’t shoot over him, they couldn’t rebound over him, they couldn’t block his shots, and they didn’t seem to be able to maneuver around him underneath the basket. When he was in the game it was an entirely different game. That notwithstanding, the game was only 21:19 at the half. Beginning in the third period the visitors started to pull away. Springs Valley kept trying to take it down inside and they kept getting stymied, with blocked shots, missed passes, or shooters who lost the ball on the way up. At one point they were down by 15; at the end (and no small thanks to two consecutive 3-pointers late) they lost by 9.
Was it some sort of quasi-religious experience? Of course not. It was just an enjoyable evening of high school basketball in front of a crowd that really likes its basketball, and to whom high school basketball is important, and in a room which has known the tread of greatness. I’m glad I went.