Old dirt court near woods provides many memories

On Coffee Pot Road in Austin, there is an old basketball goal that stands next to the woods.

The wooden backboard is attached to a wooden pole that is cemented into the ground. The old rim is still orange in some spots, and the net is stiff as a board.

Old basketball goals like the one in Austin can be found across Indiana, and if you ever take the time to look at one, you’ll see much more than just an old iron rim attached to some wood. They are a sacred symbol of life’s simpler days, when kids from both the family circle and neighborhoods gathered to chase dreams and build lifetime relationships.

The boards on the old backboard on the one in Austin were nailed to the wooden pole back in 1966 by a man named Andrew Watts. Six years earlier, Andrew and his wife, Opal, had moved their family to southern Indiana from eastern Kentucky, settling in on a 100-acre farm about one mile east of the Austin town limits.

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At the time of the move, nine of the Watts’ 12 children were still young enough to live at home. Sports and competition always had been very important to the family, and their love for basketball was a perfect match in a state known for its love of the game.

For the first six years the family lived on the farm, a rim hung on an old barn. But in 1966, Andrew bought a wooden pole and with his own hands, and of course with help from the hands of his sons, the family built a new basketball goal. Before long, the grass out in front of the goal began to fade, as hundreds of games were played, sometimes from daylight to dark, sometimes in the dark and sometimes in the rain when the ground was covered in mud.

Five of the sons, Andy, Howard, Dave, Albert and Ben, all played varsity basketball for the Austin Eagles, and Pat played high school basketball in Kentucky, scoring 34 points for Riverside against Carr Creek, the Kentucky state champion in 1956.

Ben, the youngest of the boys, graduated from Austin in 1974 and said the time he spent with his brothers on the dirt court playing on the wooden basketball goal are some of the strongest memories he has from his childhood.

“When I look at that old goal out there, I can still see all of us playing, sometimes laughing and sometimes fighting, but all of the memories are good ones,” he said. “It seems like yesterday.”

Basketball goals of this kind are no longer built. They’ve been replaced with portable goals and blacktop drives. For some kids, outdoor courts are no longer needed at all because of unlimited access to indoor gymnasiums.

While the newer goals and gyms may be more efficient, none of them present the memories of a dirt court. For the Watts boys, playing on a dirt court near dark woods did require some innovative actions to keep games going at night, like building a huge bonfire near the court from wood and old tires.

Every now and then, the younger boys would talk an older sibling that owned a car into parking the car facing the court and leaving the lights on shining toward the goal.

On cold winter days, the boys were challenged with a new problem — a basketball that would get too cold to bounce on the frozen ground. But Andy said that problem was short-lived, as the boys learned to take the ball inside and lay it by the hot stove, where it would quickly warm up and was rushed back outside for more games.

Another time for innovativeness occurred right after days of rains, and during a family gathering when all 12 of the siblings were present. The older brothers — Pat, Gene and Herschel — wanted to get in on some action with their younger brothers, but the court was nothing but mud. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to play and not wanting to ruin their shoes, someone thought of the idea of playing in their bare feet. The action lasted for hours, and when the boys stopped, they were covered in mud from head to toe, the memory a lasting family favorite.

Having a dirt court by the woods had its advantages, especially for Albert, who from 1970 to 1972 played high school ball for Austin under coach Jim Whitaker. Whitaker had a rule that his players could not play outside during the season and like the Watts family lived on Coffee Pot Road on a small farm just right down the road.

Whenever Albert would see or hear the coach’s truck coming down the road, he would run and hide in the woods until the truck passed by. One time, though, Albert wasn’t fast enough, and Whitaker saw him, and Albert sat the bench the next game.

Of course, along with lots of ankle sprains, there were squabbles, family feuds on the dirt court with the wooden backboard. Like the time older brother Herschel was knocked into the wooden pole by younger brother Dave. Herschel rose quickly wanting to retaliate, wanting to punch Dave, but instead because he was older than Dave, he punched a tree in the woods. There were even feuds with neighbor kids who came to play, but in the end, the feuds turned into wonderful memories and lifetime friendships. Even the most serious outbreaks of tempers are now looked upon as humorous and special.

It has now been more than 49 years since Andrew Watts hung the rim on the wooden backboard near the woods. A lot has changed. Andrew and Opal have passed away, and there are grandkids and great-grandkids, but the old basketball goal still stands there facing the family home, a comforting presence at family gatherings.

Mike Barrett is an area resident with an interest in history. Send comments to [email protected].