Basketball time is big-time in Indiana

Everyone gets a turn. Everyone gets a shot. Everyone is 0-0 all over again.

That’s the beauty of the Indiana High School Athletic Association girls and boys basketball tournaments. In the NBA, the winningest teams advance to the playoffs. In college ball, the winningest teams are invited to the NCAA tournament.

In Indiana high school basketball it’s everybody’s game. Every team makes it to a sectional. After that it is on you, depending on how good you are, depending on how hot you are. You win, you play on. You lose, you go home for the season.

The equal-opportunity structure rules when the tournaments begin, which the girls’ did Tuesday night, and the boys’ will in March. Then the tournaments become a merit system.

Not every state invites everyone to play, to go to state, as the vernacular goes. In Indiana, the sectional is an extension of the regular season, something players know will come around. Winning a sectional still means something. It is still something to point to, something to relish.

In this weirdest of all sports seasons, where teams primarily hope to wake up healthy, not wheezing, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams have played on under unusual pressures. They have been restricted by rules and protocols, face masks and size restrictions on their home crowds.

This has drained some of the atmosphere, some of the joy, out of playing the game. The country is gripped by scary times and continuing threats, so sell-out crowds, jammed gyms, and freedom of movement have been limited or eradicated this winter.

At least the games go on, wherever they can, whenever they can be played, teams dribbling around the pandemic.

Indiana basketball has changed over the decades, of course. The sport expanded to welcome girls, which is as it should be. Even though all teams, regardless of size or record, still participate, Indiana once embraced the ultimate in purity.

There was no Class A, AA, AAA, AAAA. All teams competed for one prize. There was one champion. There were not four state champs, but one winner, THE best team in the state was crowned, regardless of school population.

The miracle of Milan was such an extraordinary feat because a tiny school from farm country taking on all comers no matter how big to become the last team standing. It was more than a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, more like a once-in-forever achievement.

The story was so unbelievable because it was true. Even if Hollywood took enough liberties to make “Hoosiers” as a “based-on-a-true-story” effort rather than a strictly-by-the-book truth story. Close enough. The movie is so beloved because it captures the essence and spirit of Indiana basketball the way it was in 1954, the way it was for a long time before society changed in so many ways.

Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the sport of basketball in a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891, did live long enough to see his game blossom and grow to proportions he never imagined.

Naismith was the founder of the program and the earliest in a long line of famous Kansas University coaches. The Summer Olympics invited the sport onto the menu in 1936 (women in 1976).The National Association of Basketball Coaches raised the money to fund Naismith’s trip to the Games in Berlin when he was 74.

Before he passed away in 1939, Naismith also had an opportunity to watch an Indiana high school boys championship. It has always been said Naismith came away from the exhilarating experience saying that was how his game was meant to be played.

Hoosiers have always felt basketball was their game. The passion has run deep for high school ball and in support of Indiana, Purdue and Butler teams, Although it shouldn’t have, it took a little while for the pro game to catch on.

A player who remains a basketball fan later always remembers if his or her team won a sectional, a regional, or went even deeper in the tournament. Any Indiana high school title is a team’s badge of honor for life.

There will never be another Milan, but every year there are proud sectional queens and kings.