INDIANAPOLIS – Sometimes at Hinkle Fieldhouse, you can see haze in the air from dust that can never quite be cleaned up. The court creaks a bit in places – the man who hit the most famous shot here calls it sensitive.
And the sunlight that sometimes shines onto the floor through those huge windows?
“That’s homecourt advantage,” Butler’s assistant athletic director Carl Heck says with a wry grin.
Magic has happened in this venerable building, from the 1954 high school showdown that inspired “Hoosiers” to the undefeated homecourt record that Butler put up on its run to this weekend’s Final Four just a few miles away. The “Old Barn” just has that feeling, more than a movie, a building or a floor. For decades, it was the court of dreams in Indiana.
“It was such a wonderful place to play in,” said Oscar Robertson, who won two state championships there. “It was so mystical.”
Gordon Hayward, whose grandson, Gordon, is the star of the Bulldogs team, knows it.
“It’s historic, a beautiful facility,” the elder Hayward said. “You know, my grandson had offers from other schools, like Purdue and Michigan, but he chose to come here because he thought they had the best facility.”
In “Hoosiers,” coach Norman Dale of the small-town Hickory Huskers realizes his players are in awe when they arrive at the 15,000-seat fieldhouse. Hoping to calm them down before the state championship, he pulls out a tape measure and asks them to check the height of the baskets. When they realize that the rims are 10 feet high, just like the ones back home, they relax.
A scene like that never happened, says Bobby Plump, the real-life version of Jimmy Chitwood who made the game-winning shot for little Milan in the 1954 Indiana state final. But his team’s awe of the building was real. His first experience with it came when coach Marvin Wood took the Indians there before a state tournament game in 1953.
“Woody walked us by the floor, and all of us just stopped,” Plump, now 73, said. “You know, that place was mammoth, and especially from down home. It just got quiet for a little bit, and Bob Engel, one of our players, looked around and said ‘You could put a lot of hay in this place, couldn’t you?’ That kind of broke the ice.”
Milan lost in the semifinals that year, but roared through postseason play the next year. The Indians beat a young Robertson and his Indianapolis Crispus Attucks squad on the way to the championship.
The southeast Indiana school an hour’s drive west of Cincinnati, enrollment 161, squared off in that title game with Muncie Central, a school 10 times its size. It was only possible because Indiana’s single-class system allowed the smallest of schools to dream the biggest of dreams. Excitement about the Indians had grown because of their postseason run in ’53, so the crowd was in their corner.
Milan led 23-17 at halftime, but Central dominated the third quarter and tied the game heading into the fourth.
Milan called a timeout with 18 seconds left and the score tied at 30. Plump dribbled near the midcourt circle, then advanced as time wound down. He cut hard to his right, pulled up and drained a 15-footer to win the championship. The fans were delirious.
“I only had 10 points against Muncie Central,” Plump said. “It was the worst game I had in two years of tournament play, but it’s the one everybody remembers.”
Plump’s shot was instant legend in Indiana, and it became a worldwide phenomenon after the movie debuted in 1986, with the championship scenes filmed in the fieldhouse.
“That probably stands out as the most significant thing to happen in high school basketball,” Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird said. “For Milan to be able to win a state championship had to be something special, not only then, but to see it evolve over the next 50 years is pretty magnificent.”
Little has changed at the fieldhouse since Plump’s famous shot 56 years ago.
Hinkle Fieldhouse and the Butler Bowl football stadium cost a combined $1 million to build – an enormous amount of money 82 years ago. The Indiana High School Athletic Association helped foot the bill because it wanted more space to host its increasingly popular state basketball finals.
When completed in 1928, the fieldhouse held more than 15,000 people, the largest such facility in the nation during its first 20 years of existence. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Walk in the south doors of the huge brown brick building and you can look at team photos old and new on the walls of the dimly-lit hallway. There’s a large trophy case that is a virtual shrine to Tony Hinkle, the longtime Butler coach and athletic director the building was renamed for in 1966.
Step into the arena itself and the roof soars above, with huge rows of windows. The west windows are always covered by curtains, but the east windows are never covered. The court originally ran from east to west, but it was switched to north-south in 1933 because sunlight caused problems for the players.
“When you walk in here and it’s a full house, that light – there’s like a haze that comes across it because you can’t clean this building 100 percent,” said John Harding, a 65-year-old Indianapolis native who has been the equipment manager for 19 years. “You don’t clean concrete that’s been here since 1928. There’s just dust. It’s been here. You see that haze coming across there in kind of an arc right going down – it comes right down on the floor.”
The oak floor has been replaced over time, but the risers below are the originals. The court creaks when you walk on it and it’s uneven in some spots. The soft, flexible wood has made it a favorite of players through the years.
“It all came back to me when the movie ‘Hoosiers’ came out,” Plump said. “People magazine wanted to take a picture of me in my letter jacket at Hinkle Fieldhouse. I’m standing under the basket at the south end and they’ve got their camera for the picture on a tripod on my side of the 10-second line. There’s a kid dribbling under the basket on the north end. They asked him to stop because it was jiggling the camera. That’s how sensitive the floor was.”
The fieldhouse hosted the state championships from 1928 to 1971 and Plump’s is far from the only stirring tale.
John Wooden is known the world over as a winning basketball coach at UCLA. Perhaps his most painful loss came as a player in the 1928 state finals, the first at the fieldhouse.
Wooden’s Martinsville team led Muncie 12-11 late in the game, but Muncie was issued a technical foul for taking too long while attending to an injury to Charles Secrist. Wooden, an excellent free-throw shooter for the defending state champs, missed the free throw.
According to the rules of the day, the ball came to midcourt for a jump ball. Secrist tipped the ball to himself, then fired the ball toward the basket from just beyond halfcourt, hoping to give himself a chance to rebound. The high, arching shot somehow dropped through the net, and Muncie won 13-12.
In 1955, Robertson scored 30 points to lead his team to the state title against Gary Roosevelt. It was the first state title in the nation for an all-black team.
“It came to mean more later,” Robertson told the Associated Press. “You’re not aware of all that in high school. I didn’t find out about all those things until I was into my adult years.”
Attucks scored 97 points that day, an Indiana record that still stands.
The next year, Attucks became the first unbeaten state champion in Indiana behind 39 points from the “Big O.”
Over time, the building has become somewhat modernized. Chairs were added around the lower section in 1989, dropping the seating capacity to 11,000.
But for the most part, it’s an uncomplicated place.
There are no video screens, no escalators, no air conditioning. Filled to capacity on a cold winter’s day, it gets hot enough that the windows have to be opened. Nothing fancy.
“The people that really appreciate tradition and history love it,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said.
“If you’re looking for new amenities and flashy things and something that everybody’s trying to build to keep up with the Joneses, I think you’ve got to go somewhere else.”