In Sunday’s New York Times sports section, I’ve got a long feature on the closing of the Wigwam, the 8,996-seat arena in Anderson, Indiana, that ranks as the second largest high school gym in the world. Or ranked, rather: Anderson’s school board closed the Wigwam last summer, in a decision that frustrated many fans and seemed to strike another blow to the city’s struggling self-image. Those elements certainly belong in this story, but I also tried to focus on the positive — the way the Anderson Indians got a chance to create, in the words of their coach, Joe Nadaline, “a new tradition.” I also took Nadaline’s idea one step further. What could the Wigwam’s closing reveal about the current relationship between Indiana and high-school hoops? Short answer: while it’s taken a few steps back, it remains powerful and pretty much without compare.
That doesn’t mean we should lapse into lazy “Indiana basketball” rhapsodies. (For example.) But it does mean the state continues to offer a surprising level of passion, quality, and, given its smallish size, talent. One way to see this is in the person of John Harrell. I quote Harrell briefly in my story, and his delightfully lo-fi website offers an indispensable resource for any local fan.
Harrell started writing for the Huntington Herald-Press while he was a senior in high school. He migrated to the Bloomington Herald-Times‘ sports desk in the early 1970s. Around the same time, Jeff Sagarin, a sports stats guru who now helps with the BCS rankings, also moved to Bloomington. Harrell started delivering him hand-written lists of Indiana’s high school basketball scores; Sagarin started churning out professional-grade rankings for the state’s programs. (Another reason to be optimistic about Anderson going forward? They played one of the 20 toughest schedules in the state, according to Sagarin.)
“It all developed into this website eventually,” Harrell told me. “I had all these records laying around.” In 2000, Harrell started uploading those records (and the latest scores and schedules) to his personal website. It became crucial for coaches, ADs, journalists, and super-fans, with data that goes back to 1993. Harrell says he still has the earlier stuff — it’s just stuck on a computer that can no longer transfer files to more modern machines. He may get around to transferring it by hand now that he’s retired. “I haven’t been as busy,” he said. “I’ve had more time to devote to the site.”
Like any longtime observer of the Indiana hoops scene, Harrell brought up class basketball and attendance numbers before I could even ask the question. He admits the switch has hurt attendance, but also points out that fan interest has been slowly, steadily declining for decades. (I agree: when you crunch the numbers, you see that class basketball, more than anything else, provides an easy scapegoat for angry nostalgics. See this terrific Indianapolis Monthly story for more.) One thing’s for sure, according to Harrell: class basketball is here to stay. “The small schools have gotten a taste for Indianapolis now,” he said with a laugh.