Sunday, April 4, 2010

Go Dawgs!

This blog post will depart from my normal subjects in honor of an amazing story that all the media has adopted: the Butler Bulldogs are 40 minutes and one win away from being crowned NCAA Men's basketball champions. Never in my life have I dreamt that I could write those words, and I'm sure for many of the Butler faithful, the feeling is mutual. Having had the opportunity to work at Lucas Oil Stadium for the games yesterday, I was blessed with the chance to see how Butler students reacted once the game was over. While I did not see much of the game action because of my job duties in gate security, I couldn't help but feel a personal connection to Butler and its storied basketball program. And while I don't know any of the team's current players or coaches personally, that feeling of connection to the Bulldogs has never been stronger. Here's my connection, and please bear with me as I have been overcome with an urge to write about a topic that, like motorsports, has been a staple and life long passion of mine: basketball.

As it says in my blog bio, I am "just a Hoosier." By the time my family moved to the Butler Tarkington neighborhood in June 1968, I was long since overcome with basketball fever. Watching the high school kids play on a dirt court at a rim nailed to a tree in Logansport; going to watch the Berries play mighty Anderson in the sold-out Wigwam; playing on a snow covered hoop with chain nets at the end of a cul-de-sac in Kokomo; going to the gym with my Dad before I was in kindergarten in Bourbon; bringing home the Ring-A-Bell hoop from the dime store and nailing it to the tree in our driveway; watching the Pacers play the New Jersey Americans at Kokomo High School the first year of the ABA and sitting in the front row for a professional basketball game. I still have my "Play Better Basketball with Oscar Robertson" book with the Big O on the cover in his Cincinnati Royals uniform. Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was play basketball.

Moving to Indianapolis a block away from Hinkle Fieldhouse took my basketball fever to an insane new level. Tony Hinkle was the Butler coach then, and the Indiana High School sectionals, regionals, semi-states and state finals were played there through 1971. We charged fans to park their cars in our driveway for the finals in an organized effort of neighborhood kids, then we would watch the games on Channel 6 with Tom Carnegie at the mike, hit Hamaker's Pharmacy and load up on candy and pop before coming back to shoot hoops in our gravel driveway until it was time for the championship game that night.

Attending games of any sort at Hinkle has always held a special place in my life, and we used to sneak into Butler games whenever we could pool a couple dollars for one ticket to send someone in to pop the doors by one of the ramps so the rest of use could run in. We never got caught and it was rare that we couldn't get in. Butler's teams were not all that great back then but they had some incredible players with local connections who were always accessible to me as a player. I used to go into Hinkle all the time, just to see if anyone was playing on the raised court, often getting the opportunity to shag balls for Billy Shepherd. Or I'd sneak a couple of jump shots in before the old security guard with his little dog would chase me out. Or weasel my way into the girls gym to play against the college kid by telling security that my Dad was a professor at Butler. In the dead of winter or during Christmas break, my brother and I or another friend would go to Hinkle and check every outside door to see if any had been left ajar, and many times found ourselves playing there with the whole place to ourselves. All through high school, I'd work out there and run steps or the ramps and play games in my head, imagining myself competing on the big court down below.

If there is a basketball heaven on earth, then Hinkle Fieldhouse is it. Long before the movie Hoosiers came out, I was one of those kids whose only dream was to play in the "big game" there. Even as many times as I have seen that movie, I still get goosebumps and weepy when the Huskers walk up the ramp from the locker room to the playing area. I have made that walk too and the memories are etched in my mind. Playing in front of over 11,000 people in the sectional final my senior year at Shortridge was a surreal experience, and while I was never recruited by Butler, I cannot escape the allegiance I feel to its program and Hinkle Fieldhouse. It has been awesome to watch all the national coverage this week and hear about media from everywhere wanting to make the trip to the historic old barn on West 49th Street. As a high school player and neighborhood kid in the early '70's, I knew and played with/against lots of Butler guys there. Dave Speckman, a fellow Blue Devil four years my senior, took me under his wing and got me in games anytime I showed up. Darryl Mason, Billy Shepherd, Marty Monserez, Clarence Crane and one of my high school teammates Wayne Burris were Bulldogs I looked up to and tried to emulate. Tony Hinkle was always there at Butler games in the front row after he retired and the coach who succeeded him, George Theofanis, had been coach at Shortridge before my high school days. Then years later, Todd Lickliter, who I played against in high school in the sectionals at Hinkle, became the Bulldogs' coach and created another attachment for me to the place where I felt like an alum despite never having been inside a Butler classroom.

A basketball season does not pass without attending at least one game at Hinkle and the photos I shot at their game against Loyola this season are going to be mementos for the ages. Now to top it all off, Butler has to play Duke for the National Championship. I have a personal connection to Duke as well, as my University of Chicago team played at Cameron Indoor Stadium my junior year and although our little Division III program got crushed by the Duke team that was national runnerup to Kentucky and featured Mike Gminksi, Gene Banks, Kenny Dennard and Jim Spanarkel, the Duke wristband I found in the locker room before that game is a cherished artifact of my college playing days and another reminder of those boyhood dreams of being a basketball player.

After Butler beats Duke tomorrow night 67-66, all of the Butler faithful can rejoice once more for the little school that could. Wouldn't Mr. Hinkle be proud? Go Dawgs!

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