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Indiana's Hoop Dream May End

Proposed changes in state high school tournament fuel hot debate

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 1996



BOSTON

AT the intersection of middle-American culture and high school sports, three events have long enjoyed prominence: the state tournaments for Iowa girls' basketball, Minnesota boys' hockey, and Indiana boys' basketball. The first two have been revamped in recent years and their flavor changed. Now the last - whose final games are this Saturday - is considering a remodeling so radical that a Hoosier folk hero has been moved to oppose it.

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Bobby Plump, an insurance salesman, heads up Friends of Hoosier Hysteria, a lobbying group that takes calls at a family-owned restaurant, Plump's Last Shot, in Indianapolis. The name refers to his game-winning shot in the 1954 title game, a basket that symbolically is at the center of statewide debate.

As the hero of the tiny Milan (Ind.) High School team that beat mighty Muncie Central and was the inspiration for the 1986 movie "Hoosiers," Plump knows the possibilities that exist with the state tournament's traditional format, which includes every school, regardless of size. Milan High School had 161 students.

On April 29, the 17 board members of the privately-run Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) will vote on the tournament's future. The issue: whether to adopt the multiclass approach used by other states. (Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, and Kentucky are the only exceptions.) If the proposal passes, Indiana would hold four boys' basketball tournaments each year beginning in 1998.

Because schools would be grouped by size, Plump warns that you would never again have small schools like Milan taking on the giants if Indiana chooses this option. He's recruited some of the greatest names in the state's basketball history, including John Wooden and Oscar Robertson, to stand with him.

Fans have been surveyed at games, student forums held, and input accepted from coaches and school officials. Strong support exists on both sides of the issue.

"It's not a mandate either way," says Jim Russell, the IHSAA's sports information director, "but the very fact that it's close tells you how far the state has moved."

Hoosiers are sometimes kidded about being for progress but against change. In the current debate, however, many see change as regressive.

'I THINK the sad part is that once the decision is made, whether for or against, things won't end there," says Ray Craft, the association's commissioner and overseer of the boys' basketball tournament. "I'm afraid the politicians might get into it."

That's what happens when you're dealing with a revered institution. The tournament was launched in 1911, just two months before the state's other proud sports institution, the Indianapolis 500. The basketball tournament is respected nationwide and "envied for the crowds we draw and the money we make," says Craft, who played in the Milan backcourt alongside Plump and outscored him, 14 points to 10, in Milan's 32-30 victory over Muncie. He is concerned that the traditional tournament format may be "watered down" simply so more schools can win.

This year's tournament began three weeks ago with the sectionals, the local playoffs that some consider the heart of the tournament. The sectionals often pit fierce rivals and offer some of the best David-vs.-Goliath matchups. The winners advance to regional and semistate rounds before moving to the four-team finals, which will be played Saturday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. A crowd of 25,000 is expected for each of the two sessions (two semifinals and the final).

Russell says that the IHSAA decided to revisit the tournament's format three years ago when a group of small-school principals came to the association.

Consolidations have shrunk the number of high schools in the state from 660 in 1962 to 382 today, leaving fewer small schools. Those that remain, Russell says, have come to feel they don't have "a chance to win, even at the sectional level." Since 1954, the smallest school to win a championship was Plymouth High, with 850 students, in 1982.

Another factor is the popularity of the state's football tournament, begun in 1973 with multiple classes. "Smaller communities that had never gone very far in the boys' basketball tournament ... are now getting all the way to the state finals and winning in football," Russell says. "They say this is great, and wonder why they can't do this in other sports." The current proposal, in fact, would create class divisions in baseball, softball, volleyball, boys' and girls' soccer, as well as boys' and girls' basketball.