It’s not just a game – it’s a lifestyle

There’s nowhere to hide from basketball in Bloomington, Ind.

Coach Bobby Knight during Indiana University's undefeated season, March 27 1976.

For some of us, a remarkable slice of social life in Bloomington, Ind., revolves around Indiana University basketball, particularly as Big Ten play gets under way and the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament shimmers hopefully over the bleak midwinter horizon. 

Shared dinners on game nights in one home or another – or at local restaurants that would not think of tuning into anything else – rule the weekly calendar. Actually going to a game in the home stadium has become almost impossible for those of us who cannot afford season tickets, unless one is willing to sit in the high balconies, from which players look like tiny scurrying Marios on the faraway court. 

Yes, I am talking men’s games here, and I realize how gender-biased and problematic that is. I’m a big fan of the women’s team, too, and tickets to their home games are ever available and affordable – with open seating. In fact, my grandson has become a huge fan of the Lady Hoosiers. But let’s upgrade that name, for they perform like the elite athletes they are and often with wonderfully unladylike aggression.

Although the women’s games are gaining in cachet, most of the attention (including my own) focuses on the men. 

Upon first arriving in Bloomington, my then-husband (a newly hired geology professor) and I were offered season tickets by his department chair. That was the 1975-76 season, when the Hoosier men went undefeated unto their final triumph in the NCAA championship. Undefeated. Rob and I, clueless about sports, turned down the offer, content to pursue our academic interests, putter in our yard, take our dog on snowy walks, and generally hunker down at home over books and movies. Meanwhile, the Indiana University basketball season exploded in glory just steps away from our bungalow home.

“Why all the parked cars?” we’d wonder, gazing out the window on a game night that was totally off our radar. Then it would hit us: “Oh, yes. Must be a home game and the stadium lot’s full.” Back to a movie or books.

But you can’t last long in Bloomington by ignoring basketball. It’s deeply embedded in the university’s and city’s DNA. It is something you must do to relate in any sustainable way to your local tribe of peers. I’ve known a few people who continue to shun sports in general, but I can count on one hand those who ignore Hoosier hoops. It’s food and drink, friendship, and a bottomless source of conversation and debate. In the stadium itself, basketball offers exhilarating rushes of adrenaline when the thousands-strong crowd gets going. 

And so Rob and I got season tickets. In the late 1970s and ’80s we walked through all weather to add to the mayhem of Assembly Hall. Those were the Bob Knight glory days, and we abandoned our quiet ways to add our lung power to the caco­phony of fans, often losing our voices for the night. We were there when Coach Knight famously threw a chair clear across the court in a fit of pique, an iconic moment in national sports history. To say the crowd went wild is to put it mildly, though I recall being stunned into silence at the time.

Ticket prices spiked, and parties to watch games on TV beckoned as we adopted and raised our young son. His inauguration to the basketball spectacle came in 1987, when he was just an infant. As Keith Smart’s final shot connected against the Syracuse defense, the living room and town exploded. Tim shivered and burst into wails. I scooped him up to retreat to the porch, but it was louder out there than inside. There’s nowhere to go for peace in Bloomington at a moment like that.

Knight left ingloriously, and other coaches have come and gone. The current season began well, though true momentum had yet to be sustained as of this writing. Archie Miller has proved to be a dream of a coach, though all of us perched on the edges of our couches have invaluable advice for him – not to mention the refs. We know the game better than they do, of course, even though not one of us can really explain what an illegal screen is after all these years, or why a better term than “dribble penetration” has yet to find a foothold in game commentary. 

We love to hear radio commentator Don Fischer declare “We’re in a world of hurt” in the face of certain loss. He has said that for decades, and it’s like a lullaby: Just sleep this one off.

Here, Indiana basketball is really about friends, about belonging, and about loyalty to an ever-morphing team and program. Make that teams: Hoosier women, see you next.

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