Net Loss: Thoughts on Multi-Class Basketball

When you dumb down a contest and make it easier to win, the honor loses its cachet.

One of my most vivid teen memories involves a Monday-morning pep rally in the Broad Ripple High School gym, after Coach Gene Ring’s Rockets won the sectionals, then regionals, and secured a trip to the 1963 semi-state. As the rock-star players filed onto the floor wearing varsity sweaters, the students in the bleachers went wild. Dressed in our own uniforms of stitched-down pleated skirts and cardigans, my girlfriends and I jumped up and down ’til our eyeballs rattled, screeching like banshees. The rumble was deafening, the kind you can feel way down in your gut.

These were real heroes, and the team’s unlikely wins against Tech and North Central made us feel like anything was possible. Coach Ring displayed a basketball net, ceremoniously cut down to honor the upsets, and all of us were victors.

Those were the days of single-class basketball in Indiana, later showcased in the David-and-Goliath movie Hoosiers, which makes me cry every time I see Jimmy Chitwood sink the winning shot. The story remains the same, regardless of the sport. When thoroughbred Kiwi wins the Melbourne Cup at odds of 10-to-1, or the lowly Cutters cross the finish line first at Little 5, or Misty Hyman beats swimming champ Susie O’Neill at the Sydney Olympics, there’s hope for everyone, no matter how far away the star we’re wishing upon.

We call these Cinderella stories for a reason. It’s how the poor scrub girl, banished to her hands and knees and chided by her dominant stepsisters, gets the prince in the end. My favorite childhood book, A Little Princess, finds a once-privileged but then-orphaned girl relegated to backbreaking work and a drafty attic garret, until she is discovered and properly returned to her affluent roots. We don’t care as much if the favored party gets the glory; we want the little guy to win the prize.

I like competition where conquest seems impossible. And then, if it materializes, you know, for at least that brief period, that you are the best. I won my fifth-grade spelling bee at School 84 on the word “mortgage”—thank Monopoly—but I never bragged about the victory, because it was, after all, a classroom contest. Had I beaten the state or, heck, the nation, now that would have been something: a skinny kid from a public school taking home the trophy. As it turned out, the ceramic beagle I won sat undistinguished on our basement shelf.

I long for a return to single-class basketball, when stories like the 1954 Milan Miracle were possible. (Milan High, enrollment 161, bested Muncie Central, with more than 1,600 students.) What we have instead is a multi-class tournament, created so teams could compete against similarly sized schools, resulting in more opportunities to win. Last year, there was a push to return to the tradition that was shelved 15 years before. IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox and state senator Mike Delph toured Indiana to debate the possibilities. Even Bobby Plump, whose final basket won the championship for Milan, made an appeal. The discussion went nowhere, probably because, as my older son, an avid sports fan, puts it, “Only the old guys want it.”

Once multi-class basketball stole the tournament’s thunder, earsplitting frenzy became little more than a bleat.

Count me as one of the old guys. And I’m not alone. Last year, combined tournament attendance was less than half what it was 20 years ago, according to the IHSAA. There are no doubt many reasons for the decline—other, more-exciting entertainment outlets, for example—but make no mistake, if an event promises enough sentiment and expectation, people will come. Just try scoring a ticket to a Butler game when they’re up against a big-school team.

And I know something about being an underdog. I serve as editorial director of Emmis Publishing’s city and regional magazines (including Indianapolis Monthly).  In 2011, one of those, Los Angeles, walked away with a National Magazine Award, the industry’s highest honor, facing competition from The Atlantic, GQ, and The New Yorker. Little L.A. mag, with its limited budget, small staff, and short writing timeframe, beat out the big guys. At the New York ceremony, I sat beside the editor, who was so stunned at the announcement she couldn’t move from her chair to accept the honor. “Jacket or no jacket?” she asked of the gold cover-up over her sheath dress. “No jacket!” I commanded. “Now GO!”

As it turns out, talent, passion, and diligence don’t care about boundaries. They drive us to push and excel until we eventually triumph, and victories always elicit the loudest cheers when they are unexpected.

Another professional organization, the City and Regional Magazine Association, debated altering its annual awards such that every category would be based on circulation size, a multi-class system of its own. Fortunately, I sat on the committee that shunned the idea. When you dumb down a contest and make it easier to win, with more participants collecting certificates and cutting down nets, the honor loses its cachet. And, ultimately, the little guy doesn’t try as hard to succeed.

An out-of-towner recently asked me why IM doesn’t feature Hoosier Hysteria on its cover every March. “Isn’t that your thing?” she asked. My response was simple: “Because the hysteria is gone.” Once multi-class basketball stole the tournament’s thunder, earsplitting frenzy became little more than a bleat. Pretty soon, the “old guys” who liked the tournament the way it was will die out, and “our thing” will become the subject of lore.

Is there hope? Maybe. I’m counting on the kids who attended the pep rally when Broad Ripple actually won the state tournament in 1980—they’d be about 50 years old now—to advance the ball up the court.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue.