Walking Into Movie History

Yesterday, I told you all about my trip to the mascot factory in Indianapolis. Well, there was more to that day. On the drive to Indy I saw a sign that said something like “Next Exit Knightstown, Home of the Hoosiers Gym”. I was in a hurry to get to Indy, but the idea of potentially seeing the gym where they filmed Hoosiers was getting me excited. What other ‘Hoosiers Gym’ could they be talking about? I just hope it would be open when I came back through.

I made it to Knightstown, Indiana around 3:30 on the way home. The little town is a couple miles off of I-70, but easily found by following the signs. (I would later find out that those blue tourists signs for the gym had been fought for by the committee that maintains the gym. It seems they had to take boxes of visitors sign in books to convince those in charge that enough people really did stop there.)

“No school this small has ever been to a state championship.”

If you are a fan of the movie you probably already know that the Hickory Huskers are a fictional team, but the story is based off of the Milan Indians 1954 Indiana state championship team. The story of that group is legend in Indiana. Thanks to the movie, it is now legend everywhere.

The gym in Knightstown was built for the local school, the Knightstown Panthers in 1922. It also hosted several games for the Michigan Rails and Baltimore Orioles professional basketball teams. The wood floor was replaced in 1935, but has been the same ever since.In 1966 the Panthers moved to a new gym adjacent to the school (perhaps one with more than 7 rows of bleachers) and the fate of the old gym was in jeopardy. It closed down in the fall of ’66.

“Sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass everyday, but, mister you ain’t seen a ray of light since you got here.”

The gym remained closed, hosting only the occasional event until the statewide search for ‘an appropriate town and gym for the making of a movie about Indiana basketball’ was conducted. The gym couldn’t look modern. It had to be from the 1940’s or earlier, and no modern seats or upgrades could be visible. A Knightstown resident made the push for the gym to be included in the search and it became one of the 5 finalists. Several of the gyms that were finalists ended up being cast as visiting gyms, but the one thing Knightstown had going for it was that it was not connected to the school and a filming schedule wouldn’t have to work around a school schedule. The gym was selected, the town itself didn’t meet the criteria to be filmed as Hickory, and so multiple locations were used.

“Welcome to Indiana basketball.”

As I drove up to the gym, I first notice the sign- ‘Hoosier Gym Community Center’. I see a few vehicles, and hear voices from inside. Maybe they gym isn’t available to tour. Fortunately, it was. The front lobby has all kinds of photos and artifacts from the filming. That includes the large, signed ‘team photo’ from the final scene of the movie. Also under glass in a case is a script signed by Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper.

While I was interested in the stuff in the lobby, the noise coming from the gym was making me think I was interrupting some team’s practice. I made my way into the gym and up into the stands. It turns out that this was just an open gym, part of the community center’s programming.

The sound of the basketball hitting that wood floor really took me back. You know that sound. That thuda-dudda sound you don’t get playing on blacktop or concrete. In fact, you don’t even get that real hollow kind of thud on newer wood floors.

I made my way back to the lobby, still unsure of whether I should really be there, when I was greeted by an older gentleman. He was the President of the Hoosier Gym Community Center Committee. And he took me on a tour.

“If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.”

We went down to the locker room. Mervin (I sincerely hope I got that name correct) told me about playing at Knightstown when he was in high school. The small locker room is downstairs and right next to the outside block wall. A radiator attached to the wall provided the only heat source. Mervin talked about how remarkably cold it was during the winter and how he felt fortunate not to have gotten pneumonia having showered after a game.

He also showed me several items in the lobby that I hadn’t noticed before, including a basketball autographed by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. They had done a piece for ESPN with Jim Gray (hmmmm) some years ago and signed the ball for the gym while they were there.

“I’ll make it.”

The community center nearly became a museum. The idea was to preserve the gym so that tourists could come and see where the movie had been filmed, without so much as a basketball being dribbled on it’s floor apart from that. Mervin would have nothing to do with a museum. “The kids still needed a place to play.” So Mervin runs the community center. He finds the coaches and forms the leagues. He gives the residents of the community a chance to use the center that they built. And it is funded by a yearly high school all star game called the “Hoosiers Reunion All Star Classic”. The event raises around $10,000 dollars a year for the building, which helps pay utilities and fees for the year.

You can go see the gym for yourself if you ever find yourself driving along I-70. I’d recommend it.

  • 5KMD

    Here’s a nice article about the 20th anniversary of the movie back in 2006″

    http://tribstar.com/news/x681775010/Anniversary-of-movie-Hoosiers-brings-back-memories-for-Greene-County-native-who-played-Ollie#

    It is from the perspective of the guy who played Ollie.

    The article states how the actor who played Merle Webb (my favorite player from the movie) took his own life a while back.

    Great movie.

  • Joe in Wooster

    great piece Rick

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com/ Rick

    Thanks Joe.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    Love this On Location stuff, Rick. You’re like Rachel Nichols with a goatee.

    Maybe we can get Tom Rinaldi to read this very slowly to our audience.

  • Right Side

    What’s tomorrow’s adventure?

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com/ Rick

    Well, if I’m using today’s events as the basis for tomorrow’s adventure- look for a fascinating article on going to Subway with the youth minister. Or maybe the trip to Wal-Mart planned for this evening.

  • Jordan

    Great piece! Definitely sounds like a nice detour on one of the most boring highways in the US.

  • Max

    Thanks for taking the detour Rick. I didn’t know this opportunity existed. I am about to move to Columbus and this could make for an excellent “One Tank” trip.

    as an aside- I grew up on a 600 acre estate that used to be a working Dairy farm in the early 1900’s. Since there were no neighbors anywhere near us, I was left to entertain myself quite often growing up. My Dad knew that staring at the property owners tennis court and swimming pool all day was no fun for a kid (we were not allowed to step foot near either, under any circumstances). There was no pavement anywhere on the estate, and it is not as if the owners would have allowed us to erect a basketball goal anywhere anyhow, as it might draw questions when the Audubon Society was over for a Tea.

    So, he decided that if the hoop was in one of the barns, no one would ever be the wiser. We hung a regulation sized backboard and hoop in the hay loft of one of the larger barns. Due to the shape of the roof in the location we selected, we could only hang the rim at 8 feet (at the time I was 9). However, the location we selected was near a circuit panel, so my Dad also wired spotlights so we could play whenever we wanted, no matter the outdoor conditions.

    Every friend I had over said “this is just like Hoosiers”, so seeing this story reminded me of a whole bunch of good times. Thanks!

  • Mike

    My buddies and I did visited Knightstown about 10 years ago during spring break (it was before we started drinking…). It was more or less locked and we ran into a maintenance guy, most likely the same man you reference. He opened it up and let us spend an hour recounting the quotes and reliving the movie scenes. We said it would make a great tour/museum, but at that point there was simply not enough interest or money. It was equal parts facinating and eye-opening as the town is very very tiny.