By Dana O’Neil | ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS — Their noses pressed against the glass doors, the elementary school boys elbowed each other for position.
“I wish I could go in there,” one boy said to his buddy.
“I wish I could play here,” his friend responded longingly.
The Butler University basketball offices were the inner sanctum of awe for this particular crop of kids from Hagerstown, part of a fifth-grade class field trip to the hoops mecca, Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Of course, a 10-year-old can’t quite wrap his arms around the significance of an 85-year-old basketball gym built with 15,000 seats so the high school playoff crowds could be accommodated. He probably can’t quite grasp the importance of the 1928 state championship game that was played there, the one in which Martinsville lost 13-12 after a guy named John Wooden missed a free throw; or the significance of Bobby Plump’s shot without Hollywood’s help.
The 10-year-old only knows that Butler made it to the Final Four twice in the past three years, and that’s good enough for him.
The man inside the sanctum gets it. Brad Stevens is a child of Indiana, the sort who still remembers jumping off the school bus before his eighth birthday and spying a basketball goal in the driveway.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” the Butler coach said over lunch at his favorite spot, the Broad Ripple Tavern.
And Stevens is the sort who appreciated the pinch-yourself moment when, as a volunteer assistant at Butler, he was first given a key to Hinkle.
“I was 23 years old and it was awesome,” he said. “I wasn’t married at the time, so I’d work until 7 and then my buddies would sneak in and we’d have a game at 8. We played a game every Christmas Eve.”
In between the ages of 8 and 23, there were enough quintessential Indiana basketball moments for Stevens to write a “Hoosiers” chapter of his own. There was the buddy whose parents put a full court in his backyard so the boys could play 5-on-5, or at worst, 3-on-3; there were the weekends when Stevens would spend Friday at a high school game, Saturday alongside his dad, Mark, an IU alum, watching the Hoosiers, and Sundays watching the Indiana Pacers.
— Butler coach Brad Stevens
And there was the unforgettable night in 1991 when he served as a ballboy during the high school state title game that pitted Alan Henderson and Brebeuf Jesuit Prep versus Glenn Robinson and Gary Roosevelt High, with 30,345 in attendance. “I thought Alan Henderson was the greatest high school basketball player I’d ever seen,” Stevens said. “And then Glenn Robinson mopped the floor with him.”
Friendships were forged in the parks or in the driveways, playing pickup games where you called your own fouls and made sure to foul hard. It was in the various open gyms around Indianapolis, in fact, where Stevens first met Micah Shrewsberry. Stevens was just starting his own coaching career, and Shrewsberry was, ironically, an assistant coach at Stevens’ alma mater, DePauw University.
The two got to talking, stayed in touch, and in 2007, Stevens hired Shrewsberry as an assistant.
“It’s honestly the small moments as much as, if not more than, the big ones that matter,” Stevens said. “Basketball is just the connection.”
And Stevens appreciates how the game connects people not only immediately, but across generations, especially at places like Hinkle.
The old gym is currently undergoing a $25 million renovation that is equal parts update and preservation. The building is a national landmark, so some things can’t be changed. The single-pane windows cannot even be substituted for sturdier double-paned ones.
But scaffolding currently is up outside, and inside there are plans to convert a three-story space that once housed a natatorium into athletic training facilities, an academic center and new locker rooms.
Some coaches might balk at trying to keep an 85-year-old place competitive in today’s world of practice facility one-upsmanship.
Not an Indiana boy like Stevens.
“I played in a 3,600-seat gym in high school and they knocked it down for a parking lot and a library,” he said. “Now I’m all for a library, but couldn’t they share the space? That was a special place to me.”
Hinkle is special to the elementary schoolers, but their memories might not be quite the same as their parents’ memories. Indiana hasn’t played the state championship there since 1971, so to the current generation, Hinkle is the place that spawned Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, not Plump and the Milan Miracle.
That’s OK. History evolves. The connection remains.
As the elementary schoolers were heading to the doors, Stevens was headed out for lunch. He walked among the kids, anonymous to everyone but one teacher who waved hello.
“Where are you guys from?” he asked.
“Hagerstown, up by New Castle,” she replied.
“We’ve gotten a few players from there,” Stevens smiled, referring to Zach Hahn and Chase Stigall, both role players on the Bulldogs’ Final Four teams in 2010 and 2011.
“Oh I know,” she said.
Of course she did.
“John Wooden, Larry Bird, Calbert Cheaney & the people who are from here, that’s all of it. People can say they saw these guys in high school or college. To be able to say that I played with Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, that’s pretty cool.”
— Butler walk-on Emerson Kampen, a Muncie, Ind., native