William Gildea
William Gildea
Where the Game Matters Most
ISBN: 0316519677
Where the Game Matters Most
In Indiana, high school basketball is more than a game, it's a religion. Fifteen of the sixteen largest high school gymnasiums in the United States are located in Indiana, and each winter basketball fever grips the state as impassioned fans from hamlets to cities celebrate the sport. High school basketball known in Indiana simply as "The Game" is part of life's fabric. Its rich lore encompasses the epic triumph of tiny Milan High in 1954 (on which the film Hoosiers was based), the story of the legendary Larry Bird (now back home as coach of the NBA Pacers), and the dominating presence of Indiana University coach Bob Knight.

In 1997 Indiana crowned its last all-state champion, marking the end of an eighty-seven-year-old Hoosier tradition. Despite public outcry, the statewide tournament has been replaced by four divisional tournaments based on school size. Small-school teams no longer will have the chance to compete against big-school Goliaths for the state title.

Where the Game Matters Most captures the passion and the personalities, the triumphs and the heartbreak of this final all-comers season. Through the most intense basketball season in Indiana history, William Gildea follows four teams: the Anderson Indians, whose coach had just returned to the job after a liver transplant; a much-praised team from Batesville, a school of only 589 students; DeKalb, featuring the brilliant senior Luke Recker, recruited for Indiana U. while still a sophomore; and Merrillville, a perennial contender that was runner-up in the 1995 tournament. Bringing alive the extraordinary bonds forged among players, coaches, schools, families, and entire towns, Where the Game Matters Most is a compelling evocation of a truly historic championship season.
—from the publisher's website

Where the Game Matters Most
Program Air Date: February 22, 1998

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: William Gildea, author of "Where the Game Matters Most," what's this book about?
Mr. WILLIAM GILDEA, AUTHOR, "WHERE THE GAME MATTERS MOST" A lot. I think it's about mostly loss, change. It's about losing something that's important to people as time marches on quicker and quicker. It's about a way of life that's disappearing that's been there for almost a century. And that being the single-class basketball tournament in which all the high schools compete together, big or small, rural or urban, whatever the case may be. One loss and you're out.

And so the next year, when you read the agate in USA Today and you see all the high school basketball champions, you see these fat paragraphs for all the states, 5-A champion, 4-A champion, 3-A, so on. You come to Indiana, it says, Bloomington North, that's it. They were last year's winner. And that's what it's about. It's about the journey teams take--not so much winning in the end, but learning how to cope with the setback along the way.
LAMB: What's the setting?
Mr. GILDEA: The setting is last season, and the setting primarily is in four places in Indiana--four places in different parts of the state that would show that Indiana is not the same place, as people might think, viewing it from afar; and schools that are of different size and makeup and ambition. And so I tried to show that, you know, while Indiana was a diverse place, a lot of people's goals were the same. And, of course, the passion of the state is basketball. But it really reflects, I think, a Hoosier way of life, which has to do with hard work and long hours and earnestness and generosity and effort. So...
LAMB: Let me read a quote from your book from a Ben Davis coach. Where's Ben Davis High School?
Mr. GILDEA: Ben Davis is in--on the West Side of Indianapolis. It's a large high school. It only has 10, 11 and 12, three grades, but it's the largest high school in Indiana with three grades, and it's, overall, the second largest high school in Indiana. It's about 2,000 students, so it's huge.
LAMB: Who is this fellow, Steve Witty?
Mr. GILDEA: Steve Witty's a--just a great, great teacher and coach. He's been a history teacher. He's turned down jobs to be a high school principal, because he loves the game and because he believes he can reach young people through coaching. And he is--he just turned 50 years old, and yet he's only been the head coach at Ben Davis for about nine years. And he brings not only a tremendous knowledge of the game but a tremendous knowledge about life. You know, he has taken his approach from the classroom to the court. Remarkably intelligent man. Could be--reminds me of a college professor, really.
LAMB: Let me read this quote so we can...
Mr. GILDEA: Go ahead.
LAMB: ...get you to react to it.
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah.
LAMB: Because there's a lot in it besides basketball. He says, "As parents, we want our kids to have it better than we had it. What we do is make it easier for them. We want to win the title, and we want the media gratification. We're all greedy. We have that quality in our society. But we use basketball to teach the game of life. And when you go to class basketball, I don't know what you're teaching kids. Are we teaching them that they're not good enough to go to Indianapolis and take on the big boys? Once there was a group of 13 colonies. People said they were crazy to take on the most powerful country in the world. If we had a class basketball mentality back then, we might not have had our independence today. Now that may be an exaggeration, but life is not a level playing field." What's all that about?
Mr. GILDEA: I had forgotten the reference to the colonies, but that is his background as a history teacher. I think he is speaking to those people who, in this instance, were basically small school principals who wanted to have their schools and their teams--they saw it as important to be realistically able to achieve a championship. And so they have confected these different brackets so that you could have a 4-A champion and a 3-A champion, and the little schools can be in 1-A, and you can be a 1-A champion. And you can call yourself a champion.

But people who think like Witty, which I might say is the majority of Hoosiers, but by no means the overwhelming majority--but a good majority--believe that the journey is better than the end. The learning experience that you can gain from being in the tournament, from advancing as far as you can, if that's the case, is more important than being the ultimate winner. It's sort of a life lesson--how you cope with defeat, how you cope with the hurdles that you run into. Now there are different compromises that they might have reached before they did away with this, but that's another story.
LAMB: What's Hoosier hysteria?
Mr. GILDEA: Hoosier hysteria is the madness on Friday night and Saturday night when people in the towns just flock to the gyms, no matter what the weather might be. And they go in car caravans across country to gyms when their team is on the road to visiting gyms. And it's those packed gyms where the fans are just rooting for their team. And this is really the essence of sports. It's an hour-and-a-half game. There's no hype. There's no blurring of entertainment and sports, you know? And the Hoosier--the pure Hoosier idea is: Let's not have play-offs and wildcards and different levels so we can prolong the season and have these artificial champions. Let us just have just one champion. But before we do that, let's see at the sectional level, the beginning level of the tournament, if we maybe could advance and be the best in our neighborhood.
LAMB: And this picture is of what?
Mr. GILDEA: The one on top is the picture of the Milan team of 1954, which really is the essence of Hoosier hysteria. Milan, in 1954, was the small school from downstate with Bobby Plump, who went all through the tournament, and finally, in the last game against the big school, Muncie Central, won the game on Plump's last shot as time ran out. And they made a movie called "Hoosiers" about this team. Gene Hackman played the coach. The coach in real life is Marvin Wood. I think Marvin Wood could play himself just as well. A--a great man. He's battled back from cancer a couple of times, and he's going strong. And he was taking this cause that Plump supports and Steve Witty supports to the Legislature and speaking quite articulately about it.

Milan is the representation, the ideal. In fact, no school with an enrollment of fewer than 1,000, except one time since then, has won the state championship. But in the Hoosier way of thinking--in the traditional Hoosier way of thinking, you never know unless you try. And last year, a school called Delta, which I didn't know where it was when it popped up the winner in a particular regional--I found that many Hoosiers didn't know where Delta was. Delta happens to have 1,000 students, so it's not really that small, but it was perceived as a small school, and it was fairly small--just right around 1,000, about the same size as Plymouth, which is the only other comparable team since Milan to win. And they went all the way to the championship game. And while they didn't win it, while big Bloomington North won it, it was a great, great story.
LAMB: What year did Milan win the championship?
Mr. GILDEA: '54.
LAMB: And how big was the margin?
Mr. GILDEA: Oh, 32-to-30, I think, was the score. It was just that last jump shot by Plump. The score was tied, and it was in Butler Fieldhouse, which is this enormous and wonderful architecturally old building that you would just love to walk into. I mean, it's just a building that you would never want to see vanish. It was constructed in 1928, and it's now named Hinkle Fieldhouse for the longtime coach there, Tony Hinkle.

In the old days, colleges going to Madison Square Garden, from the West, would stop in Indianapolis and play Butler University, and that's one reason that Butler's fame grew at that time. But the coach also was a great recruiter, too, of Indiana talent, and the Butler teams were basically Indiana--were basically Hoosiers. And that's where the game took place. And that's, in fact, where they filmed it for "Hoosiers," the final game.

But they called this time out, and the center on the team--and these are wonderful people. They have a reunion--the team has a reunion every year around tournament time. And the center suggested the play, which was what they called in the old days a picket fence, but it was just really clearing out for Plump to go one on one against the defender. And that's the most famous shot in Hoosier history.
LAMB: Where are you from originally?
Mr. GILDEA: Baltimore.
LAMB: How many years did you spend there?
Mr. GILDEA: Well, I grew up there, and I got my introduction to Washington when I went to Georgetown University from '56 to '60. So I guess I was maybe--I grew up--till I was 16 years old in Baltimore.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in sports?
Mr. GILDEA: I got interested in sports probably before I knew it, because my father was a tremendous sports fan, took me to the original Oriole park, although I can't remember being there. So I must have been about four years old when he did that. My recollection of games clicks in the 1947 football season and the 1948 baseball season. So that's when I got interested in sports.

And I always used to look back in this rickety old stadium at this rickety old press box and wonder what those guys up there were doing. And as I began to find out more about it, I wondered if maybe I--I didn't want to do that myself. But then I had a lot of doubts, because it seemed like a frivolous way to spend my life and I thought, `Well, maybe I should be a dentist or something.'

But my father--thank the Lord--talked me out of that. And then when I was at Georgetown, I remember being on the student paper, and a fellow who was a couple years ahead of me gave me some sound advice, and that was to do what you want to do. So--`Pursue journalism. Don't worry about going to--thinking you have to go to law school.' So those two pieces of advice helped me along.
LAMB: Where do you work full time?
Mr. GILDEA: I work full time at The Washington Post and have for 33 to 34 years.
LAMB: What's your assignment?
Mr. GILDEA: Well, at the moment, I do long--they called it takeout writer. It was a phrase that didn't exist when I was in sports for the first 10 years I was on The Washington Post. But then I left sports, because I got tired of writing it, tired of traveling, and wanted to write about other subjects, but went to the--and went to the Style section.

Again, I stayed on the soft edge of the paper. But it opened up more opportunities--writing opportunities and topics, subjects, profiles for me to do and that was a good experience. I never heard of a takeout writer, but this slot opened up while I was in Style. I never intended to turn back to sports, but it sounded good.

And I could take maybe--unlike some others--I could take a couple of days, a few days--I never heard of such a thing in my earlier days to write a story. And I had actually, as an editor in Style, been working on my writing and--and, I thought, improving. That's another mistake in the thought I had when I was younger. I thought you might wear out, but I focused on my protege, Shirley Povich, who is going strong at 92 and writing better than ever. So I decided I would--I'd take that opportunity and go back to sports. It's been a great thing.
LAMB: When did you start working on the Indiana story?
Mr. GILDEA: It was quick. Last October--October of '96--and the season began in late November. It was one of those miraculous things, something that never happened to me before. I got a call from a publisher. And as every writer knows, you have to get on your knees to get anything you care about published.

And they called and asked if I was interested--this editor did, named Michael Pietsch, an excellent editor at Little, Brown--called and asked me if I was interested in this subject. And by chance, I was, miraculously enough, because a couple of years before, I had gone out for The Washington Post to Indiana and done a two-part series on Bobby Plump and Milan and that whole story about "Hoosiers."

And so I was interested. I had been thinking about taking a brief leave during the winter. I was thinking about baseball, but Indiana was the--actually the second idea on my short list. And so I was rather amazed. I thought it was some boxing trainer who was returning a call when this editor called me. And I took five months of leave from The Washington Post to live the season in Indiana.
LAMB: Let me ask you about four players that you write about, and just give us a brief description of why they were interesting to you. In Merrillville, up near Chicago, is it Jamaal (pronounced jah-MALL) or Jamal (pronounced jah-MAL)?
Mr. GILDEA: Jamaal (pronounced jah-MALL).
LAMB: Jamaal Davis.
Mr. GILDEA: Jamaal Davis interested me because I had heard he was a good player. He was a candidate for Mr. Basketball.
LAMB: What's that?
Mr. GILDEA: Mr. Basketball is what every boy in Indiana practically grows up hoping to be, just like, I guess, many girls might grow up wanting to be Miss America. In Indiana, the feeling is probably stronger to be Mr. Basketball, because a Mr. Basketball in Indiana is never forgotten. You can, in fact, be the last guy on the bench in Indiana, and you're still never forgotten. Everybody knows everything about the game and who played it, and no matter even if they didn't play it very much.

Jamaal interested me because he was at Merrillville, and Merrillville gave me an--I had--I wanted a--to pick a school that would give me an opportunity to write about the northwest section of Indiana. And it was pointed out to me that Merrillville was a good team. It had been the runner-up in--for the state championship two years before when Jamaal was a sophomore. And as I got to know him, I found him to be a fellow who, to me, was surprising in a number of ways.

In the basketball sense, he's a big, strong player who unselfishly, like a Hoosier player, looks to pass before he looks to shoot. That's the perfect Hoosier. And the other thing--and I guess more significantly--is the fact that he had grown up in a very rugged area near Merrillville and survived, while not all of his friends did.
LAMB: You say that his mother could get in touch with him with a pager?
Mr. GILDEA: Yes. She told me that she has two sons--Jamaal and John--and, you know, it's important to her and it's important to people to--you know, to know where their kids are. And there's no getting around the fact that the Gary area is a rugged area, and you want to know where your children are.
LAMB: What happened to his father?
Mr. GILDEA: His father, simply--that was simply a divorce and a remarriage. But as all parties have told me, they care--they respect one another and care about the children, which is a wonderful thing. And his father was a great player himself earlier.
LAMB: Luke Recker.
Mr. GILDEA: Recker's the--Recker was the golden boy of--he looks like a California kid; very, very, very personable, love him, outgoing. I was back in Indiana this spring, attending a particular function and he was there, too. And I was standing out in the lobby and he came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, just gave me a warm greeting. Just has a way about him that's older than he actually is. He's now just a freshman at Indiana University, and yet he is the player on the basketball team under Bobby Knight, who...
LAMB: He's there on the left?
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah. He's the bigger fellow--who is really giving leadership to the team. He's only a freshman. I mean, there was a senior the other night that he was helping to inspire at one point in the game.
LAMB: Got this map here and you say he was originally from this area up here?
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah. He played for DeKalb High School, which is on a farm road between Auburn and Waterloo. And DeKalb probably wouldn't be a contender for the championship unless a player like Luke Recker had grown up in the neighborhood. And he's a fabulous player, a tremendous jumper. He's 6'5", 6'5 1/2". And I wanted to follow him, because he was the favorite to be Mr. Basketball, but I was also interested in the pressures that Mr. Basketball and potential Mr. Basketballs--Mr. Basketball--are put under.

You know, you can play in a small town, but there's still scrutiny. You know, in fact, television stations, media tend to hone in even more, and so you have this media cluster around a very young fellow. And every move he makes on and off the court is scrutinized. It's a lot of pressure. And...
LAMB: When did his parents divorce?
Mr. GILDEA: During--it was--became official during the season, so he also had that to deal with. And the coach talked to me quite a bit about that, Cliff Hawkins, because it was important to him for Luke's sake and also it was important to him because he wanted Luke to have a good senior year, not only for the team, but for himself. He had committed to Indiana as a sophomore. He had given his word to Knight that he was going to go down to Bloomington, and all sorts of people tried to persuade him to do otherwise. And it certainly is a popular thing to avoid Bloomington these days and Knight, but he kept his promise and there he went. So we'll see.
LAMB: Now...
Mr. GILDEA: He's got a half season under his belt now.
LAMB: Didn't his father move out of the state?
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah. He moved out of the state. And so--he got a job in Iowa, and so it was just a promotion in his work--and he commuted back to almost all the games when Luke was a junior but...
LAMB: From Iowa.
Mr. GILDEA: From Iowa, a long, long trip. And his father told me while he knows that the distance didn't become any greater, it certainly felt like it, and he saw fewer games as--in Luke's senior year. So--but he was there quite often. He was there for all the major games that Luke played in. And, you know, it's a great family. He has four sisters and a wonderful mother, and he has somehow been able to take on the responsibilities of the family, the team, the area that he comes from, and now has gone down to play for Bobby Knight and take on still even more. So I don't--he's a really remarkable young man.
LAMB: So your first person, Jamaal Davis, had a problem with gangs and they moved out of that area. The second player, Luke Recker, had a divorce in the family and you talk about that in the article. What about the third player in Anderson, Eric Bush.
Mr. GILDEA: Eric Bush is a junior. He's the only one of the players that I wrote a lot about who is still in school, and he's a senior for Anderson this year. He's going to attend Illinois State. I saw him a couple of weeks back, and you can really see the maturing in Eric Bush, I think. He feels relaxed now that he has made up his mind about college. I think he's going to continue to do well in school and be academically eligible in college. And I think he's the fastest guard in the state of Indiana. And he's a wonderful young man.
LAMB: Who...
Mr. GILDEA: The story behind him, of course, is that his mother died when she was 39 years old. His father ran afoul of the law in a drug bust and spent time in jail. A white couple--he's a black youth--became his legal guardians. And it was not certainly a smooth take-off in that relationship, because they put demands on him that he hadn't been accustomed to.
LAMB: How'd that happen, that they became his guardians?
Mr. GILDEA: Well, one--Mrs. Weatherford was a teacher at a grammar school where...
LAMB: You're talking about Gary Weatherford and his wife.
Mr. GILDEA: Gary Weatherford and his wife, Cindy. Cindy, at that time, was teaching grade school and Eric might have been seventh grade or eighth grade, and she was in charge of detention one day and in came Eric. And she noticed this young man--very quiet, but, you know, holes in his shoes and, you know, very, very poor, obviously. And she got to know him and learn the kind of individual that he is; a kid who's never forgotten his mother, visits the cemetery often, and just wanted to do what--the Weatherfords wanted to do what they could for him. And--but, of course, at a young age, you don't understand. You know, discipline came as a bit of a shock, and so they had their ups and downs, but that's passed now, too.
LAMB: How did his mother die?
Mr. GILDEA: She had an asthma attack. She had an asthma condition, had a severe attack and was either dead on arrival at the hospital or died shortly thereafter. And his coach, Ron Hecklinski, says that it's the thing that--of all the crises in--in this young man's life--that's the one that has affected him most deeply.
LAMB: Now when you went out to Indiana, did you go to places like the gravesite in these different...
Mr. GILDEA: I went to a number of gravesites, I'll tell ya. I didn't go to his mother's gravesite, but for some reason and, you know, just like I'm attracted to my own father's gravesite in Baltimore, I wanted to see where Larry Bird's mother, who had just died, was buried because I wanted to get a sense of the area where--Bird grew up in. And just south of that, I went to where Mrs. Lincoln is buried.
LAMB: Abraham Lincoln's mother.
Mr. GILDEA: Abraham Lincoln's mother.
LAMB: Why did you do that?
Mr. GILDEA: Well, because I was startled, when I was driving across the bottom part of Indiana for the first time, to see how close Lincoln's boyhood home in Indiana was, where his parents had pushed across the river into--just about 12 to 17 miles--into this incredible forest in lower Indiana. I was surprised how close it was to where Bird grew up. And the more I thought about it and the more I looked around, I could see really--separated as they were by time, I could see parallels between the very difficult youth of Lincoln and the very, very difficult youth of Bird.
LAMB: He was right there in French Lick.
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah. Bird grew up in French Lick, which is just north of this little crossroads called Lincoln City. And Bird told me that--you know, while they never wanted for a meal, neither did they ever experience a vacation or even, at one point, have a car. And so when Bird went off to college, it was a jolt to him to be recruited by Knight land in Bloomington, a fine university with 30,000 people in it. It was too big for him. He left in a couple of weeks. It had nothing to do with basketball, just the size of the place.

And so it took him almost two years to find the right place, which, of course, wasn't very far away. It was the smaller school, Indiana State. And, of course, in that famous game he led Indiana State into the NCAA championship, something that nobody a couple of years before that would have believed possible, to play that wonderful game against Michigan State and Magic Johnson, which Magic and Michigan State won. But that's the Hoosier way of doing things. You don't always win.
LAMB: You quoted Abraham Lincoln, in the book, as saying, "I did the best I could and I'll keep on doing it up to the end."
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah, that's the state is full of posters, aphorisms hung on corridors and offices and locker rooms, and that was hung in the Wigwam. The gym in Anderson is still called the Wigwam because Anderson is known as the Indians 'cause the Indians were the first inhabitants there 1,000 years ago. And the Wigwam is, to me, the Wrigley Field and the Fenway Park of Indiana basketball--of any high school basketball. It's just a great, old building and it's huge. It's 8,900. It's the world's second-largest high school gym, the first being down a route in New Castle, which is another beautiful gym.

But the Wigwam is just a place that--I don't know--I feel just immensely serene when I walk into it and just sit there in the creamy light and watch the guys shoot around and hear those balls swishing through the basket. And it's the same feeling that the Delta coach expressed after he upset Anderson last year in the Wigwam. He went--the bus was pulling away and he went back--he said, `Hold it,' and he just went back in the nearly-empty building and just sat there and thought for awhile. His father had taken him there from nearby Muncie when he was a kid, and he had seen a lot of games there, but this was his greatest experience.
LAMB: Go back to Gary Weatherford and Eric Bush--Eric Bush living in the Weatherford home...
Mr. GILDEA: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and what's the story about Gary Weatherford being arrested?
Mr. GILDEA: A rather remarkable story. He was arrested in the Wigwam last year during a tournament game. There had been a party at his residence. He lives on this beautiful street in Anderson with Victorian houses on it. And as ever you have a party with a lot of young people, you're apt to have noise. But he took exception to the way the police entered his home and he filed a--lodged a complaint, and in turn, was handcuffed in the Wigwam by police and hauled off to the police station downtown. The court case has yet to come up, but it will. And-- it seemed to me to suggest some underlying racial tensions that existed there.
LAMB: In Anderson?
Mr. GILDEA: In Anderson. But it could be anywhere, you know. It's not Anderson, specifically, it could be an...
LAMB: Racial tensions because he had a black kid at home?
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah. Yeah. That's what Cindy Weatherford said. It was some--few people taking exception to the fact that here they had a white family and they were taking custody of a black youth. And also later, they--also later helping another black youth. So as she said somewhere in there, you know, if people didn't look at color, you know, that's all she would want.
LAMB: Now at the Wigwam, they have a ceremony...
Mr. GILDEA: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...before every basketball game.
Mr. GILDEA: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And you go into it some detail here, and I wanted to read some of it. What--first of all, what is the ceremony?
Mr. GILDEA: Well, it's a--they have a large band. They have color guard. The thing takes 10 minutes. It's an Indian dance. When I first saw it, I wondered, coming from Washington, if this was politically correct and--so-called. And I had to wrestle with that for awhile. But Anderson, very conveniently, has a lot of Native Americans living there, so I was able to check this--my concern out. And they assured me that the issue in Anderson had nothing to do with the authenticity of the dance, which was--which is an authentic Indian dance performed by the so-called Indian maiden and the Indian mascot, which I must tell you are the two most treasured extracurricular positions to have in the school besides the places on the basketball team itself. So they told me that the real issue was school consolidation, which, in fact, it was.

And so I had a story within a story in Anderson in the fact that it was change within change. They were wrestling on the one hand with this notion of ending the single-class tournament--that change--and going from three high schools to two and what the future of education was gonna be in--in Anderson. And that's also a big part that Carl Erskine, the former Brooklyn Dodger, who is a civic leader in Anderson, is very concerned with, too. Having people, you know, want to live in Anderson and help the city as it's coming back very nicely from the days when it was a thriving factory town with auto parts--primarily auto parts and some autos.
LAMB: As you write here, `A color guard of five marched on and the public address announcer seated at the scorer's table took command in a blaring voice.' These are all quotes from the public address announcer. Did you meet him, by the way?
Mr. GILDEA: Oh, I did. Yes. And he's the chairman of the social studies department, so...
LAMB: And he says this, "The flag is a symbol of our national unity. It tells us of the struggle for independence, of unity preserved, of liberty and of the sacrifices of brave men and women. It means America first. It means an undivided allegiance. It means that we cannot be saved by courage of our ancestors; that to each generation comes its patriotic duty and that upon our willingness to sacrifice and endure rests the hope of this nation. I am proud of our past. I am proud of our heritage. I am proud to be an American." And they read this before every basketball game.
Mr. GILDEA: Before every home game. It sent me to the Library of Congress to try to figure out where this came from because they didn't really know. They've been doing it--reciting that for years. The old Wigwam burned down in 1950, and this new one--which might have looked old when it opened, certainly looks old now--has been...
LAMB: Have you ever seen that kind of language in a...
Mr. GILDEA: No. It was...
LAMB: Would you ever see that in a game around here?
Mr. GILDEA: No, no, no. It was startling. Comes from--part of it comes--Horace Greeley wrote some of that. But as near as I could tell, it's a mixture of a couple of different things. But it took me quite a while at the Library of Congress to even come close to figuring out where it came from.
LAMB: The coach there--you wrote a lot about him.
Mr. GILDEA: Ron Hecklinski is, I suppose, the chief character in the book, and certainly a person that affected me very deeply. When I got this assignment, the first thing I did was call the Milan coach, whom I had become friendly with when I did the two-part series two years before. His name is Randy Combs. And he's trying to resurrect the basketball traditions in Milan and doing a good job. I called him. I asked him--I told him what I had this possibility to do a book. Who should I write about? What--what team should I follow? Where should I go? And in typical Hoosier generosity, looking on nothing for himself, told me what--gave me a working list of schools and teams. And I went around and saw them all. And I must say that the four schools that I followed were on his original list.

He mentioned Ron Hecklinski because Hecklinski had just undergone a liver transplant and was having difficulty making it back in time for the season, and he desperately wanted to do that. He had this disease for--he had known he had had it for eight years, but it sped up and his health deteriorated rapidly in 1995 and especially in 1996.

And he went down to the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington and had--his esophagus burst right during the examination. And it was just very fortunate that he wasn't on the fishing trip that he was 10 days before, in denial. He had gone out into the middle of Lake Michigan on a fishing trip, not willing to admit how bad off he was. And fortunate that it happened right there with the doctors present, you know, to save his life. They did, and he immediately got on the list for a liver transplant and then was sent--eventually, when he was able, sent home to wait. And he waited it out. And eventually, he got it.

And he's not a statesman. He's not a--you know, he's not a--there's nothing egotistical about him. He's a wonderful person. Sense of humor, doesn't take himself too seriously, good rapport with the kids, cares deeply. And I think I saw there that they cared about him. They especially cared about him when they went down to the hospital to see him and he was all hooked up with tubes. They realized then that he hadn't broken his arm or something. And...
LAMB: Is he all right?
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah. He's OK. He's passed--you got to pass hurdles, and he's cleared--you know, it's--you know, after you have a transplant, it's minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, week to week. If you make a year, you have a good chance to make five. And if you make five, you have a good chance to be on the normal life curve.

And as he likes to say, you know, `I'm about making it to 80' and he's 42. So he's got a ways to go. But he's got the determination. And the doctors said that it's good to be out there and to want to work and to keep your mind off what's troubling you and to get on with the issues that are important, which are helping these kids. And that's what he did. He persuaded his wife, when she took him home--drove him home from the hospital in Lexington, that she would do it on the first day of practice and drop him at the Wigwam. And that's what she did.

And I met him on the third day. And I saw this figure in this dark corridor. I got there early, way before practice, and--I was waiting for him and I saw this figure coming down the corridor. And he couldn't make it down the whole corridor without stopping. He leaned against the wall, and--just to gather himself and catch his breath. You know, I knew I was gonna spend the winter with this guy.
LAMB: You know, going over what we've seen already, that--up in the northern part of the state and the gang problem and all that and the pager, new technology, on Jamaal Davis'--that he carried around with him. Then when we talked about Luke Recker, you mentioned that he had problems with the Internet. I mean, that seems to have changed their whole lives. And these young kids have to go home and read the Internet and what people say about 'em?
Mr. GILDEA: Right. In Jamaal's case, Jamaal told me--and I have no reason to doubt him at all--that he was never in a gang. But certainly gangs proliferated in--I got the statistics in there on gangs in Gary, with the numbers and the dangers involved and the incidents that came up where his own mother and brother were held up at gunpoint. It could--again, it could be any inner city, whatever. But, yeah, the new technology, maybe, you know, a pager's gonna help in his case.

And the Internet case was interesting because Recker took 65 shots in this doubleheader one day last December at New Castle, and suddenly, you know, not only was Mr. Basketball being talked about on the radio and on television and written about in the newspapers and--you could drive down these country roads and hear the name Luke Recker in the radio. And it'd fade out of one town and you'd get into the next town and you could hear Recker again--his name, you know? Not only was all that going on, but suddenly, he was--his name is coming up on all these conversations on the Internet. And people were critical of him. And...
LAMB: These kids read the Internet?
Mr. GILDEA: Oh, yeah. Kids read the Internet and they get feedback from those who do. But, yeah, the kids are ahead of people our age, I think, on the Internet. So what happened was the Batesville coach, who's very young--he's 33--he was more familiar with the Internet than most Indiana coaches. He carries a laptop around with him in his bookbag over his--he looks like a student, he's so young. Great coach. He's down in Batesville and he sees all that stuff on the Internet and he gets on the Internet, says, you know, `Let's back off here, you know. This is a game and let's let--you know, Luke is one of the best. Let's let him work out his problems without creating more for him.' And then suddenly, there was a spate of messages on the Internet, saying, `You know, you're right, coach,' `Sorry, coach,' you know, `Cheers for Mel Siefert of Batesville,' `Coach Seifert is right,' `Let's let Luke play.'

So as I said in there, the symbol of Indiana is still very much the net, outside the house, on the driveway. I mean, you can go down--you can pick any street or any farmhouse and see a net. But now you see a satellite dish next to it, so there are those two things. So, sure--and it's all part of change.
LAMB: You said you went looking for the net of James Dean.
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah, I did because I'd forgotten Dean came from--before he went to Hollywood, had come from--grown up in Indiana. And he comes from Fairmount, a town northeast of Anderson--between Anderson and Ft. Wayne. And Kyle Runyan, who was a very good player last season, is now at Evansville, played in Fairmount for Madison-Grant. And I wanted to see Kyle Runyan play, but as I like to do, I took a little detour, went to--there was another cemetery I went to--and just found a couple people out in the cemetery putting roses on his tombstone.
LAMB: This is him in the picture?
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah, that's--you would never recognize him there. They say he wasn't a bad ballplayer for his time, and looking at the statistics, he seemed to save his best games to the very--his very last three as a senior for what was then Fairmount High. It's now been consolidated, and the school--school is Madison-Grant. But it's outsiders like us who, I guess, are interested in James Dean. But the people there in Fairmount were talking about Kyle Runyan, the latest legend.
LAMB: You have a quote from a coach in Alexandria, Indiana. The students--576 in the school--high school. His name is Garth Cone. And let me just read a little bit of it and ask you why you put it in here. Garth Cone said, "I think our society is trying to have more winners. And in the attempt to have more winners, we're diluting the prize." Cone said, "There's a trend in society, enlarge the honor roll. Basketball reflects society. I wouldn't want to be told that just because I came from a little school I couldn't compete for a job at a big school. And I don't think it's fair to tell the kids the same thing. There's too much stock put in championships. How many times have you heard it? It's been 1954 since Milan. I'm not so sure we need another Milan. So much of life is not dealing with the championship but with the path you take."
Mr. GILDEA: Well, in a lot of writing I do, if I make a point, say, early in a story or a book, I like to come back to it. And that's an extension of Witty's feeling and also the popular notion in Indiana that, you know, we shouldn't lower the bar, as it were; we shouldn't have, you know, false championships. I mean, we want to try for the genuine thing and to feel a sense of satisfaction in just how much we can accomplish.

By the way, this tournament, to me, is sort of a bonus, is how I look at it. I look at it as every team having a complete season, which I believe in, and playing a good schedule and the right number of games that they can fit into the, you know, their academic program and judge their season on the record. Now when the tournament comes along, just see how far you can go--just see if you can be, you know, as they say, the champions of the neighborhood--among people that--who know them rather than the champions of all those who they don't even know. And even last year, there were two or three small schools that went a considerable distance. There was a school called Union of Dugger who made it to the final round of the regionals, an amazing accomplishment. So...
LAMB: This isn't Rick Skiles, is it?
Mr. GILDEA: No. It's just a guy.
LAMB: What's the picture?
Mr. GILDEA: The picture is just something you see all the time in Indiana. You see people mopping basketball floors. Every--it's almost an art form before a game. They get all the dust off the court and you also see nets hung on trophies in trophy cases right outside the gym doors. And there's a great pride taken in every--in the gyms in Indiana.
LAMB: Who's the fellow on the front cover in the picture?
Mr. GILDEA: Generic fella. Don't know who he is. He's the product of the book jacket designer. And...
LAMB: What do you think of the name of your book? Did you name it?
Mr. GILDEA: Well, I had a hand in it. We couldn't really come up with a title and my editor, Michael Pietsch, had trouble coming up with a title. And we actually conversed more on the title than we have on anything else. Well, I think there was a stretch of about 10 days where we talked almost every day, and at the end of the day, he'd call me with a short list and I'd have a few ready for him. And we never could settle on anything. And one day, he called with some title, and in the subtitle, the last words were "Where the Game Matters Most." And I said, `Well, maybe that's the title of the book.'
LAMB: By the way, we've followed Alexis de Tocqueville's trip around the United States for the last year, and then I read you found two journalists--two French journalists, of all things--in Ft. Wayne, studying a quintessential Midwestern city. Did you ever meet them?
Mr. GILDEA: I didn't meet them, but, you know, you never--I did bump into some camels, actually, in Ft. Wayne. Truly, I was with another writer, Frank Ahrens, on The Washington Post, who came out to visit me. And we were attending the semi- states, and I was trying to pull out of a traffic jam and he said, `Bill, there are a couple of camels across the street you might be interested in.' And I said, `Come on. We're in Ft. Wayne.' And he said, `No, no. Look.' And sure enough--and it was part of some sort of a pageant they were having over there. But later on, I was driving up 31 to Kokomo one night--before dark, and darned if there wasn't a camel farm up there. So Indiana's a quirky place, and I hope that comes through.
LAMB: Here we got this map and it shows Kokomo there in the middle of the map that the audience will see in just a second, and that's north there of Indianapolis. And there's Anderson and New Castle. But you go on down the state and you see those two red buttons there, which are both Milan and Batesville; we haven't talked about Michael Menser.
Mr. GILDEA: Well, Michael Menser I could talk about for a long time--you know, he's laconic like Johnny Unitas. You know, and he's the self-made player like Larry Bird. What a beautiful kid. He's not big and he's not a natural like Recker. He started shooting baskets shortly after he could stand up, and I would match up his three-point shooting with anybody at any level. In fact, he's making headlines at Indiana State, just like Recker. He's starting at his college, and he sank six threes in a row the other night.

So--but the thing about Michael Menser is that to me, he just personified that idea that many of us have about Indiana, of a kid out there early in the morning, late at night, all summer long shooting hoops and improving his shot and improving his moves. And he's a little guy, 145 pounds. And that's why he only got two college scholarships because he didn't qualify or wasn't chosen for the big Nike camp--summer camp in Indianapolis, where all the coaches come and observe these players. So Michael has had to fight his way along, and he's quite an example of what you can do when you put your mind to it.
LAMB: You have a lot of different quotes from some fairly well-known figures in history. Cervantes --you end up the whole book by quoting, "The journey is better than the inn"--I-N-N. What's that about?
Mr. GILDEA: Well, it's what John Wooden, the famous UCLA coach he was the one who applied that before I did. And I decided to give him the last line in the book. It's about the struggle, it's about trying to achieve, it's about, you know, doing your best. And there's great satisfaction to be derived in that. It has to do with the whole work ethic in Indiana. It has to do with the basketball tournament, too. That's part of it.
LAMB: You have a quote here from C.S. Lewis, "For broken dreams or for broken dreamers, the cure is dream again and deeper."
Mr. GILDEA: Oh, yeah, because you've got 382 schools and in the--you know, and back in the '50s, you had 700, 800 schools before consolidation. And there's only gonna be one winner. There's gonna be 381 that are gonna have to dream deeper and that's what you do. You keep--you know, you have dreams--you gotta have dreams. You know, Walker Percy said in the "Moviegoer" that, you know, if you're alive, you know, and you know you're alive, if you're just onto the search, you know, if you're on to searching for something. And that's what we are when we dream. And that's what you do in the basketball tournament, too.
LAMB: In Kokomo, you found a room set aside off the gym, a memorial to Johnny Turner and others killed in World War II. And part of what they said on the wall is, `The memorial conceived in loving memory and enduring gratitude is dedicated to those promising sons who grew to young manhood in our homes and schools of Howard County and who, mindful only of duty to their country and loved ones, offered their lives and all else they possessed for liberty and justice,' and all that. Did you find a lot of this as you went around Indiana?
Mr. GILDEA: Yeah. There's certainly a lot of patriotism in Indiana. That's for certain. And there's a lot...
LAMB: Do they believe it?
Mr. GILDEA: There's a lot of generosity--absolutely. People, by and large, seem to want to help you out, even, I might say, when they don't know that, you know, you are coming from The Washington Post maybe or Washington, DC, or are writing a book or, you know, maybe you're just asking directions. Maybe you're asking for some other kind of help. The tendency is, I found, spending a lot of time in the Midwest and in Indiana, especially, that people are trusting.

You know, I wanted to go see James Dean's net in the barn, and so another farmer whom I found, who was a pallbearer for James Dean, called over to the--the guy who owns the property now where James Dean grew up and said, `This guy here wants to take a look at the net.' And he covers the phone and says, `He's going--he has to go out.' And I thought, `Oh, you know, when am I going to come past Fairmount again with all I have to do?' So what happened was he said, `Just send him over. I won't be here, but just tell him to drive in and just raise the latch on the barn and slide the door to the right. Only have one rule: Don't smoke in the barn and close the door on the way out.' That's the kind of generosity that I found there.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book, "Where the Game Matters Most." Our guest has been William Gildea, the author. And we thank you very much.
Mr. GILDEA: Thank you.
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