Anderson Has Special Place in Indiana's Basketball Tradition
Of all the towns and smallish cities that have embraced Indiana high school basketball all these years, who has a superior claim to the hysterical element of it than Anderson?
Muncie, maybe. Marion, perhaps. Their teams have won more state championships. But Anderson holds a status all its own in the state's basketball lore, not only for its history of great players and great teams but for its iconic gymnasium and traditions.
That history will be recognized at halftime of the Pacers' Hickory Night celebration on Monday, when the Pacers play Toronto at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Former Mr. Basketballs Ray Tolbert (1977) and Kojak Fuller (1993) will be on hand, along with relatives of Mr. Basketballs Johnny Wilson (1946) and Troy Lewis (1984). The city also produced a fifth Mr. Basketball, Roy Taylor (1974).
Dozens of other notable players have flowed from the once-thriving city fueled by General Motors factories, including 30 members of the boys' all-star teams for the annual series with Kentucky and 16 inductees of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, including coaches. All those players occasionally made for some great teams, such as the three that won state championships (1935, '37, '46) and the seven that were runners-up.
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What separated Anderson from other state hotbeds was its rare blend of size, friction, camaraderie, and focal point. Muncie was a larger city with a major university (Ball State) and more high schools to dilute the basketball focus. Marion had just one huge public high school that had no competition within the city limits and rarely any from county schools.
But, man, Anderson...it had, in its heyday, three major high schools: The original namesake, Madison Heights, and Highland, all of whom butted heads in the regular season and in the sectional. The city was small enough, however, for the players from all three to consolidate temporarily in the summers and get together for pickup games and occasionally hit the road to take on players from other cities.
There was no other place like in the state.
"Anderson is a big town, but the people are very close and they are very loyal to their schools, churches, and families — like a small town," Madison Heights coach Phil Buck told Bob Williams of The Indianapolis Star early in the 1980s.
"Our kids live extremely close together; they go to church together and attend the same dances. They live across the street from each other in some cases and yet they go to different high schools."
Tolbert, who played for Buck at Madison Heights before going on to earn all-Big Ten honors while starting at center for Indiana's 1981 national championship team and play five NBA seasons, was one of those kids.
He attended Madison Heights but knew all the players from Anderson's school district and played with them often.
"We had fair competition, honest competition, but everybody was still friends," Tolbert said. "Everybody knew each other and respected each other. We would get together in the summers and sometimes go to other cities to find pickup games. We would play in the Dustbowl tournament in Indianapolis and dominate, until four or five Pacers would get together and form a team. That was the only way they could beat us."
Anderson's early success in the state high school tournament planted the seeds for future success. Kids grew up hearing of the exploits of a Jumpin' Johnny Wilson or other high school star from back in the day and often got to see those players around town. Lewis, for example, saw Wilson many times because Wilson's parents lived across the street from Lewis' grandparents. He kept hearing the stories, and eventually he was old enough to understand.
Lewis also heard stories of how his father had made the first basket in the Wigwam when it opened in 1961, on a long hook shot. But what really injected basketball into his bones was attending a game and seeing all its pageantry. You could hear the adults talking about the team and you could listen to games on the radio, but nothing beat the experience of being there.
Lewis, who became a two-time first-team all-Big Ten guard at Purdue in 1987 and '88, vividly recalls being seven years old and attending a game against Marion. He had been hearing the name Roy Taylor over and over again, on the radio and in conversations he overheard among adults. He knew Taylor wore No. 43, so he made a point of searching him out at the next game.
The game was in progress when he arrived with his mother and brothers, and then it ended much earlier than he expected. He wasn't particularly impressed with how No. 43 played, either.
"I'm going like, 'Is that it?'" Lewis recalls.
It turned out Lewis had just watched the end of the junior varsity game, with another player wearing No. 43. But before he knew it the bleachers filled up, the lights dimmed, a spotlight focused on students dressed as a squaw and an Indian, the fans started clapping and chanting a war chant to the beat of tom-tom drums and the accompaniment of the pep band and then...finally...the varsity team burst through a paper-covered hoop and onto the court.
"Right then I said I wanted to be an Anderson Indian," Lewis says.
Anderson's Troy Lewis with Purdue coach Gene Keady (Photo Credit: Mark Montieth)
He became one, and got to experience the Wigwam's iconic pregame tradition many times. The players could hear what was going on out on the court while gathered in the locker room, waiting to burst through that hoop.
"You would get goosebumps," Lewis says. "It's so hard to tell people how it really was.
"I know other teams would watch it. We'd be in the locker room and Coach (Norm) Held would say, 'They're out there watching the pregame. We've already got them.'"
Maybe some players were intimidated, but not all of them. Not an elite one like Tolbert, whose goosebumps rivaled those of any of the Anderson players when he heard the pounding drums.
"I thought it was hilarious," Tolbert says, laughing at the memory. "What they didn't know was that it got me fired up. If they were looking to be entertaining, I thought, I'll give them a little entertainment. It gave me a jump-start."
Just imagine all these elements coming together in the sectional, played of course at the Wigwam. Schools from outlying communities such as Frankton, Lapel, and Alexandria were part of it, but the three Madison County schools dominated. Interest was such that a lottery was held at the Wigwam on the Monday before the sectional began to determine which Anderson High fans got the privilege of purchasing tickets. Imagine the tension among the 6,300 season ticket holders toward the end of Lewis' senior season in 1984 when only about 1,000 sectional tickets were available for the school's fans. Sometimes schools from other counties had unused tickets that could be purchased, but most of the fans — even season ticket holders — had to rely on the luck of the draw.
"People would run down from the bleachers and go crazy if their number was called," Lewis says.
Lewis understood. He had experienced some crazy emotions over the Indians himself while growing up. After his introduction to the madness as a seven-year-old, when he learned there was a JV and varsity game, he became a devoted and informed fan the following year. Anderson had a great season, with Lewis' idol Roy Taylor sharing Mr. Basketball honors, but lost to eventual state champion Fort Wayne Northrop in the semistate final, one step from the final four.
Lewis' older brothers got to go to the game, but he stayed home with his father and listened on the radio.
"I cried," Lewis recalls. "After that game, I cried.
"These kids will never understand what it's like to grow up and hear the games on the radio," Lewis added. "You would sit there and listen to the game and then you listened to the postgame show and listened to Norm Held talk. You just sat there and listened. It was a big deal."
Later, as a junior at Anderson, Lewis gave the city much to talk about by setting a final four scoring record with 76 points in two games while leading the Indians to a runner-up finish in the state tournament.
Things have changed, of course. High school basketball isn't what it was thanks to the multi-class tournament system and the technological distractions available to kids today. The city of Anderson isn't the same, either. The factories that once supported a population of about 70,000 have mostly died. The population is about 55,000 now, and there's only one high school, called Anderson. It operates out of the former Madison Heights school.
The Wigwam still stands, though wobbly and uncertain after closing as a basketball facility in 2011. It was no longer practical to maintain given the rising costs and dwindling attendance at games, so the school board voted 6-1 to close it. The Jane Pauley Community Health Center occupies part of it, and plans are underway to make it suitable for other ventures.
"Anderson right now is on fumes," says Tolbert, who lives in Indianapolis. "Hopefully they can figure it out and somebody can put some development together and revive Anderson."
Regardless, the memories will never fade.
Anderson's State Champions
1934-35: The Indians, with nine losses in the regular season, beat unbeaten Jeffersonville in the final game, 23-17.
1936-37: The Indians won their second title in three years in rather routine fashion, defeating a Cinderella hopeful, the Huntingburg Happy Hunters in the final game, 33-23.
1945-46: Soon-to-be-named Mr. Basketball Jumpin' Johnny Wilson became the first player in tournament history to score 30 points in the championship game as Anderson dominated Fort Wayne Central, 67-53.
Anderson's Mr. Basketballs
Johnny Wilson, Anderson, 1946
Roy Taylor (co), Anderson, 1974
Ray Tolbert, Madison Heights, 1977
Troy Lewis (co), Anderson, 1984
Kojak Fuller, Anderson, 1993
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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