Here’s your schedule: Five gyms in five days starting at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the mid-afternoon sunlight pours through those iconic windows, eager as everyone else to get inside.
The next day is Assembly Hall in Bloomington. Purdue’s in town to play the Hoosiers, who will stoke a crowd that needs no stoking by honoring Victor Oladipo before tipoff. The next day is Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Oladipo will remind us why he is an All-Star, and Lance Stephenson will remind us why this city adores him.
Next day? A high school on the northside. A girls basketball sectional. And on the fifth day, Mackey Arena. Maryland is in town to test the No. 3 Boilermakers.
Five gyms in five days in a state that worships basketball. Five gyms in five days, each game offering a moment that reveals a state’s soul.
Five gyms. Five days. High school, college, NBA. Is this heaven?
No. It’s Indiana.
Saturday, Hinkle Fieldhouse
Butler won’t play until the dog gets his bone.
The starting lineups for St. John’s and Butler are announced, and the most revered member of the Butler basketball program goes last: Blue III. Butler exec and Blue handler Michael Kaltenmark leads the burly bulldog onto the court and drops the leash. There goes Blue, skidding across the waxed hardwood, pumping those little legs. He’s headed toward Kaltenmark’s marketing assistant, Evan Krauss, who crouches under the other basket and holds a bone the size of a baseball bat at ankle level. Blue takes it, the happiest moment of his life, a moment he will enjoy 19 times this season.
Now Blue is standing on the baseline, facing the court. Kaltenmark reaches under Blue’s cartoonish chest and rotates the gentle dog so Blue is facing the student section called the Dawg Pound.
He’s facing Jimmy, too.
If Blue is the happiest creature in Hinkle before this 70-45 Butler victory, Jimmy Lafakis is a close second. He’s a Butler student shooting pictures from the baseline, a journalism major from The Region, an Indiana kid who grew up with a love of basketball – he played for his middle school and in a high school church-league on the south side of Chicago – but went into seventh grade without a favorite college basketball team. That was 2010.
Remember 2010? Butler’s first Final Four run. Up in Schererville, a seventh-grader fell for Brad Stevens. He fell for Shelvin Mack. Jimmy Lafakis decided he would attend Butler.
Well, his parents were great about it. John and Kathy Lafakis drove Jimmy to Indianapolis when he was in eighth grade, toured the place, walked into Hinkle, walked into a bookstore, walked out with Butler socks and shirts and a blue sweatshirt that Jimmy won’t throw away seven years later, even with all those holes. They drove Jimmy to Butler for the 2010-11 exhibition opener against Florida Southern, his first game. Drove him to Valparaiso on Jan. 29, where the Bulldogs lost in overtime. And they drove Jimmy to New Orleans for the 2011 Sweet 16, got tickets, watched eighth-seeded Butler play No. 4 Wisconsin inside the New Orleans Arena.
That was spring break, and Butler moved on from Wisconsin but so did the Lafakis caravan – driving north to get Jimmy back to school. They stopped in Indianapolis to watch Butler play Florida in the Elite Eight. Stopped at Butler. Watched it at Atherton Union, the game projected onto a wall inside the Reilly Room. When Butler beat Florida in overtime, with Southeastern Region MVP Shelvin Mack scoring 27 points, Butler was in the Final Four and about 200 Butler students and Jimmy Lafakis were rushing onto the lawn outside Atherton to celebrate.
Seven years later, Jimmy writes for The Butler Collegian. He’s a junior now. He covers Butler basketball. Sits on the baseline and takes photographs that are professional quality, writes stories that could run in any newspaper in America, counts several Bulldogs as friends.
Cries to himself, privately in his room from time to time, about his good fortune.
“Tears of happiness, joy, disbelief,” Jimmy says. “This school means everything to me. I text my parents ‘thank you’ all the time. Or I’ll text them: ‘I picked the right school.’”
It is a story about basketball, and life. Here in Indiana, they are the same thing.
Sunday, Assembly Hall
The band plays, and slowly he starts to sink.
Parkinson’s has taken its toll on Bob Compton. For 40 years he and Mary Jane had IU season tickets, but time stops for nobody. Bob is 87, uses a wheelchair, and moved into a nursing home a few years ago. This is the only game he’ll attend this season, the Hoosiers against Purdue, which makes this his only national anthem.
Mary Jane knows what is happening, knows what will happen, and drapes an arm around her husband’s shoulders. From the moment he stands, he starts sinking back into the chair – sinking slowly, almost imperceptibly, his legs giving out one degree at a time. Gravity and Parkinson’s are ganging up on him now, and he sinks faster. While the broad stripes and bright stars are gallantly streaming, Bob Compton is gallantly landing in his chair. Mary Jane leans into him, nuzzles him.
He served in the military, you know. Grew up in southwest Virginia, followed his brother-in-law to IU, had his college days interrupted by the Korean War. Bob Compton spent two years on active duty. Fought alongside men who died. Sixty years later, he stands as long as he can.
“I don’t mind,” he says. “People died for that.”
Bob came home, returned to IU, graduated in 1956. He met Mary Jane, a 1961 IU graduate from North Manchester, and settled in the western part of the state. They owned Viquesney’s, an office products store in Terre Haute.
On this day he will watch his undermanned alma mater give Purdue all it can handle before losing 74-67, and Bob Compton will leave happy. He saw his Hoosiers. He honored his flag. And by God he stood for the national anthem.
Monday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse
The Pacers are building, borderline playoff-worthy, but at home they are overachievers, borne aloft by a fan base that has fallen for a team without ego or pretense. It is a team embodied by Oladipo,a career 15.9-ppg scorer entering this season, his first with the Pacers after being acquired with Domantas Sabonis from Oklahoma City for Paul George.
Oladipo is averaging 24.2 ppg and headed to his first career All-Star Game. On this night, in the third quarter of this 105-96 victory against Charlotte, Oladipo is the help-side defender when Hornets big man Dwight Howard gets the ball and starts backing Myles Turner toward the rim. Howard rises for a layup and is met by Oladipo, whose head is near the rim as he swats Howard’s attempt away.
For the second time tonight, the crowd is euphoric. The first time?
It was spectacular, it was fun, it was unnecessary. It’s Lance being Lance, it happens every game, and today it happens late in the first quarter when Lance Stephenson chases down a loose ball near halfcourt, goes behind his back to split two Charlotte defenders and heads for the rim. In the crowd, Pacers fans start to rise. Lance is a shot of sugar into their bloodstream. Every time he attacks the rim, liable to do something nobody has ever seen – for better or worse – the building teeters on an emotional precipice.
And here he is, attacking the rim. To his left is T.J. Leaf, cutting to the basket. To his right is Joe Young, open for a corner 3. Two Charlotte giants are converging on Lance: 7-0 Frank Kaminsky from his left, 6-9 Johnny O’Bryant the right.
The ball is bouncing, but I wouldn’t say Lance is dribbling. He’s following the ball, his hands flailing in mid-air like a Hibachi chef, chopping and slashing near the ball but never touching it. These are fakes, I guess. Kaminsky seems unfazed – it is happening so fast, he doesn’t have time to react – and eventually Stephenson stops flailing and grabs the ball with his left hand, switches to his right and throws an overhand bounce pass, like Gronk spiking a touchdown. The ball goes low between O’Bryant and Kaminsky and bounces up to Leaf, who lays it in.
After a sliver of silence, the crowd registers what just happened and explodes. In 29 other NBA cities, Lance Stephenson is an irritant. Here in Indianapolis, he is an 8.9-ppg rock star.
Tuesday, University High U-Center
We’re inside the Trailblazers’ locker room, where coach Justin Blanding is looking at his 14-7 girls team. Nobody is talking. Somewhere, a shower is dripping.
University is about to play a 5-14 Indianapolis Metropolitan team that dresses just seven players, about to win this game by whatever margin it wants – final score: 90-23 – but Blanding doesn’t seem to believe that, and won’t let his players believe it either: “It’s not about you out there. It’s about our school, our community, all of us. Show them who we are.”
Now Blanding shows his players who he is. As if they didn’t already know.
“I’ve been a wreck all day,” he tells his team, breaking into a smile. “I worked out three times today, and then sat in a dark room meditating. I want this for you.”
So do the Trailblazers. They lead 47-12 at the half and trot happily back to the locker room. Not Blanding. He walks fast, serious. His face says: We haven’t won a damn thing. His face says: We could still lose. His face says: This is the Indiana state basketball tournament.
Wednesday, Mackey Arena
Purdue is beating Maryland comfortably in the final 75 seconds. It’s late in here and it’s cold out there, and at most gyms this is when fans start to leave.
But this is Mackey Arena. Nobody is leaving.
The Boilermakers have won 21 in a row here, the second-longest home winning streak in college basketball, and they’ve been demolishing teams by 23.8 ppg. This one was closer, 75-67, but Purdue opened leads of 9-0 and 26-11 and sent Maryland home in welts.
It’s a brutal winter we’ve been having, but students start lining up outside hours before every game and fill two floor-to-ceiling swaths at opposite ends of Mackey. They’re called the Paint Crew and they get introduced before every game, 2,800 Purdue students rising as one as the first member of Purdue’s starting six.
When it’s over, the students stick around and the rest of the arena sticks around and some fans are walking down to the front row because the Boilermakers are about to take a lap around Mackey, high-fiving students and children and older folks. I’m watching 6-8 forward Vincent Edwards, who has just produced eight points, 11 rebounds and five assists despite being violently sick, wave a fist at a student in a cow costume. He’s trying not to touch anyone, and he needs to get to the locker room for hydration, but this is important. So Edwards walks the arena and says: Thank you.
At the tunnel, 5-10 point guard P.J. Thompson is leaping up to swipe hands with fans leaning over the railing. Behind him is 7-2 center Isaac Haas, who doesn’t leap. This started organically years ago and now happens after every game.
“I really like it,” says Purdue coach Matt Painter. “Just a quick thank you for all they do for us.”
Back in the tunnel, Thompson is disappearing toward the locker room. A young boy runs down to the railing and yells his name. Thompson turns around and trots over to the kid, who spins gleefully to see if anyone in the crowd saw what just happened. An actual Purdue Boilermaker! Shook his hand!
The kid is beaming, like P.J. Thompson just did him the biggest favor. I’m seeing the smile on Thompson’s face as he heads for the locker room. I’m thinking the kid has it backward.