ANDERSON — John Powless drives up as I’m walking a basketball burial ground.
Powless, in a white Chevy Blazer with dents on both doors, rolls slowly past the crane and the backhoe and three men in hard hats staring balefully at him. All of us are in the parking lot of the Wigwam, the old high school gymnasium that opened in 1961 and has welcomed everyone from the Anderson Indians to the Indiana Pacers to the Harlem Globetrotters. Richard Nixon held a campaign rally here. So did a Kennedy (Bobby) and a Clinton (Hillary).
But now it’s decomposing right before our eyes.
The parking lot is crowded with mountains of twisted metal and other garbage. There are five overflowing trash bins and two portable toilets. The whole mess is ringed by yellow caution tape.
John Powless has his eyes on two desks on the fringes of the trash.
“They’re for my wife,” he tells me. “We have two 6-year-olds who need a place to study and do homework.”
Used to be, this was the place for some of the best high school basketball in Indiana. The Wigwam held 8,996 fans and was rocking in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Indians reached the state title game three times in six years. They lost those games by four points, then two, then one.
The 1970s energy crisis devastated Anderson, eliminating one factory, one job, one family at a time. Once a town of 70,000 with three large high schools and two dozen General Motors plants, Anderson started dissolving. It went down to two high schools, then one. General Motors employed one in three adults in Anderson in its 1970s heyday, but GM closed its last factory here in 1999. Anderson is down to 55,000 residents, an aging population with thousands of GM retirees.
The future of Anderson is unsteady as John Powless sizes up two rain-beaten desks. Today there isn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun is shining brightly on the decaying homes and businesses that surround what was once the second-biggest high school gym in the country.
The Wigwam closed in 2011.
Twenty miles to the northeast, another historic basketball gym is looking into the same abyss.
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Faces of the dead welcome visitors to Muncie Fieldhouse.
They are pictures of state championship basketball teams from Muncie Central, starting with coach Pete Jolly’s champions of 1928 and 1931. Another team picture is so faded, the boys’ faces are disappearing and the words – if there were any – are gone.
Muncie Fieldhouse seats about 6,000 now, less than its capacity of 7,635 when it opened in December 1928. The crowds aren’t so big anymore, and the grand old gym at the corner of Walnut and Wysor shows its age. Most of the arched windows were bricked in years ago, but today there are heating and electrical and plumbing issues, and that’s not the worst of it. A recent inspection discovered structural problems, with steel risers needing more support and a floor that is breaking apart, rising and falling as if an earthquake has hit the area.
School officials say the repairs will cost at least $265,000, and that’s just to make the 88-year-old facility structurally safe. Add the cost of repairing deteriorating exterior façade and brick joints, repainting locker rooms coated with what officials believe is lead-based paint, and replacing a 1950s heating system – and what do you have? A potential $3 million financial disaster for a Muncie Community Schools corporation that already is $11.5 million in debt.
The school is considering the most sensible and painful solution for its athletics teams: Leaving the fieldhouse, perhaps for Southside Middle School.
The fieldhouse was home to Ray McCallum, Bonzi Wells and that incredible 1960 Muncie Central team whose starting lineup featured three future NBA players (Ron Bonham, Jim Davis and Bill Dinwiddie) and a fourth who would play in the NFL (Jim Nettles). But it is hemorrhaging money.
Chief Financial Officer Deborah Williams told The Star Press the board cannot justify spending a small fortune on a facility used by a small percentage of students, not with the corporation facing a deficit of $11.5 million.
Like Anderson, Muncie had three high schools in the 1970s, but the elimination of factory jobs in the Rust Belt hit Muncie hard as well. And It’s like what Bruce Springsteen sang in “My Hometown”: “Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” Muncie’s economy shifted over the years to education and health services, and its population holds steady in the 70,000 range. But it’s down to one high school.
On the day I visit Muncie, cheery signs hanging from lampposts on Walnut Street celebrate the city’s 150th birthday in 2015. The signs outside the Muncie Fieldhouse are ominous. No decision has been made about the fieldhouse’s future, but the parking lot here has two trash bins, a portable toilet, a tractor and stacks of barricades.
A roll of yellow caution tape is ready. Just in case.
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Stew Robinson hit two free throws they still remember in Anderson, both after the buzzer – standing alone on the court – to beat crosstown rival Highland for the 1982 sectional championship. Steve Alford missed two, allowing Anderson to escape New Castle in 1983.
Madison Heights’ Ray Tolbert played here before winning IndyStar Mr. Basketball in 1977 and helping lead Indiana to the 1981 NCAA championship. Anderson’s Troy Lewis played here before winning Mr. Basketball in 1984 and becoming the all-time scoring leader at Purdue. The ABA Pacers of Freddie Lewis and Mel Daniels and Roger Brown and Bob Netolicky played here in 1969. That was Slick Leonard’s first season.
The Wigwam’s last game? It was February 2011. Bishop Chatard in town. Anderson had lost 11 games in a row, but it would not lose No. 12. When the horn sounded on the Indians’ 47-42 victory, fans rushed the court.
The Wigwam was in trouble, everyone in Anderson knew that, but still it was a shock several months later when the school board closed it, citing the $550,000 annual cost to maintain the facility.
Five years later it still sits empty, emptier now than ever. Peek inside the windows of Gate 6, and you’ll see an empty hallway save for the John Deere tractor parked inside. Silver insulation hangs from the ceiling. Down the hall is the trophy case. Look hard enough, and you can see the trophies are still inside.
The Wigwam now is owned by BWI, an Indianapolis real estate company that specializes in Section 42 affordable housing. BWI saved the Wigwam from destruction in August 2014, agreeing to terms with the city and school board of Anderson five days before the board’s demolition deadline.
But two years later the Wigwam is the same empty husk, and the parking lot is another blight on a neighborhood that has seen better days. In one pile near the gym, a piece of twisted metal is poking through a window, trying to get back inside.
To the chagrin of locals, BWI asked the city of Anderson for $5 million in May to help get the construction project started. That, on top of asking the city to lower the appraised value of the land from $11.9 million to $650,000. That would provide an enormous tax break for BWI, which did not respond to requests for comment. BWI has indicated it plans a $42 million housing complex here – The Wigwam Apartments – that already has a website, but some in Anderson want BWI, even the Wigwam, to go away.
“They haven’t done anything to the building since they bought it,” one reader of the Herald Bulletin of Anderson wrote in a letter to the editor. “What else will they want, and does it even guarantee they will get this project started and finished?”
Wrote another: “Just tear it down. Really tired of hearing about it.”
So it is. The Wigwam, once the pride of Anderson and a symbol of a thriving basketball town, is now an annoyance. Will the same thing happen 20 miles away, to venerable Muncie Fieldhouse? Seems unthinkable, but then, the unthinkable is happening in Anderson.
Before that 2011 game, that 47-42 victory against Bishop Chatard, Anderson coach Ron Hecklinski told the crowd of 3,000: “The Wigwam is Anderson.”
Five years later, a demolition permit is taped to the window of a gym door. The only signs of life nearby are the weeds growing in the parking lot and John Powless, a 1986 graduate of Anderson High, loading two desks into his Chevy Blazer.