HARTFORD CITY, Ind. — Let’s play a little game. Following this paragraph are three storylines. Pick out the one that seems the most unreal:
- An 82-year-old man is hired to coach a high school basketball team after stepping down from his last coaching job three years ago.
- A freshman, who was home-schooled until high school, scores 98 points (32.7 per game) in the first three games of his career.
- A high school basketball team starts the season 3-0 after going a combined 0-47 over the last two years.
The most unreal? All of the above?
Actually, all are true. And as unbelievable as it sounds, they’re all happening on the same team.
That’s right, after a win at Blue River last weekend, Blackford is 3-0 in boys basketball for the first time since the 1991-92 season. The same program that had become an East Central Indiana doormat over the past few seasons is filling gyms and believing it can beat anyone on its schedule.
“Basically they were looking for a turning point,” coach Jerry Hoover said. “Then football had a good year, for Blackford. Now it’s looking like there are going to be more programs that start to win here. Winning is contagious, losing is contagious. After 15 years of losing in basketball, the community and the kids, the school, everybody is starting to think maybe we can win.”
Some strange things are going on at Blackford. But after listening to this coach (who’s now 83) and watching this freshman get buckets, you get the sense that this 3-0 start is only the beginning of a complete overhaul in Bruin basketball.
Jerry Hoover slowly rises from the chair he sat in to address his team for about 20 minutes before the start of practice and paces into the coaches’ office down the hall. He stops right inside the door, removes a hearing aid from its port and nestles it between his ear and the gold Wake Forest hat he’s wearing.
Hoover lowers onto the couch. The first question that comes to mind: How in the world did this man end up here?
“I’m not making any bones about it. I looked all over the state for a job,” Hoover said. “I talked to a lot of schools. For one reason or another, I was either too old or they didn’t understand what was going on. This was a fit here. I’m not only qualified, but I’ve done this before.”
Hoover left his last job as girls coach at Logansport after a semistate appearance in 2013-14. He hasn’t really been out of coaching, though. He runs D-One Basketball Camp and regularly attended high school games the last three years. Last season, Hoover said, he saw 250 teams play.
It gave him the urge to coach again. His son, Don, is a professor and was relocating from Western Kentucky University to Western Michigan. He teaches class a couple of days per week and can do his research remotely on other days, so it gave them some leverage geographically. And a chance to coach together.
“I had already done my interviews and was getting ready to decide on a coach, and he just happened to call out of the blue and said, ‘I know you’re going to find this strange, but I’m an old man, I’ve been coaching for years and I just want to sit down and talk to you,’” Uggen said. “I said, ‘Well, I just did my interviews but I’d be glad to hear you out.’ So he showed up, and kind of shared what his plan was and how the scenario was going to play out with the family thing involved.
“To be honest, it was almost too good to be true. In fact, I actually said, ‘Give me a second,’ and turned around and called my principal and said, ‘You’ve got to get down here now.’”
They didn’t know Hoover, so they made calls and vetted him. Uggen felt “silly” after a simple Google search. Hoover was an assistant for 14 years at Indiana State and coached former NBA player Randy Wittman at Ben Davis and 2014 Miss Basketball Whitney Jennings at Logansport.
Hoover has turned eight high school programs from losers into winners. Logansport went from 4-18 in his first year to 24-3 in his last. It was such a perfect fit with Blackford’s recent struggles, Uggen said Hoover’s age wasn’t a factor.
“It’s like that song that Vern Gosdin sang: ‘This ain’t my first rodeo,'” Hoover said. “I know what to look for and I’m familiar with it. This is my thing. I don’t fish, I don’t hunt, I don’t play cards, I don’t play golf. I coach basketball.”
It has also given Hoover the opportunity to be with his son and coach his grandsons. Don has three boys — a senior, a freshman and a seventh-grader. And Luke Brown, the aforementioned freshman star, is Hoover’s fifth cousin.
How long Hoover will coach, he’s not sure. He said he has a four-year contract, and that Don will take over if he dies or becomes incapacitated. But Don, a professor of physical therapy, has seen this whole thing through a scientific lens. He’s noticed that his dad’s energy has doubled since he took this job.
“When I was younger, I kind of worried that he was hanging on too long,” Don Hoover said. “I used to worry that he might die on a court. … But now, I say this jokingly but there’s an element of truth to it, if something were to happen now I’d be happy for him. Because he would actually go out doing something he’s enjoyed his whole life. There’s not a lot of people that can say that.”
Hoover isn’t concerned about his age or his outlook. He just wants to give kids the chance to feel what it’s like to be a winner.
“I don’t care if I die or have a stroke in the next hour, it’s better now than when I came here,” Hoover said.
Once the ball is tipped, eyes shift from the coach to the kid pulling up to shoot from 23 feet.
The one called Steve Nash Jr., Luke Brown models his game after a couple of two-time NBA MVPs: Nash and Stephen Curry. After every shot he hits, whether it’s a free throw or a 3-pointer from the volleyball line, Brown bumps his chest and points to the sky. He’s giving the glory to God, just like Curry.
“It’s just a blessing to even be out on the court,” Brown said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Brown has played on the AAU circuit, but since he was home-schooled, this is his first real exposure to regulated basketball. Not a lot of people know about this skinny, 5-foot-9 guard that’s running the show for Blackford, but they’re starting to find out.
He has scored 98 points in three games, but it hasn’t been a fluky 98. His point totals so far: 33, 32, 33. Brown already set the Blackford program record for most free throws made in a game when he went 20 for 21 at Blue River. He was a perfect 20 for 20, and was mad at himself after the final one rimmed out.
Brown may be small, but he’s got a quick first step and can blow by defenders. He’s not afraid to shoot it from anywhere. Blackford has shooting practice in the morning every day, and Hoover said Brown will put up at least 400 shots per day on top of that.
Hoover called him “the hardest working guy I’ve ever coached.”
“Basketball is a game of running, jumping, sliding, pivoting, dribbling, passing and shooting. He does all of those things very, very well,” Hoover said. “He is an excellent shooter. He is also a very good ball handler. And playing at the point, those two go together really well.”
Blue River brought extra guys to help on Brown when he came off a ball screen. That will undoubtedly happen more often as he continues to exploit defenses.
So far, though, so good. Brown has good vision and dished out 12 assists last game. And his supporting cast of JD Hoover (Jerry’s grandson averaging 14 ppg), Tyler Cagle, Brandon Stroble and Mark White have been stepping up.
“Coming in, I was new so they didn’t know me,” Brown said. “They’ve been awesome. I love my teammates. They’re a great group of guys.”
Brown’s 32.7 ppg is among the best in the state early on. Small sample, but can he keep this up?
“I don’t know how good he is,” Hoover said. “He’s played (three) games. But I know he is better than I thought he was going in.”
These people aren’t just Blackford fans. Some of them hung on through the struggles, but a lot of them are coming to watch Hoover or Brown, or just trying to find out for themselves how this program is finally winning.
“We’re not only building a basketball program, everybody else is seeing what’s happening right now and seeing how much they’ve improved, and you’re starting to see it in football, baseball,” Uggen said. “Pretty soon the other teams are gonna start seeing these crowds that are getting bigger and bigger in a hurry. That’s gonna change the whole culture of athletics, I hope in the long run.”
Blackford had more fans than Blue River at their last game, in Blue River’s gym. The home game against Bluffton was one of the biggest crowds Uggen has seen in his five years as AD. He’s talking sellouts in the near future.
You have to put things into perspective to realize how crazy that is. Blackford’s last winning season was 2001-02. It’s had just three winning marks since 1993-94. From 2014-16, the Bruins were 1-69 and had a 61-game losing streak at one point.
“This hasn’t happened in a while,” Uggen said. “Now all the sudden, you have people interested. It’s just a big lift for the community as a whole, and that’s what is special about this.”
Tyler Cagle, a senior who has stuck around through all the losing, has noticed the crowds. He said he feels more accomplished now than he has throughout his career.
“The last couple years, no one wanted to be there,” he said. “The attitude is a 180-degree turn.”
Blackford’s start to the season is significant because of where the program has been, but “insignificant to where we hope to be.” In Hoover’s experience, it takes three years to rebuild a boys program and five years for girls. There are quick ways to do it, he said, but they don’t lead to sustained success.
The fact he’s got good kids and they play the right way might make things easier at Blackford, where one of, if not the oldest coach in the state is turning even the biggest skeptics into believers.
“These school boards and administrators that think they’re going to get Marmaduke the Magician to turn it around faster than that are blowing smoke,” Hoover said. “It doesn’t happen. Ten months from now, it’ll be better than what it is now. And in three years, we will have a program that produces champions and produces college players.”