NEW CASTLE – Grant Smith’s hands were all over this sectional championship game, controlling it, winning it, and when it was over the sectional trophy was in his hands as well. His Connersville teammates wanted to see the trophy, get their own hands on it, but Grant Smith needed to do something first.
Smith, a 6-6 senior who scored 30 points in Connersville’s 59-44 victory Saturday night against New Castle, held the trophy high over his head and showed it to the crowd. Slowly he spun, flashing it to all four corners of the New Castle Fieldhouse, grinning as the noise got louder and louder.
Thank you, Grant Smith was saying. Thank you.
“This has to be the greatest love-showing crowd in Indiana,” Smith was telling me after climbing down from the ladder beneath one goal, where he snipped the first piece from the net. “I know there are towns that love their basketball all over Indiana, but nobody shows the love like Connersville.”
No way to prove that conclusively, but I’m about to give it a shot. Connersville has a population of 13,500. School officials estimated at 4,500 the number of Spartans fans who drove roughly 35 miles to fill up the New Castle Fieldhouse on Saturday night.
That’s one-third of Connersville. Here in New Castle. For a high school game.
“Our town needed this team,” Connersville superintendent Scott Collins was telling me afterward. “We’ve been through some rough times.”
Well, that’s a story.
* * *
It was an evacuation.
If you’re heading north out of Connersville, there’s just one way out of town: Hop on State Road 1 near Mousie’s Café, drive past the cemetery on the right and the old Visteon plant on the left, and take it to Interstate 70. Then west to New Castle.
One by one the cars left Saturday — one by one, Connersville left Connersville — a procession I found myself in the middle of after driving into town to see Connersville for myself. The drive to New Castle should have taken us 45 minutes. With traffic, it was well over an hour.
The game started at 7:30. Fieldhouse doors opened at 6:30. The Connersville crowd was lined up outside at 5:30. By the time the doors opened an hour later, Connersville fans were clogging all three entrances into the fieldhouse with lines that stretched from the building to the sidewalk to the parking lot.
“Pretty much the whole town is here,” Connersville fan Jeff Showalter was telling me from his seat about 15 rows from the floor. “Well, everyone who’s not on drugs.”
He wasn’t serious when he said that, not completely, but he wasn’t joking either. Like too much of Indiana, Connersville has had a heroin problem. Over one 20-day stretch in the fall of 2014, 20 people in Connersville overdosed, five of them fatally.
The 21st century has not been kind to Connersville.
Once upon a time this small town was a central figure in the automobile industry — “Little Detroit,” folks called it — but one by one the manufacturing plants closed. The last to go was Visteon, an auto parts supplier which opened an enormous factory on State Road 1 in 1953 and was the town’s biggest employer when it closed in 2007. Just like that, Connersville lost 900 jobs. Today the median household income in Connersville is barely $37,000, well below the state average of $50,500.
Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about a town like Connersville. “My Hometown,” the song’s called.
Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.
Not in Jason Jobe’s hometown. He’s a 1995 graduate of Connersville, married his high school sweetheart (Jamie), had a kid (Jared, an eighth-grader), stayed in Connersville. He remembers all the fuss eight years ago when another automobile company, Carbon Motors, promised to move into the old Visteon plant and create 1,500 jobs. By then unemployment in Connersville was upwards of 15 percent, and a good many of those who had jobs were commuting an hour to Indianapolis or Cincinnati or Dayton. The lucky ones were driving just 45 minutes to the Honda plant in Greensburg.
Jobe was working for Roots Blower Co. when Carbon Motors was promising 1,500 new jobs immediately, and 10,000 eventually.
“Sounded too good to be true,” Jobe was telling me from his seat at the fieldhouse, about 12 rows up.
It did, but Connersville needed some good news. Carbon Motors was promising it. More than 7,000 Connersville residents — half the town — attended a pep rally in 2009 for Carbon Motors at the old Visteon plant. Time passed. Carbon Motors didn’t come. More time passed. Now Carbon Motors wasn’t returning calls from town officials.
In 2013, Carbon Motors went bankrupt. Never did come to Connersville.
“That was cruel,” Jobe says. “Broke the town’s heart.”
Connersville needed this basketball team.
* * *
New Castle led 33-32 midway through the third quarter when Grant Smith erupted.
This is a great team Connersville has, emphasis on the word team — they can all play, and they all play hard and smart – but Smith is the star, 6-6 forward who dominates the defensive glass and handles the ball as well as anyone on the court. And when he gets hot? Get him the ball, as Connersville did.
Told you: They all play smart.
Grant Smith scored 13 straight Connersville points, and 17 of its last 27 — hitting 12 consecutive free throws in the process — and when New Castle coach Daniel Cox told his team to stop fouling with 55 seconds left, the red section of the fieldhouse erupted.
Red was the color Connersville fans wore Saturday, same as Tuesday. On Friday night they wore white, efforts coordinated on Facebook. Two local companies, Brunsman Graphic Design and Athletic Arena, made the shirts and sold them for $5 apiece. Lines at both places were stretching into the street. In downtown Connersville some buildings may sit empty, but all of them have “Go Spartans” signs in the windows.
Here in New Castle, victorious Grant Smith is signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans from Connersville. He’s telling me about the support his town of 13,500 has shown the Spartans.
“We out-crowded the other team in every game we played,” Grant Smith was saying. “Even on the road.”
“It’s true,” said Smith’s father, Joe, who averaged 17 points per game on the last Connersville team to reach semistate in 1989. “We brought at least 2,000 fans to every road game.”
Joe Smith was one of the nearly 900 Connersville folks who lost their job when Visteon closed in 2007. An engineer, he found work at NSK in Liberty, 20 minutes away. Like so many other Connersville residents, he commutes. He could have moved his family, but the thought didn’t even cross his mind.
Grant Smith will go to college — he’s being recruited mainly by NAIA schools — but he’ll be back someday. He’ll be back for good.
“I don’t care what anyone says about my town. Look at these people,” Grant Smith is saying, pointing at the red-clad Connersville fans milling about the New Castle court. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”