INDIANAPOLIS – Fourteen years ago, Tindley wasn’t a basketball powerhouse. Wasn’t even a school. It was a grocery store, and a closed store at that, with weeds on the sidewalks and a homicide in the parking lot. Put a charter school in the vacant Cub Foods building near 38th and Keystone, into the middle of a decaying neighborhood known as The Meadows? Didn’t make much sense …
Look now. Look at this victory.
On Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Tindley junior Hunter White drove for the go-ahead bucket with five seconds left, and Eric Hunter stole Lafayette Central Catholic’s inbounds pass to seal Tindley’s 51-49 victory for the Class A title.
That’s not the victory I’m talking about.
Look at those kids posing for pictures with their coach, all of them wearing smiles and a state championship medal. Look at the parents in the crowd. Some are laughing, some are crying, some are doing both. They know this state championship, historic as it is, isn’t the best thing Tindley will do this year.
Tindley will graduate its entire senior class. All of them will be accepted into a four-year college. All will go. At Tindley, they have a saying: College or die.
So forgive me for covering the first state championship in Tindley athletics history on Saturday, a last-second win for the Tigers, and deciding this isn’t a basketball story. It’s better than that.
Eric Hunter’s parents made him go here. They were college graduates and they wanted Eric to be a college graduate as well, and they didn’t care which high schools were recruiting their kid to play basketball. Eric was going to Tindley. End of story.
“I didn’t want to go to Tindley,” Hunter is telling me outside the Tindley locker room, where the Bankers Life Fieldhouse cinder blocks can’t conceal the happy noise inside. “I wanted to go to a bigger school, more publicity, more of a basketball track record. But now? I’m happy where I’m at.”
Hunter is the best player at Tindley, one of the best players in the whole state, a 6-3 guard with scholarship offers from Purdue and Butler. He’s part of coach Bob Wonnell’s junior class — with White, KJ Coleman and Joe Johnson Jr. — that turned Tindley into the class of Class A.
Two years ago they won sectional, repeated as sophomores, then repeated again this season and just kept going: regional, semistate, now this. The first of what could be two state titles, seeing how Tindley starts just one senior, Chris Murff (game-high 13 points Saturday), and has one of the city’s better freshmen, Sincere McMahon (10 points).
“The bar at Tindley is high,” school CEO Kelli B. Marshall is telling me. “We want to put the bar high so that when wins like this come up, yes, basketball is great. At Tindley we are super proud of all of our athletes. But the bar here is college. We expect them to graduate from a four-year university.”
We’re standing in the back of the news conference room, where Wonnell could have brought a few players but brought his whole team, because nobody was getting left in the locker room. At one point Wonnell was talking about the versatility of his team, saying his players can play any spot on the floor.
“If we had a chalkboard,” Wonnell is saying, surrounded by all 10 of his players, “they could draw up what we’re doing from every position.”
Around him, 10 heads are nodding.
In the back of the room, the Tindley CEO is smiling.
“The end goal is not this stage,” Marshall says. “The end goal is not this championship medal. The end goal is a degree.”
In the Tindley crowd, Joe Johnson Sr. is telling me the core of this team — Hunter, White, his son, a few others — have played together since grade school. The plan was to keep them together for basketball. Along the way, the parents realized what I’ve been trying to tell you: There’s more happening at Tindley than basketball.
“They were at Tindley Prep (middle school) and we decided: Let’s just stay here,” Johnson says. “The structured environment, serious academics. It’s best for our kids.”
At Tindley, athletes must have more As and Bs than Cs to stay eligible — and nothing below a C. And their eligibility is checked every single week.
“Serious academics,” Joe Johnson Sr. is saying.
After the game and the awards ceremony and the news conference, I head over to 38th and Keystone. Can’t write yet. Need to see this school for myself.
Right away, I see where the murder victim was found.
It was almost 25 years ago. Before Tindley was Tindley, it was Cub Foods. See that football field out front? Back in the day, when Cub Foods opened in 1993, that was a parking lot. And that’s where IMPD homicide detective William Benjamin found the body of a young man who’d been walking home from Taco Bell when he was robbed, shot and left to die.
Cub Foods barely lasted a year before closing in 1994, and the building sat empty for a decade before Tindley moved into it in 2004. The first graduating class had 12 people, but this was a dream The Meadows could believe in. Since the school opened, the area has seen more than $50 million in private investment. Crime dropped. A YMCA opened.
Guess who’s the Tindley director of security now? Retired IMPD detective William Benjamin. And while The Meadows makeover remains a work in progress, Benjamin says Tindley is beyond reproach.
“This is hallowed ground in the community,” Benjamin says as we walk the Tindley halls. “The people around here — the undesirables, I guess you’d say — they leave the students and teachers alone. They don’t even ask to use the water fountain.”
Tindley is mostly windowless, a reminder that it was built not to house classrooms, but groceries. First thing you see when you enter the school is a wall papered with college acceptance letters received by the 2017 senior class. The wall is huge, and completely covered. Since Tindley opened, every graduate has been accepted into a four-year college. Every single one.
Around the corner, on another wall, the school slogan is written in letters 10 feet high:
College or Die.
And if they happen to win a state title along the way? All the better.