By: USA TODAY High School Sports | May 10, 2017
KNIGHTSTOWN, Ind. – Hoosier Gym is sacred ground. Every year, visitors from all over the country and beyond sign their names to the guestbook in the lobby and take a peek around a gym built in 1922 that became iconic as the home of the Hickory Huskers in the movie “Hoosiers.”
Teams, companies and families rent out the gym to play a few pickup games. Reunions and anniversaries are celebrated there.
For Dylan Hiner, this was a second home. It was rare that a day passed when the 17-year-old didn’t make the nine-block walk from his house on Madison Street to the gym. If there was one thing that could wipe that easy smile from Dylan’s face — at least briefly — it was when a group was touring the gym.
A tour meant Dylan would have to wait to get up a few shots or work on his dunks. In October, before his sophomore season at Knightstown, he finally put down his first dunk. Of course, it came at Hoosier Gym.
Season around the corner.. pic.twitter.com/brwYeEKIS3
— Dylan Hiner (@gohamdylanhiner) October 22, 2016
“I don’t want to say basketball was his best friend because that’s not really a thing,” said Dylan’s sister, Megan Haase. “But it was a huge part of his life. It was his therapy. Basketball was what he loved to do and he made sure he did it every day.”
On Monday, friends, family, former teammates and opponents lined up outside Hoosier Gym to pay their respects to Dylan. They came by the hundreds. Dylan Hiner’s was a life cut short. On Thursday afternoon, driving west on Ind. 38 between Pendleton and Markleville, Dylan’s car drifted across the center line and struck another vehicle head-on.
Dylan’s death was a gut punch to the tight-knit community of 2,100 in Henry County. Businesses along Main Street put up signs reading, “Prayers for the Hiner family.” On Monday, basketball players from neighboring high schools of New Castle, Tri and Eastern Hancock — normally Knightstown rivals — wore their jerseys to the visitation in support of the Hiners and the Knightstown community.
“We might be rivals,” Eastern Hancock sophomore Trey Bittinger said, “but we’re actually a big family.”
Dylan comes from a family of basketball players. His oldest sibling, Cameron Hiner, was a junior on the 2005 Knightstown team that won the program’s only regional title.
“Cameron was the ultimate teammate,” said Dusty Magee, a senior on the 2005 team. “He was a hard-nosed, run-through-the-wall type of teammate. He was the type of player every team needs.”
Dylan’s older sisters, Natosha Smith (2009 graduate) and Megan Haase (2011 graduate), were also athletes. Haase played basketball at Danville Area Community College in Illinois.
“I worked with Dylan a lot,” said Haase, who is married to Joe Haase and lives in Knightstown. “I was his motivator and he was my motivator. I’d come home from college in the summer and we’d be in the gym working together. Growing up, he came to all of our games. He was our No. 1 supporter.”
Admittedly, none of the Hiners lived for basketball like Dylan. If he didn’t have his own game or practice, he’d attend another high school game. Distance didn’t matter. He and his father, Kevin, would sometimes drive to Indianapolis for a big game. Dylan knew who all the standout players were.
“He had a deep passion for high school basketball,” said his uncle, John Walters of New Castle. “He could tell you every single top basketball player in the state of Indiana.”
“We knew we’d take our lumps,” Magee said, “but we made progress. And we knew the next two years, Dylan was going to be our guy. It was going to be a big summer for him. That was what our last conversation was about.”
* * *
Friday was a rough day. That morning, in the rain and cold, students met on the football field outside the school and walked together into the school.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” said Knightstown superintendent Jediah Behny. “Knightstown is not unlike a lot of small towns where the community rallies. On Thursday night, we opened up the gym and probably had 400 people there. We’ve received so much support from surrounding school corporations as well. That doesn’t come as a surprise.”
Sometimes, Dylan would just show up at an open gym of an opposing school. This recollection of Dylan drew some laughs from Eastern Hancock players on Monday as they approached Hoosier Gym.
“They’d throw him out,” his uncle, Walters, said with a laugh. “He wasn’t supposed to be there. But after enough times, they finally just let him play. We got a good chuckle out of that.”
The support for the Hiners has also been financial. In four days, a Go Fund Me page has raised for more than $13,000 for the family.
“Everybody feels their pain,” said Knightstown athletic director Matt Martin, a 2003 graduate of the school. “In times like this, you see what it’s like to be a family again.”
* * *
Dylan’s sister, Natosha, was at Megan’s house in Knightstown on Monday before the visitation. While Megan was doing her mom’s hair, Natosha looked out the window as the hearse drove past the house.
“You get little signs every day that make you feel better,” she said. “I felt like that was my sign that he was here and with us. That’s helped me be at more peace.”
The Hiner family has also connected with a Pendleton woman who was at the scene of the accident and with Dylan when he died. They invited her to the prayer service they had for Dylan.
“We were able to tell her thank you,” said Nikki Walters, Dylan’s aunt. “That made us feel so good. We told her that she’s part of our family now.”
There will be more tough days ahead. The family has been together, laughing and crying, in the days since the accident. Dylan’s older sisters both work in Pendleton, which means they’ll have regularly passed by the site of the accident.
“I’ve been raised to be a positive person,” Megan said. “Dad has always been a positive person. That’s how Dylan was too. We’re coping as well as we can. There’s a reason for it. It’s not going to make sense for a long time, but we have faith.”
Dylan won’t be forgotten. Magee said the Knightstown team will have a place for his No. 15 jersey on the bench all of next season.
“Dylan would want us to stick together,” Magee said. “There’s nothing we can do to bring him back. But he’d want us to play for each other and be a feel-good story. He’ll be with us.”
Dylan didn’t have many hobbies outside of basketball. “That was it,” his dad said. “For good and bad, basketball was it.” As the line formed outside Hoosier Gym on a beautiful Monday afternoon, his family smiled at what Dylan would have thought of this sight. After so many hours alone spent in this gym, he finally had a crowd.
“Dylan would love it,” his mother, Donna Hiner, said through tears. “He would. He’d say, ‘Told ya I’m getting there.’”