RURAL HANCOCK COUNTY, Indiana — He’s watching me through a window in his house, and meets me just off his front porch. He’s not armed, but the shepherd-husky mix next to him will do the trick. He’s holding back the giant dog with his hand; no leash, I’m noticing.
Mike Morrow is squinting at me, maybe because it’s a bright sunny day, maybe because there’s a stranger in his front yard. To get here I’d climbed over his driveway fence, past the sign that shows a Siberian Husky’s shadow and these words: I make it to the fence in 2.8 seconds. Can you?
My 2.8 seconds are up.
“Can I help you?”
Well, I’m saying, I’m here to ask you about that. I’m pointing at the barn in his gravel driveway. It’s straight out of 19th century Indiana, this barn, huge and faded red. On the lower half, a long 2-by-4 barricades the doors. Higher up are windows, flat on the bottom and rounded on top, like you’d see on an old schoolhouse. No glass. Just wooden shutters, some missing, the rest warped and crooked as a set of bad teeth.
Well, no, not that. Not just the barn. I point out something 10 feet up the barn, next to one of those shuttered windows. It’s a basketball backboard, half-moon shaped. The fiberglass is bubbling in places, the orange square fading away, the rim rusting around its screws. But the net looks brand new. Someone shoots on that basket on that barn in this gravel driveway here in rural Hancock County. I’m wondering who.
Mike Morrow keeps squinting, his hand still behind the dog’s head. The dog’s eyeing me. Morrow is eyeing me. Time stops. One second, two seconds …
Mike lets the dog go.
* * *
His dad played basketball at Mooresville in the 1940s.
Small man, son of a farmer. A point guard. Later in life, when Lewis Morrow was a machine parts inspector at the old Naval Avionics Center on the eastside, he’d come home to his backyard in Old Town Lawrence and give his son what fathers in Indiana give their kids, as his father had given him: He gave Mike Morrow a love of basketball.
That’s why the hoop is on this old barn in rural Hancock County. After graduating from Lawrence Central, after graduating from Purdue, after becoming an electrical engineer, Mike Morrow continued Indiana’s cycle of life. He got married. Had two girls. Taught them how to shoot baskets.
“I like telling my story,” Mike is telling me, and I can tell he’s surprised by this. A cautious man, you’d call him, deliberate. The kind of man to measure twice and cut once, if at all. He asked me not to identify his home’s location, other than “rural Hancock County.” He’s 60, his girls are grown and gone, but he prefers not to give their names – he lets me use their middle names, Marie and Jo, so they can have their privacy – which is fine. All of it is fine.
I’m just happy about the dog.
Her name is Mya, and the husky-shepherd mix had bolted for me when Mike Morrow let her go, charging to my side and leaning heavily against my legs, hoping to be petted. She’s a sweetheart, Mya. Mike knew that would happen.
He knows something else is about to happen, too.
Mike leads me to the barn, to the basket, past the basket. Now he’s unhooking the 2-by-4 slat barricading a door and opening the barn and walking inside. Maybe he didn’t understand me, I’m thinking; we leave behind the basket and enter the barn.
Above us are a pair of balconies. Hay lofts, you’d call them, where he stores wood. Hanging from the bottom of one loft is a child’s softball bat, short and dusty. Mike’s looking at me for a reaction. I’m not giving him one. What am I supposed to be seeing? He points to the back of the barn. Another door kept shut by another 2-by-4. He points above the door.
Is that …
Is there a basketball goal inside this barn?
* * *
This is where they’d play in the winter. It wasn’t the snow that chased them inside the barn – they’d pack it down and dribble on it; wasn’t so different from playing on gravel – but the icicles hanging off the rim.
Mike Morrow poured a slab of concrete in 1998 inside the barn and hung a backboard that he and his older daughter, the one we’re calling Marie, made by hand. They’d shoot baskets inside the barn, between the haylofts, sometimes from the hayloft. Killer shot in H-O-R-S-E to spring on visiting kids, home-court advantage: Climb the ladder to the hayloft, throw the ball down into the basket.
In the summer, Mike and his girls would grab one of the half-dozen or so balls lying around the driveway and play there. Both daughters played until they got to Greenfield Central and started doing other things. Marie, who got a late start on college after marrying a military man and moving around a bit, has settled in Indianapolis and is studying to teach English as a second language. Jo graduated from Butler and moved to Brooklyn, where she has a business doing web applications.
“We shot out here for years,” Mike’s telling me. “I’ll still go out there and shoot a little. I only played through sixth grade. I was small and started playing the trumpet. I guess you’d say I didn’t have a knack for the dynamics of team ball. But I could step back and shoot 3-pointers.”
It’s an Indiana thing. So is the barn, though you’re seeing fewer and fewer as the state’s economy continues to veer away from agriculture. The barn is among the reasons Morrow bought this property, these seven acres with a pond covered by a film of algae he’ll swim right through. He was driving home from work one day about 23 years ago, took a different route and ended up on this country road where he saw some land for sale. He saw the barn. With no Realtor around, he got out and walked the property and decided he had to have it. The barn is more than 100 years old, and the frame is original, but he gave it a new roof 22 years ago.
“Oh absolutely not,” Morrow says when I ask if he’s considered knocking down the barn, now that his girls are out of the house and there’s nobody to shoot with anymore. “It’s a classic. There aren’t that many of these barns.”
And then he tells me something else: His older girl, Marie? She just had a girl of her own, her first child, which means Mike Morrow just became a grandfather. In a few years, that little girl will be big enough to shoot a basketball. Grandpa will have the barn ready. In Indiana, the cycle of life continues.