HARTFORD CITY – State scoring leader Luke Brown broke the scoreboard this season at Blackford High School. Literally, I’m saying, though they’re not sure when it happened. Could have been the game against Bluffton when he scored 44 points. Maybe when he had 39 against Mississinewa, including two 3-pointers in 12 seconds, the latter as he was falling out of bounds, the announcer screaming, “I don’t know what happened! My life just changed!”
Lives are changing around Hartford City, all right, and Luke Brown has done that. More on that in a moment. First, back to the scoreboard he broke against someone, though it wasn’t Elwood on Dec. 14. Brown scored 55 that night on 21-for-25 shooting – seriously – but it was on the road. Whenever it happened, it happened for this reason, and it’s the most Luke Brown story ever:
— steve hurd (@ofchurd) January 12, 2019
In a town of 6,000, a gym that seats about 3,500 approaches capacity every time Blackford has a home game. It’s a circus, the way Luke Brown plays – never mind the 35.8 ppg; it’s the passing, the ball-handling, the Stephen Curry-like showmanship – and this community comes to watch. So do others. They come from Greensburg and Indianapolis and Greenwood, they fill the place, and the poor scoreboard they used to have? Couldn’t handle it.
It was a bandwidth issue. The scoreboard was wireless, and with all those people watching, all those cell phones taking pictures and video of Luke Brown and sharing them on social media, the scoreboard just sort of … broke. Wasn’t reading the signals the operator was punching into the control board. Lagged behind by several seconds. Couldn’t keep up.
“They were great scoreboards when nobody was here!” says Blackford athletics director Tony Uggen.
Uggen is the ringmaster of this circus he calls “Luke-a-mania,” and he’s practically shouting because the whole thing is so exciting, so outrageous. Like this: One Blackford fan created a YouTube channel to stream games, attracting viewers from as far away as Vietnam and Australia. And this: An ESPN 30 for 30 director was at the Jay County game Jan. 26 for a project on the confluence of Blackford, Jerry Hoover and Luke Brown.
And this: Uggen had to purchase new scoreboards a few weeks ago. Those things aren’t cheap – about $10,000 for two – and the Blackford school district is like so many around Indiana: shrinking, losing its students and tax base. Already one of the state’s smallest Class 3A schools, Blackford expects to be moved to 2A next year, when it will close an elementary school and consolidate the junior high and high school. Money for a scoreboard? A year ago, before the circus came to town, Blackford couldn’t have considered it.
This time, Blackford wrote a check.
Oh, things have changed around here. At Blackford, a school that for years lost money during basketball season, huge crowds now generate more than $5,000 for every home game.
Luke Brown broke the old scoreboard, but I think it’s OK. He basically bought the new one.
Blackford coach Jerry Hoover is telling his players why this game matters. It’s the same reason they all matter, more than winning and losing, but Hoover chose Tuesday, before Blackford played host to No. 5-ranked Class 3A foe Northwestern, to lay it out for them:
“Not all of these people have $5 to spend for a game, but they want to see you do well,” Hoover tells his team. “So give them a show.”
The crowd is here early, as always. People are lining up outside at 3:30 p.m. for a varsity game that starts at 7:30, and they weren’t even the first ones here. Earlier Tuesday, a handful of fans entered the gym to set up chairbacks on the bleachers, claiming their spot. The place is nearly full when the JV game ends at 7. The circus is about to start.
High up in the crowd, I’m sitting with Luke’s father, Ted Brown. He moved his family here last year from Brownsburg, following Hoover, a distant family relative and an Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer who was 83 when he made Blackford his ninth coaching stop. Jerry Hoover brought his son, Don, as an assistant, and Don’s son, J.D. Hoover, as the team’s second-best player. Luke was the best, averaging 27.8 ppg as a 5-11, 140-pound freshman in 2017-18 and helping Blackford – which had lost 61 straight games – to a 14-9 record. The Bruins are 12-4 this season.
Ted is telling me about Luke’s growth, that he’s 6-1 and nearly 160 pounds. He’s telling me about Luke’s obsession to get better. Just this morning, a game day, Luke was in the gym for an hour starting at 6:45 a.m.
Ted is telling me this as I watch Luke warm up. He’s pacing the court and bouncing the ball low and fast, no higher than his ankles, drum-rolling it off the hardwood: rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat …
A year ago, Luke played just 15 games after suffering a stress injury near his right ankle. He used the time off to lift weights, getting his bench-press close to 200 pounds and adding bulk for the beating he endures every game. He sat in a chair and took shots. Then came the walking boot, and set shots. Every day.
Last summer Jerry Hoover conducted a coaching clinic at Noblesville, and he brought along Luke. With high school coaches around the state sitting in the bleachers, Hoover summoned Luke to the court to shoot 10 shots from five different spots behind the 3-point arc. As Hoover spoke, Luke took those 50 shots. In the bleachers, the coaches were counting.
Luke made 47 of 50.
Ted is telling me this as I watch his son start to shoot before the Northwestern game. He does it with a purpose, no 3-pointers, just a series of mid-range jumpers from either baseline. Back and forth he goes after every shot. It occurs to me Luke hasn’t missed in a while, so I start counting. No idea how many he’d hit before, but he makes the next 28.
Taking aim at Damon Bailey’s scoring record
He doesn’t score in the first quarter. Took just two shots, and missed both. Meanwhile, Northwestern has a star of its own, a 6-1 junior named Tayson Parker, and he’s going off: 15 points in the first quarter, on his way to 41. Parker is a high-level Division I recruit.
Luke Brown? They’re not sure yet. Depends on how much taller he gets, how much quicker, thicker, stronger. He has the offensive skill to play for any college team in the state, and I mean tomorrow, but who does he guard? They’re not sure yet, and on this night he’s scoreless in the first quarter and Northwestern is leading 27-12, well on its way to a 90-79 victory. The crowd, tracking Luke’s stats on the Blackford basketball app a student created, is murmuring.
The second quarter starts.
Brown is being double-teamed for 94 feet, and I realize how ridiculous that sounds. You should see how ridiculous it looks, but every opponent throws some sort of junk defense at him, like a triangle-and-two – the two players hound Brown – or this, doubling him the moment he gets the ball. Brown finds teammates with look-away passes that a year ago, last time I was here, had the crowd buzzing. Now the crowd is mostly silent when Brown zips a 50-foot, no-look pass to senior Mark White for a layup.
“He’s spoiled us,” says Brian Bade, a Circuit Court judge in Blackford County, a father and Blackford alum who coached the eighth-grade team a year ago.
Bade’s nodding and smiling as Luke starts to fill it up. Here’s his first bucket, a 10-footer off the glass in transition. Here’s his next one, a 3-pointer from the corner and a foul, which he converts; he’s shooting 95.3 percent at the line (141-for-148). Luke ends the second quarter with 10 points, has 23 after three and finishes with 34 on 11-for-22 shooting (5-for-9 on 3’s). With 989 points in 31 career games, he is averaging 31.9 ppg and needs only to stay healthy to challenge Damon Bailey’s all-time Indiana high school boys scoring record of 3,134.
The game ends and children rush the court. They want to touch Luke’s hand, and he gives them what they want on his way to the locker room, slapping palms and bumping fists with kids wearing his No. 25 jersey. Earlier in the day, the athletics director, Tony Uggen, had been telling me that “everyone and their brother wants to be No. 25 around here.”
After the game I’m telling Luke and his coach, Jerry Hoover, that they might need to retire No. 25 after Luke graduates – not because Luke is all that good, I say, teasing. But to avoid all that fighting over his number in the future. Luke is smiling and looking down, super nice and bashful. Hoover is smiling and about to tell me a story that will drive him to tears.
Men, children start to cry
The man was dying.
This was at IU Health Blackford Hospital. It was last month. Jerry Hoover is telling me this story, a story chronicled in the Muncie paper. An 83-year-old man unable to come to games anymore, watching them only on Blackford’s YouTube channel, was a big Luke Brown fan. Luke walked into his room.
“And the man started crying,” Hoover says, and now he has tears in his eyes. Luke is sitting with us, and he’s looking down. He knows that the man, Ted Paver, died four days later.
“All the other jobs I had, after my first one, it was: Get in, turn the program around, and get out. This is different,” Hoover says. “It matters so much to everybody. It matters to everybody. I can’t go into a restaurant without old ladies hugging me and men saying, ‘We’re glad you’re here.’ And Luke did that.
“This place has been through so much economic hardship. Factories and stores moving out, people moving away. I can’t comment on what happened before, but I can comment now that Luke is changing this community. He is. You can see the hope.”
Now Luke is looking up. First time all night, only time, he isn’t talking simply to answer a question. He’s talking because he needs to say this.
“He says I’m changing the community,” Luke begins. “But the kids that were playing when I got here, they went 1-and-60 or whatever it was, and I would have quit. I couldn’t have done it. But they didn’t quit. Seniors like Mark White, Nathan Brown, Drake (Ramseyer), (Brandon) Apple and the rest, they stuck it out and I admire that. And now they’re changing the community.”
Well, we can agree on this: The community is changing – half the town comes to games it once ignored, and many of them head afterward to Pizza King to relive it – and everyone has played a role. The Hoovers. The seniors. The rest of the team. The town. But it starts with Luke Brown, a player whose flair is exceeded only by his skill, and whose skill is exceeded only by his humility.
Luke has seen the video on social media, a local kid in Hartford City opening a Christmas present, seeing a basketball, rolling it over in his hands until he spots the signature – Luke Brown – and starts crying. Brown is telling me how that feels, how it’s a reminder, “because if I’m rude to a kid, maybe he won’t want to play a sport. But if I’m encouraging, maybe he’ll want to be the next Steph Curry or whatever.”
The next … who? I’m telling Luke he knows exactly who kids in this town want to be. Everyone and his brother wants to wear No. 25. They want to be the next Luke Brown, and already there are scores of young kids showing up at the school gym early in the morning, before classes, to get up shots. Just like he does. Luke looks down. He doesn’t know what to say.
Jerry Hoover does.
“People tell me all the time how much it’s changed around here,” he says. “They used to have 1,200 students, and now they’re down to 500. They tell me: ‘We used to have a Sears. We used to have a Penney’s. We used to have a theater.’”
“And now they have Luke.”