MONTGOMERY, Ind. — The old chestnut is that basketball is its own religion in Indiana, a church that welcomes Hoosiers into the temple on cold winter nights, celebrating raucous services in front of screaming parishioners.
But there’s a part of the state where the Holy Order of Hoops intersects with real, actual religion. Where some kids lace up an NBA star’s brand of sneakers while others come from homes where modern amenities, such as electricity, are considered a sin.
The game may feel ancient, created some 130 years ago by James Naismith, but the stories of the Amish and Mennonites are much older. They parted ways two centuries before the ball and peach basket.
Yet, here they are today in rural Southwestern Indiana, unified after all these years by their love of community and the sport, with tradition left to decide who can put on a jersey and who goes to work at the sawmill.
The roots of the “Buggy Bowl”
Sport and politics mixing have recently become culturally encouraged, but basketball and religion have been knit together for decades in the form of the “Buggy Bowl” rivalry game between Barr-Reeve and North Daviess high schools.
The game has been a good contest on the court, and there’s been plenty of mischief off it.
There is a longtime tradition that week. Every year in late January, the schools’ seniors have played pranks that range from the simple to the complex in the small towns of Montgomery and Elnora. Teenagers would sneak out of the house and steal horses and buggies from the Amish community and take them to their schools. Most were simply left around the parking lot, but some end up on the inside.
It used to be nothing for an Amish farmer to wake up and find his transportation missing. School officials once found two horses in the middle of a library. Another time, the kids got a fully-assembled buggy on the roof of the school.
It’s calmed down a bit in recent years.
These days, the kids ask permission to borrow the buggies. Most come from Amish family members happy to help because, after all, it’s Buggy Bowl week.
“It’s those kinds of memories that bigger schools may think, ‘Well, what’s the point?’,” Barr-Reeve senior Isaac Wagler said. “Or, ‘That’s stupid.’ Right? But it’s just fun, little things like that that make this a great opportunity for us to grow up around here.”
Cognizant and admirable. Yet not everyone gets to share in the experiences.
Last year, North Daviess athletics director Brent Dalrymple estimated that 40 percent of its school system’s boys drop out after the eighth grade due to religion. It’s not as extreme to the south, and this is a broader measure, but Barr-Reeve athletics director Aaron Ash said about one of every six students (16.7 percent) prepare to enter the workforce at 14 years old after graduating Amish school.
Some could be standout athletes while others could go on to college. But it’s always been this way.
A culture shock for city kids
It’s doubtful that Barr-Reeve is going to get much sympathy from opposing coaches and fans.
Over the last decade, playing in Class A – the smallest of Indiana’s four enrollment-based sports divisions – the Vikings’ boys basketball team boasts the state’s highest winning percentage at .856. They’ve advanced to the state finals in five of the last 17 years and captured the program’s first championship in 2015 (a documentary film on the season called “Kings of Indiana” was shown over the weekend in Washington, Vincennes and other southern Indiana cities.)
It’s a well-oiled machine. Even with a new coach in Josh Thompson, second-ranked Barr-Reeve owns a 20-2 record after a double-overtime win Feb. 16 against Princeton (a quality 3A opponent). The Vikings swept the Blue Chip Conference to claim their sixth straight title. They travel Friday to Bloomfield for the regular-season finale and then begin their path in the IHSAA tournament March 1.
Montgomery is surrounded by hardwood heroes.
It’s an hour northeast of Evansville, the hometown of Calbert Cheaney – the Big Ten Conference’s all-time leading scorer. Cheaney starred in the early 1990s at tradition-rich Indiana University in Bloomington, another hour up Interstate 69. Seven miles west of Montgomery is Washington, where Mr. Basketball winners Luke (2005), Tyler (’08), and Cody Zeller (’11) won state titles.
These days, part of Luke’s time is spent running an AAU program called DistinXion that conducts some practices at Antioch Christian Church, midway between Washington and Montgomery. Antioch is one of the first buildings you find driving to Montgomery off I-69. His parents, Steve and Sherri, give basketball lessons there five or six times a week.
Some of DistinXion’s first practices were held at a place locally known as “Donut Hill.” It’s technically the Simon J. Graber Sports Complex in Odon, 10 miles north of Montgomery. Luke Zeller has had some 140 interns over the years at DistinXion, and it’s a culture shock to those who grew up in bigger cities.
“They go to Simon J. Graber and literally drive around buggies to get there,” said Zeller, who played at Notre Dame and had a cup of coffee in the NBA. “They’ve never seen buggies, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, this is totally normal.’ We just completely downplay it because to us it really is normal.”
One of the Zeller family friends even brings out a buggy and lets some of the interns drive it.
A community of comfort
Montgomery has a population of about 350. Barr-Reeve draws from neighboring towns and territories roughly the same size (or even smaller) and has an enrollment of just over 200. Of course, with a sizeable Amish population – the countywide figure is about 15 percent – there are numerous restaurants and bakeries, antique shops and flea markets.
The main tourist attraction is Gasthof Village, where things such as handmade cabinetry, quilted blankets and jewelry are for sale. There’s an inn where guests can stay and a restaurant with Amish food and desserts. It’s sort of like Cracker Barrel, except the hostesses and waitresses don aprons and bonnets.
On top of the buffet cart is a sign that reads, “Welcome. Take all you can eat and please eat all you can take.” A few comparisons about the sign as it seems to relate to the community: The people are hospitable, well-mannered and resourceful. And the food is spectacular. Fried chicken. Mashed potatoes. Corn. Rolls. Also, you can’t go there and not get a slice of one of their several homemade pies.
It’s all the stuff that gets labeled as “comfort food” for a reason.
“Everyone hypes up the Amish food and how much better it is than everything else,” Wagler said. “Growing up with that is cool because having it whenever you want is special, and then to see how people react when they get it. I have a friend who plays for Washington, Tyson Wright. … He goes crazy over it.”
And he’s just right down the road.
There’s also Amish Country Corner if you’re short on time and can’t go to a sit-down place like Gasthof or Knepp’s. It’s said to be just as good. You’d be hard-pressed to find much, if anything, in Amish Country Corner that lines the aisles at Walmart or other supermarkets. It carries Amish brands such as Walnut Creek deli meat and Troyer cheese.
“Traditional values and heritage”
Montgomery clearly embraces tradition and it’s proud of it.
Of all the billboards lining U.S. 50 in and out of Montgomery, a few highlight the family feel of the community. One features a teacher helping grade-school children with the caption, “It takes more to be a Viking.” Another is a sign that reads, “Welcome to Viking Country!” with a list of the 11 state finals appearances in boys’ and girls’ basketball, volleyball and baseball since 1998. There’s another billboard paying respect to all 21 of the school’s senior athletes in uniform.
“We all love the constant support we get,” said Quentin Yoder, a senior basketball player.
Barr-Reeve’s gym only holds 2,184 fans, but it’s a can of sardines on game nights, creating an electric atmosphere. The crowd feels like it’s right on top of the players and delivers as big a home-court advantage as there is in high school sports. Since the school is forecasting a 12 percent increase in enrollment over the next two years, it will begin construction in May to build a new gym (and classrooms) with a capacity of 3,000 and room for expansion. It’s supposed to be done for the 2020-21 school year.
The Viking faithful take their show on the road, too. For a small school that doesn’t have a football team, they’ve been known for showing up in droves at away games.
“It’s remarkable,” said Wagler, who also plays basketball. “We’ll go on the road, and I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way, but we’ll see that oftentimes we have more fans than the home team. It’s crazy to see that.”
“Mush” and deciding on their faith
The crowds that pack gyms on Friday and Saturday nights fill the churches on Sunday mornings. Religion sits above all else for many in Montgomery, so it’s probably no coincidence that the town’s tallest building – St. Peter’s Church – displays a cross on top of a gold-painted dome that stands out from a half-mile.
Thompson said students are raised mostly by blue-collar parents who want them involved in church, be it Amish, Mennonite, Catholic or something else. Many kids have parents who were raised Amish and decided to leave the faith. But they also have relatives who stayed.
Brothers Jeff, Jayden and Kevin Graber were pulled out of Barr-Reeve early on to attend Fairview Amish School. So, too, was their cousin, Marlin Graber.
In Dubois County, though, if you ask about Jeff Graber, you get a confused look followed by, “Which one?’” There may be at least a dozen with that legal name who instead go by a family nickname.
For these Grabers, it’s “Mush.” So, in Montgomery, it’s not Kevin Graber; it’s Kevin Mush.
“We have a lot of nicknames out here – like Mush, Pencils, Bandies – because there’s so many Grabers and Waglers,” said Jayden, 24. “It all came from two generations back, so there’s a lot of Mush.”
It’s an Amish word, he explained.
Jayden said it means “have to.” As the tale goes, it started when his great-grandfather penned a letter to a girlfriend in northern Indiana. He would write things like, “You mush come visit.” From that point on, they’ve been referred to by that nickname.
“That’s how we are,” said Kevin, 18.
Excluding Jeff, who married last summer to remain in the Amish community, the other three are at a point in their lives where they’re allowed absolute freedom. It’s an experiment of sorts for them to decide whether they want to break off into the Mennonite, re-join the Amish faith or do something else.
It’s not a choice to be made lightly, so there’s no real deadline.
Amish boys in Paul George’s shoes
So I spent the part of the evening with Jayden, Kevin and Marlin. They each brought a pair of Paul George Nike shoes and were about to lace them up to shoot around.
“Yeah, the church doesn’t want (Jeff) going out that much,” Jayden said. “It’s how they’ve always been. It’s tradition, I guess.
“This was a dream, though,” he added while looking out onto the court.
“(Jeff’s) dream, too,” said Kevin. “Well, all of our dreams.”
Replied Jayden: “We would’ve loved all of this.”
Kevin and Marlin would have been seniors at Barr-Reeve this year. Kevin is 6-4, built strong and can dunk. Marlin is shorter but can shoot the lights out from beyond the 3-point arc. Jayden is older but similar to Kevin in size and athleticism.
It was hard not to think how even more dominant schools like Barr-Reeve would be with players like them.
“There’s a lot of talent out there, too,” Kevin said. “In northern Indiana, Holmes County (Ohio), Shipshewana with the Pennsylvania Amish and the Lancaster. There’s a lot more, outside of us, that have talent out there.”
Again, these Grabers can do whatever they want for now. Some return to Amish, but most join the Mennonites.