Three years ago, the Indiana Pacers hit on an idea for a marketing slogan and instead found they’d conjured a phrase that defines an entire state: “We Grow Basketball Here.”
It is not by accident that two of the men whose names grace major college basketball player of the year awards, John Wooden and Oscar Robertson, were born and raised here. It is not by accident that Rick Mount, George McGinnis, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson and Steve Alford were produced by Indiana high schools, or that Bob Knight, Gene Keady, Rick Majerus and Brad Stevens became coaching stars on this state’s college stages.
Take a walk through any Indiana subdivision and count the basketball hoops in the driveways. Take a stroll near the playgrounds in Indianapolis and see how often the courts are occupied with pickup games.
This is the spirit, the intrinsic connection between community and sport, that photographers Chris Smith and Michael E. Keating have captured so beautifully in their book “Chasing Indiana’s Game: The Hoosier Hardwood Project,” which was published last month by IU Press.
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Smith initially intended to do a book primarily about the distinctive architecture of Indiana’s various gymnasiums and recruited Keating after his retirement from the Cincinnati Enquirer.
“Our thought was to get these older gyms, and maybe someone who was attached to them, a player or something,” Smith told Sporting News. “Things kind of changed a couple months in.”
The two traveled together on nearly all of their excursions to photograph Indiana’s beautiful and unique basketball venues, and one such trip — to Vernon, Ind. — created a happy accident that convinced Keating what the project truly was about.
“We noticed there were some lights on in this building that obviously had been a school, and upon further examination, you could see a little arched roof building tall enough to be a gym behind it,” Keating said. “So we went and poked our head in the door, we saw a little ballet class happening on the stage. It had been turned into a community center.
“And there was a kid out shooting baskets on the basketball court. I started making some pictures, and his mom said, ‘Do you want me to get him off the floor so you can make your pictures?’ And I’m going, ‘Oh, Lord, no.’ I struck up a conversation with the mom afterward, and she told me, ‘You know, his grandfather played basketball in this gym, on this floor.’
“From that moment on, I said: This is about people. These are places that we can go see. But they come alive, they have a history, they have a legacy because of the people that went there and gathered.”
It’s about people with a particular love and connection, though, and that is evident in the photograph by Keating of young Brady Lamb from that Vernon gym, another of the elation of the Crispus Attucks High School players after they’d won a state championship and accepted their medals from Robertson, as well as an amazing shot by Smith of a basketball court literally installed in the upper level of an Amish barn near Bear Branch.
“My son-in-law is a realtor, and he knew that I was doing this project. He had gone down there to the little town, what’s left of it, called Bear Branch. He was shown this property, and when he went up in the barn, he texted me a photo,” Smith said. “And I said: Where the hell is this? I just took off and got down there.”
There is plenty of architecture photography: They shot more than 300 gyms and courts across the state, the majority of them of older vintages.
Chris Smith and Michael E. Keating traveled together around Indiana to photograph the state’s unique basketball venues for the book “Chasing Indiana’s Game: The Hoosier Hardwood Project.”
They chose to focus on the interesting older buildings rather than show the evolution of Indiana’s gyms toward the intriguing choices made in the early 1970s by the designers of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall at Indiana, the retro concepts in place at Bankers Life Fieldhouse from the late 1990s or the massive, multi-court youth basketball complexes opened in this century in such cities as Westfield, Fishers and Fort Wayne.
“I would say after we hit about 200 gyms, we started to become very selective where we wanted to go,” Smith said. “We wanted to photograph these people and these games, but we also wanted a good backdrop. What we started finding was, all the gyms built in the ’70s and ’80s were just block buildings. We were looking for this combination, the impact of the visual background.
“When we kind of laid this out, there was a certain flow we were looking for whether it was gyms or people or color or composition. We literally have thousands and thousands of photos. We’ve left so much on the cutting-room floor. The more you look at it, you say, ‘Oh, damn, we forgot to put this in.’ Late in the process, we had take out a picture because IU press didn’t want a certain picture in, and Mike found a picture he had shot at Terre Haute Gerstmeyer, in a little practice gym, with light coming in the window and a little kid shooting a layup. And it’s one of those you say to yourself: Why didn’t that make the first cut?”
Gerstmeyer High was closed decades ago and demolished in 2018, but Howard L. Sharpe Gymnasium, where the team used to play and the photo was taken, still stands. We grow basketball here, and we try to hang onto its history.
Mike DeCourcy has been a resident of Fishers, Ind. — home to Gary Harris of the Nuggets — since 2014.