In Indiana, basketball holds a status higher than all other sports.
Football in the fall, sure we fill the bleachers and cheer for our local high school or college, and the Colts have enjoyed pretty decent success, and thus fan turnout, for a number of years (2011-2012 season notwithstanding.)
In the northern corners of the state, ice hockey has a fair fan base, and junior hockey is doing well enough to keep on keeping on.
We hunt and fish, but those are individual pursuits, not team sports with clear winners and losers.
But basketball -- basketball is the quintessential Hoosier sport.
This is where a farm boy or girl grows up shooting free throws at a basket mounted above the garage door or on the side of a barn. The ground below is trampled bare dirt, free of grass or stones, and the rim has rusted from years of exposure, the net long since disintegrated and never replaced. The steady "thump thump thump" of the dribble... a soft scruffing sound when the player makes a cut to the left... the cows cheer the play with a bleating "Moooo"... a clang as the ball bounces off the rim... these are the sounds of my youth.
Perhaps the kid with the ball is playing on the blacktop at his local park, where the court sidelines include a metal bench and a chain link fence, the better to stop an errant bounce pass from rolling into the street. Trash talking replaces the moo of the cows, and the net is a metallic chain, the better to survive the weather.
But regardless of the location, basketball is king. We honor our heroes, real and imagined. Larry Bird, "The Hick From French Lick"... Isaiah Thomas ... Kent Benson ... Steve Alford ... Jimmy Chitwood from the movie "Hoosiers"... all these characters are part of the Indiana basketball lore, and there isn't a kid in the state that hasn't imagined taking that last shot to win a championship, counting down the seconds and giving a play-by-play: "Miller gets the ball at half court, the clock winds down, 5 seconds, he spins left, 3 seconds, Miller pulls up at the top of the key, 1 second, lets it fly for the win..... YES!"
In 2008, Tom Crean took over the program at Indiana University, inheriting a decimated team plagued by scandal thanks to recruiting violations by the previous coach. Coach Crean started a WALK ON FRESHMAN at point guard, and the team struggled all year, ending up with only 6 wins. This was a bitter pill to swallow for the Hoosier Faithful, who had been used to years of continued success. The next year, 2009-2010, they won 10 games. Year after that, 12 games. During these tough years, Coach Crean built a team and a system. He had, arguably, the easiest sales pitch to potential recruits: "I don't have any players... you'll be guaranteed court time."
Last year, things turned around. A couple of big wins over Kentucky and Ohio State, as well as a couple wins in the NCAA Tourney, and it was apparent: IU Basketball is back on track. This year, they have been ranked #1 since the season began, they absolutely blasted North Carolina last night, and it's a fitting tribute to the fans of Indiana University Basketball, who never strayed in their loyalty and enthusiasm. People in Indiana cheer for IU, and we do it in all sorts of places.
Even beside the barn, shooting free throws at a rusted rim.