If Lafayette Central Catholic's victory in Indiana's inaugural Class A high school boys basketball championship game was supposed to feel strangely hollow or cheapened by an asterisk, the sentiment was lost on the team's coach, Chad Dunwoody. After the final buzzer sounded last Saturday, Dunwoody stood on the floor of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, pumped his fists skyward and, doing his best Molly Bloom impersonation, repeated a fervid cry of "Yes!"
"There's no better feeling in the world," he said as he walked off the court, dragging a small piece of history with him. "I know being a Class A champion might be a little controversial to some people, but how can you argue with something that gives the little guy a chance to experience this?"
In other places the decision to modify the format of the high school hoops tournament might have gone virtually unnoticed. But in Indiana, where basketball is the statewide religion, the decision has aroused a level of passion unknown in these parts since the Battle of Tippecanoe. After a vote by the Indiana High School Athletic Association (220 schools for, 157 against, 7 abstentions), the single-class tournament, a fixture since 1911, was scrapped following last year's final game. In its stead, each school was assigned to one of four classes based on the size of its student body. Last Saturday, as each division crowned its own champion, the debate over "class basketball" raged as fiercely as ever.
Purists assert that disbanding the winner-take-all tournament amounted to heresy, the change representing little more than a clumsy attempt at political correctness. "Just the possibility that tiny, rural schools could beat the bigger ones is what made Indiana basketball so great," says Bobby Plump, who, in 1954, nailed the winning jumper in the state championship game for Milan High, the tiny, rural school on whose grand victory the movie Hoosiers was based. Now a businessman in Indianapolis, Plump is the leader of Friends of Hoosier Hysteria, a group that wants to see the old format restored and that even received a $10,000 donation from Nike toward achieving that end. "If the goal is to let more kids experience the joy of winning, why not have eight classes? Or 25 for that matter?"
"If David beat Goliath every time, it wouldn't be news; and if Milan had only won a Class A title, they wouldn't have made a movie," concurs Herb Schwomeyer, who has attended every boys basketball state final since 1932. "I know of many people who are boycotting this year's event because they're so upset."
Proponents of the new format maintain that Milan was more myth than reality and that time and again, small schools with perfectly talented, if undersized, teams would inevitably fall by the wayside when they faced bigger teams from bigger schools in bigger cities. "Basically, it came down to numbers, and all the small schools finally got together and decided to change the tournament," says Bob Gardner, commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). "I don't think they felt like they were getting a fair shot under the old system."
Indeed, without the classifications, teams like Lafayette Central Catholic (enrollment 252) and Class 2A champion Alexandria (a school of 572 students that had only one player taller than 6'4") would likely have watched the state final at home on television. But there they were Saturday, standing on the winner's podium after beating like-sized opponents.
Old traditions the hard, though. The IHSAA has agreed to evaluate the new format after next season, giving a glimmer of hope to the nostalgic. What's more, the four winning teams will return to Indianapolis on Friday and Saturday for the Tournament of Champions, an ill-conceived compromise designed to appease the traditionalists—and, many suspect, to keep the issue of class basketball out of the state legislature's hands. Aside from prolonging the season into April, another unfortunate consequence of this battle royal is that three of the championship teams will end their season on a losing note.
More important, the Tournament of Champions probably won't come close to replicating the emotion and energy of last weekend. Particularly in the day's final game, involving the largest schools, in which Pike High of Indianapolis narrowly defeated underdog Marion High to win the 4A championship, the crowd was deafening. As nearly 17,000 fans filed out of the arena, the prevailing opinion was that Indiana's finals were still basketball distilled to its essence. Only this year, there were four times as many winners.