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Basketball Jones

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Lots of folks believe Indiana high school basketball died in 1997, when the state's high school athletics board decided to scrap the winner-take-all playoff format romanticized in the movie Hoosiers in favor of a system that divided schools into classes by size. But at least one guy still thinks Hoosier Hysteria is an affliction worth bearing.

Dale Lawrence, known best as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful band the Vulgar Boatmen (from most profiles of Lawrence you'd guess his first name was "criminally underappre-ciated"), is also the author of Hoosier Hysteria Road Book: A Guide to the Byways of Indiana High School Basketball, published at the start of the 2001-'02 season by Diamond Communications, a sports-book house in South Bend. The book does double duty as a primer on the gyms, pep bands, fans, rivalries, and greasy spoons surrounding the state's favorite sport and as a love letter to what he calls "an exhilarating crack in the veneer of modern life." About the only thing he's ever experienced that beats Indiana high school hoops as a subculture, he claims, is rural Cajun Louisiana.

That's what motivates Lawrence to do things like drive 150 miles from his Indianapolis home on a chilly Wednesday in February to catch a boys' game in Hebron, in rural Porter County. He takes the Boatmen's Ford Econoline, which has 270,000 miles on it--75,000 from driving to games. The attraction: Hebron was playing its biggest rival, Boone Grove, in its home gym, which was built in 1936 and is one of the ten oldest gyms in Indiana. Some nights Lawrence brings a friend or two with him, but since it's a school night, he makes the long drive alone.

He's planned this particular trip since the season's first tip-off. Every October he thumbs through a copy of Hoosier Basketball, an annual preseason magazine, picks out the high school rivalries, players, and gyms he wants to observe, and makes a plan. His itinerary can morph over the next few months, depending on his schedule, or, more often, if a matchup that didn't seem compelling at first becomes more so. Lawrence isn't a stat-head, or even a fan with a rooting interest. He hopes above all for a close game--so he's disappointed when Boone Grove pulls away from Hebron in the fourth quarter for a blowout victory. He attends both boys' and girls' games, and if he roots for anyone, it's "teams that aren't particularly talented but play well together. And I don't care for dirty teams."

Mainly, however, Lawrence is there to soak up the atmosphere--to smell the popcorn in the gym, hear the band play, and feel the electricity from the stands. "This is the arena where Bob Knight's philosophy--that what you're really playing against is the game itself, that if you learn to execute a set of fundamentals to perfection you will have a good competitive basketball team--seems most at home," he writes. "But, more importantly, this is also the most emotional level of basketball, more emotionally involving for both players and fans. For the majority of players, this is as far as their 'career' will go, the highest level of basketball in which they'll ever participate, and they're lucky enough to be doing it in the one state where people are most interested in watching them. At a lot of the games (especially in smaller towns and rural areas), it's simply impossible not to notice the immediacy in the air, how much seems to be at stake, the blurring of lines between ballteam and town. This is not just parents watching their sons and daughters perform in an extracurricular activity: This is an adult community that actively looks forward to each new season. They know who'll suit up from the JV squad. They not only identify with the action on the court, but, in their loyalty and support, actually feel like they're a part of that action, a part of any success that the team might have (and they're right)."

He usually tries to sit as close to season-ticket holders as possible, because in his experience they're the most interesting and knowledgeable fans--plus he stands out less than he does in the student section. In Hebron, as it happens, he's wearing a black sweatshirt, but though he sits in the courtside bleachers among a group of older fans all dressed in Hawks red, no one takes notice of Lawrence until halftime, when he walks the stands to sell copies of Hoosier Basketball--he's going to the games anyway, he reasons, so why not earn a little extra money? On this night, he sells six issues at $4 each, discounted from $6 because it's late in the season.

If you consider yourself a working musician, you're not supposed to have so many Friday and Saturday nights free. For nearly 20 years, Lawrence spent most of his weekends behind a microphone in some smoky bar or another. His musical career began when, as an Indiana University student in 1977, he answered an ad placed in a local weekly by a Bloomington label, Gulcher Records, seeking new members for the punk band the Gizmos. Formed in Bloomington the previous year, the Gizmos had already released several seven-inches--the first of which, with liner notes by New York gonzo critic Richard Meltzer, sold a startling 2,500 copies and got reviewed in Melody Maker. The lineup Lawrence joined was almost entirely new; they developed a strain of punk streaked with country and R & B and moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, where, after recording some demos, they broke up.

The other Gizmos stayed on the east coast, but Lawrence returned to Indiana. He had no musical connections in New York, and in Indianapolis he at least knew former Gizmos drummer Shadow Myers, who hadn't made the move. Lawrence and Myers formed the Satellites, who eventually became Right to Left, who, in one of rock's more bizarre back stories, were absorbed corporate-merger-style into the Vulgar Boatmen of Gainesville, Florida. Boatmen leader Robert Ray and Lawrence had met while Ray was teaching in the film department at IU; Ray had since moved on to the University of Florida. Lawrence and Ray collaborated on songs by mail, but touring was done mostly by an Indiana-based version of the band assembled by Lawrence.

The Boatmen had two well-received indie releases, You and Your Sister (1989) and Please Panic (1992), under their belts when, one night in 1993, Lawrence decided to go check out a boys' basketball game at Warren Central in Indianapolis--just for something different to do, he says. He hadn't gone to a high school game since he was a teenager himself, at South Central in LaPorte County, although he had followed the IU Hoosiers and the local pro team, the Indiana Pacers. Unlike many kids who got into punk rock in high school, Lawrence had no particular aversion to sports. His father had played for Hanna High, one of the schools that merged to form South Central. Lawrence himself wasn't an athlete, but he knew members of South Central's basketball team. It was hard not to, in a graduating class of 60.

He wasn't immediately hooked, but then again his weekends were busy with the Boatmen, who soon signed to Warner Brothers' East West subsidiary. By 1995, though, he was going to games whenever and wherever he could, and his schedule cleared up after East West dropped the band in 1996. Eventually he started feeling like he should have something to show for all the time he'd put in, so he decided to write a book. He visited every one of the state's 300-some high school gyms, either by going to a game or just walking in during the summertime. "A lot of those were before Columbine," he says. "I don't think I could get away with that now."

At least two sportswriters--William Gildea of the Washington Post and Bob Hammel of the Bloomington Herald-Times--published book-length obituaries for the Indiana high school game after the last season of single-class basketball. Lawrence, the only author to examine the phenomenon in depth since, fears that nostalgia will blind people to the remaining charms of the subculture. "There were really two lines drawn in the sand," he explains. "One was class basketball. That will forever separate pre-1997 from post-1997. It will inevitably create nostalgia. The other line in the sand is Hoosiers." The 1986 movie fictionalized what's known as the Milan Miracle--when tiny Milan High beat powerhouse Muncie Central for the 1954 state championship, confirming that any school of any size, if it worked hard enough and played as a team, could win the state title. It was the rural Indiana myth writ large. In real life, small schools who were tired of getting creamed in the playoffs beseeched the Indiana High School Athletic Association to approve the current system.

When Lawrence formed his own record label a couple years ago, he named it No Nostalgia. At first glance that might seem disingenous: he's planning on issuing a Vulgar Boatmen best-of collection this year, and in his book he decries the closing of old gyms in favor of dull, characterless new facilities. (His favorite gym, in fact, is Tyson Auditorium at South Ripley High in Versailles, near Cincinnati. Built in 1950 through a grant from native son and Walgreens bigwig "Uncle Jim" Tyson, it was home court to the Milan team the year they made their storied run.) And last month Lawrence went to New Orleans to begin researching a book linking 1920s jazz and the rock 'n' roll aesthetic.

"I'm super interested in the past, but I'm not interested in nostalgia," he insists. "It's assumed if you're interested in the past, it's for nostalgic reasons. But that just obliterates other reasons. I can be interested in New Orleans R & B for quaint, nostalgic reasons--but that rubs out that so much of this is great music and sounds modern. The fact it still works means it's still modern. Nostalgia reduces everything in the past to the same level."

Despite Lawrence's quixotic efforts, support for high school basketball is at an ebb in Indiana's cities, especially South Bend, and it's not what it once was in the midsize industrial towns like Anderson, Muncie, and Terre Haute, now that the economy in those places no longer allows generation after generation to stay put. The upside of this, says Lawrence, is that it makes tickets easier to come by.

When he first moved back to Indianapolis, Lawrence figured he'd be there for five years max. "It's an easy place to live, rather than a good one," he admits. Over the years, as he made a career of music, friends and gigs in Indiana led Lawrence to turn down opportunities to move to Chicago (twice) and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, among other places. But now the Vulgar Boatmen play twice a month at the most, and Lawrence has to commute to Bloomington for most of his musical activity: his main sidekick in the live version of the Boatmen is Jake Smith, leader of the Bloomington-based Mysteries of Life. Lawrence and Smith write songs together--two appeared on Distant Relative, the Mysteries' first No Nostalgia release--and Lawrence has also played piano in the touring version of Smith's band. Meanwhile the Vulgar Boatmen retrospective is being assembled in Bloomington with Paul Mahern, a former member of another Indiana punk band, the Zero Boys, who sometimes works with John Mellencamp.

Now Lawrence is thinking once again about moving to Chicago. The only thing that gives him pause is that he'll have to drive further to satisfy his Hoosier basketball jones. "I could go to some games from there, but not nearly as easily," he says. "It would take me as long to get from Chicago to, say, Wheeler as it does now to get to South Ripley."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostani.

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