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Real-life 'Hoosiers' and their fabled gym

6/1/2010
Friday marks the fifth Hoosiers Reunion All-Star Classic at the gym where "Hoosiers" was staged. Mike Fender

• Photo gallery: Hoosier Gym | Video: Hoosier GymVideo and Butler FieldhouseVideo

KNIGHTSTOWN, Ind. -- There is only one tiny, little problem with holding an annual 1950s-retro high school all-star basketball game in the same gym where "Hoosiers" was filmed:

While everyone is more than happy to wear the Hickory High jerseys and pretend they're Jimmy Chitwood sinking shot after reliable shot, who wants to wear those damn tight satin basketball shorts these days?

"The style of the time when the movie was made was the short-style shorts and then what became popular in the modern times is shorts that go down to the knees," said Merv Kilmer, who helps oversee the game and the gym. "So what we did is compromise and they play in shorts that go down to about mid-thigh."

A history of Hoosiers

To get a better appreciation of where the whole "Hoosiers" phenomenon began, click here for images of Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Ind.

Meanwhile, Jim Caple offers up a couple of video segments about how basketball in Indiana helped shape the formation of the movie "Hoosiers" and its settings:

Video Hoosier Gym

Video Butler Fieldhouse

It's a concession to fashion so sensible perhaps only the incomprehensibly dour Myra Fleener would not approve.

Butler University's run to the Final Four this spring brought the spotlight to the Bulldogs' 78-year-old Hinkle Fieldhouse, the location for the climactic state championship game in "Hoosiers."

Hinkle Fieldhouse is a wonderful place well worth a visit, but for a better taste of "Hoosiers" you should drive about 45 minutes east of Butler and Indianapolis, to Knightstown. That's where, not far off U.S. Highway 40, you'll find Hoosier Gym (355 N. Washington St.), which served as the home court for the movie's Hickory High School. It also tops our list of the five best sports movie sites to tour. (Click here to see the rest of the list.)

Everyone from Larry Bird to Greg Oden has shot baskets at Hoosier Gym, and it has been so carefully preserved since the flick was filmed a quarter-century ago that when you walk in, you can practically smell the alcohol on the breath of Dennis Hopper.

The beauty of Hoosier Gym is you not only picture Chitwood sinking shots in the gym, you still can see real-life Chitwoods shooting baskets.

Friday marks the fifth Hoosiers Reunion All-Star Classic, an annual doubleheader featuring the best graduating high school senior boys and girls in Indiana. (Oden would have played in the first game in 2006 but he was hurt. His broken wrist didn't prevent him from suiting up, participating in warm-up drills and signing autographs as best he could.) One team plays while wearing Hickory High uniforms, and the other dons the colors of rival Terhune High.

We can only hope that the coaches take the opportunity to sit down with their teams in the same cramped locker room you see in the movie and firmly tell the players they can't shoot before passing the four times.

Fortunately, you don't have to get your hands on one of the scarce tickets -- only 655 are sold to the public -- to enjoy Hoosier Gym. The gym is open year-round for visitors (a greeter is present from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays) and local residents (who use the court for recreational leagues and walk the perimeter for exercise), so a Hoosiers pilgrimage is possible at any time.

Better yet, you should make Hoosier Gym and Indiana part of a great road trip to sports movie locations. Hollywood and Indiana aren't exactly two places you instinctively pair together, but this state has served as the backdrop for three of the greatest sports movies ever made -- "Hoosiers," "Breaking Away" and "A League of Their Own," and that's not even counting the lesser film, "Rudy," which was shot at Notre Dame.

What makes a movie site worthy of a special trip? Two things:

1. The movie itself must be a certifiable sports classic. I was on the set of "Slap Shot 2" and can tell you where they filmed specific scenes. But why would you possibly care to see the location of such utter mediocrity? The only emotion it could prompt is regret over the $5 and two hours wasted renting the video.

2. The site still must be so visually and emotionally evocative of the movie that upon seeing it, you immediately start debating whether candlesticks make a good wedding present, or asking your dad if he wants to play catch, or grabbing a basketball and shooting foul shots.

"One Mothers' Day we had a family bring their grandmother here in a wheelchair," said Neil Shaneyfelt, who is on the Hoosier Gym board of directors. "She watches the movie all the time. They had taken her to Elvis' hometown and to Graceland and they said she was more overwhelmed by this gym. She was in her 80s, but she insisted on being helped out of the wheelchair so she could stand up and shoot a basket."

Kilmer hasn't kept track of the home countries of visitors, but as president of the Hoosier Gym Community Center he's met folks from Australia, Korea, Scotland, Germany, England, Canada and many other nations.

"A lady from Japan called ahead of time and said she wanted to see the gym," said Kilmer, 79, known loosely by the Knightstown Chamber of Commerce as "the god of Hoosier Gym." "She walked in and stood silently for a moment and then she broke out in tears. She said, 'I'm overcome with emotion just to realize that I'm here where that movie was made.'

"I think of a man from Oklahoma who walked around and touched the walls and after a while, he went up and sat in the bleachers by himself for a while. He said, 'I actually had goose bumps just sitting in this place.'"

Iowa's "Field of Dreams" likewise leaves grown men weeping, but Hoosier Gym edges it as the best sports movie locale for two reasons:

First, no matter what month you visit, you'll feel like you're crawling onto the screen and entering the movie. ("Field of Dreams," meanwhile, really needs the corn growing beyond the outfield.)

Second, unlike "Field of Dreams," it isn't just a manufactured movie set; it was -- and is -- a real gym that has seen use since before coach Norman Dale's voice changed. Opened in 1922, it served as Knightstown High School's gym for 44 years until the town built a replacement in 1966.

And that would have been that had the location directors of "Hoosiers" -- which is based on the true story of tiny Milan High School's incredible run to the 1954 Indiana state championship -- not been searching the state for a suitable location to film scenes at fictional Hickory High. Kilmer said that when the crew walked into his town's gym, they stopped and said, "This is it."

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