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Hoosiers Hope For Another Era Of Hoops Glory

If you know anything about Indiana, you know this: In that state, basketball is king. Remember the movie Hoosiers? It's not exactly fiction.

"It's our lifeblood. We live basketball," says Charles Wortinger. He drove four hours to watch not a game, but a pep rally referred to as "Hoosier Hysteria" at Indiana University in Bloomington. As a kid growing up in the tiny town of Goshen, Wortinger says, they'd play basketball in the hayloft of his family's barn.

"You'd move the hay around — we had to watch out for the one hole where we'd climb up, 'cause if you're running and you didn't look, you went down into the bottom of the barn," Wortinger recalls. "So yes, if you ever watch the movie Hoosiers, that is Indiana basketball. We live it. We breathe it. We just love it."

If you had to pick one team that carries the state's hoop dreams, it would have to be the Indiana University men's basketball team. The Hoosiers have won five national championships, the last one in 1987.

In Indiana, IU basketball is a religion. And the church? It's Assembly Hall, where thousands of fans recently turned out for Hoosier Hysteria.

This season's team was introduced for the first time to a wild sea of popping red and white — or rather, cream and crimson, as the school colors are called. The band was tight, the cheerleaders defied gravity, and the team bounded up and down the court.

All of this underneath the five proud championship banners that hang from Assembly Hall's ceiling.

A Tradition On Hold

It's been more than 20 years since IU has won a national championship. The team just hasn't been the same since coach Bobby Knight was fired in 2000. Knight could be erratic, sometimes violent. But he won games and is responsible for three of IU's five national titles.

The school's most recent hope for revamping the team was coach Kelvin Sampson. But he brought shame and sanctions to the IU team after breaking numerous NCAA rules against aggressive student recruitment tactics. Sampson made dozens of illegal phone calls to kids he wanted to bring on the team — high school age and under. The NCAA has strict rules about putting this kind of pressure on up-and-coming youngsters. The sanctions left IU's basketball program in ruins, and Sampson departed. Sportswriters have picked Indiana to finish dead last this season.

So now IU basketball is, quite literally, rebuilding.

Reconstruction Begins

Just outside Assembly Hall on the Bloomington campus, a new practice facility is under construction.

The man tasked with reconstructing the actual team? Coach Tom Crean. "You get up, you get moving, and you make the program better," he says. "That's what we're trying to do."

Crean was hired in April from a much smaller school, Marquette University in Milwaukee. But he made a big impact while he was there. He recruited and coached Dwyane Wade, now one of the best guards in the NBA. And he took little Marquette to the Final Four. So why would he leave that kind of success to coach a program in ruins? It's the lure of the legend.

"Assembly Hall is a shrine of college basketball," he says.

Crean grew up in the Midwest, where IU basketball is hallowed. His new school's basketball court is where giants once played.

"You come in, you see the banners, you see the lights. When you first walk in, no matter how tall you are — I don't care if you're a 7-footer or you're 5-foot — you feel like you're an ant when you walk in here, because the building just goes straight up," Crean says. "When the people stand up, it's one of the most intimidating things you could ever feel. It feels like 17-and-a-half-thousand people are getting ready to fall right on top of you. It's an amazing place."

On Saturday night, the Indiana Hoosiers welcome Northwestern State to Assembly Hall — another game in the beginning of the Tom Crean era.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Seabrook
Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.