After last night’s Now the Hell Will Start reading out in Bed-Stuy, we spent an exceedingly pleasant few hours knocking back pints of Carlsberg with our comrade Ryan Nerz. The NBA Finals were playing on the bar’s TV, and so much of our conversation focused on hoops. And given Ryan’s origins in the Hoosier State, the talk eventually turned to Indiana’s peculiar madness for basketball. Really, the sport is almost like religion there—like what sepak takraw is to Malaysia, but even more so. As the slogan for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame so elegantly puts it, “In 49 states, it’s just basketball…this is Indiana!”
But why is that? There appears to be nothing extraordinary about Indiana’s geography that would make it a hotbed of the sport. As it turns out, the madness is largely due to an accident of history—not to mention the extraordinary efforts of a traveling Presbyterian minister:
The vector of “Hoosier Hysteria” has been identified as the Reverend Nicholas McKay, a Presbyterian minister born in England. In 1893 McKay was assigned to a YMCA in Crawfordsville, Indiana. En route, he visited Dr. James Naismith’s YMCA camp in Springfield, Massachusetts, where a new winter game called basketball had been invented two years before.
McKay gave it mixed reviews. It was active enough but there were still bugs to shake out. After all, it was only be sheerest happenstance that they weren’t playing “boxball.” Naismith had told the janitor to bring out two boxes, but all he had been able to find were peach baskets. They had nailed the baskets to a balcony railing that went around the gym and placed a stepladder under each basket. After every goal someone had to climb up and toss down the ball.
Reverend McKay knew he could do better. After he found space above a tavern in Crawfordsville for his YMCA, he hired a blacksmith to forge two metal hoops, sewed coffee sacks around them and nailed them to the walls.
Plenty more here. If Rev. McKay hadn’t stopped over in Massachusetts, Indiana history would have been very, very different. And, of course, Gene Hackman’s body of work would be lacking one legendary monologue.