Back in Hoosier Hysteria’s heyday, stretching from the 1940s clean through the early 1990s, playing high school basketball was the ultimate goal for the stereotypical Indiana schoolboy.
Even many small schools had not only varsity teams chock full of players, but robust junior varsity and freshman squads, as well.
Schools of just a few hundred students often lacked enough slots on their high school rosters to accommodate all of the aspiring jump shooters, leaving some to swallow the heartache of being cut from the team.
Playing basketball was the dream, so the story goes, of most every red-blooded Indiana boy.
My, how things have changed.
Today, many schools, even some with several hundred students, can’t find enough players to put a freshman team on the court. Some have to double-up varsity players to fill out a junior varsity roster. And some have cancelled JV schedules because they barely have enough participation to piece together a varsity.
Even schools with strong, stable basketball programs are feeling the pinch.
“We have been very fortunate … to still field a full seventh- and eighth-grade team,” North Decatur coach Kyle Nobbe said. “However, over the years, freshman basketball has now become more of a C team. The inclusion of 10th graders on the C team has helped, but we are seeing a major trend with schools not being able to field a C team at all.”
What in the name of Bobby Plump, Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird is going on here?
Well, first you have to understand that it’s not just Indiana high school basketball suffering from a decline in participation.
For the first time in 30 years, overall participation in high school sports decreased nationwide in 2018-19, when 43,395 fewer athletes played than in the previous year, according to the National Federation of High School Sports.
The decline is nothing new for the sport of basketball nationwide. From 2009-10 to 2018-19, 39 states saw boys basketball participation slide. This, despite the fact that 32 states had an increase in the number of schools putting teams on the court.
The decline has been especially pronounced in Indiana, often recognized as the high school basketball capital of the world. In 2009-10, a total of 12,032 boys played high school ball across 403 schools. In 2018-19, those numbers were 10,767 and 408, respectively. That’s an 11% tumble in players.
Many Hoosiers still love the sport but decry various changes — from inside the sport and out — over the years that have eroded its traditions and discouraged would-be Plumps, Robertsons and Birds.
The rise of Amateur Athletic Union teams — better known as AAU — and offseason leagues have prompted more athletes to specialize in a single sport. For many, the goal, no matter how unrealistic, is a college scholarship — leaving no time to play other sports for the fun of it.
This cuts both ways for high school basketball teams. They get a small group of dedicated, if sometimes burned out, players, but it’s hard to find others to fill out a roster. That’s because many athletes are specializing in other sports.
“Definitely, we are getting fewer players participating,” Batesville basketball coach Aaron Garrett said. “The year-round schedule and the unfortunate motivation by parents to have their kids specialize in one sport is hurting all sports. Unfortunately, it is no longer satisfactory to be a member of a team.”
Shenandoah junior Andrew Bennett is a three-sport athlete, but his primary sport is basketball. During the spring, Bennett plays on the school’s golf team but misses weekend matches because of AAU basketball tournaments.
“Other sports have gotten a lot bigger. … A lot of kids play football now and just want to stick to one sport,” he said. “Back in the day, there was a lot more three-sport athletes than there are now.”
Garrett doesn’t foresee the one-sport mania that afflicts Hoosier moms, pops and schoolboys being cured anytime soon.
“Youth sports, select travel teams, and ‘prospect camps’ convince parents and kids that they need to choose only one sport to make their future,” he said. “Multiple-sport athletes become better players and more developed competitors because of all the different physical training and lessons learned in the different sports.”
Troy Neely doesn’t hesitate. When asked why fewer Hoosier boys are taking to the hardwood, he points an unwavering finger straight at technology.
“I’d put my life on (it). That is having more of an effect on the athletes than anything else,” said Neely, who won state championships in 1999 and 2000 as the coach at Westview and is now a physical education teacher there.
“When I started at Westview, you could have 30 kids go out for the eighth-grade team,” he recounted. “Now, if we can get a set of seven we’re doing good.
“Now, instead of going home and getting out there and playing ball, they’re on Facebook, they’re playing PlayStation, they’re on their phone or their computer … taking up all of that time that used to be spent on things like basketball.”
National statistics support Neely’s assertion.
According to a 2019 study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit promoting safe media for children, teens spend an average of nearly seven and a half hours on their phones a day, and that doesn’t include any schoolwork done on the phone.
With junior’s butt buried on the couch and nose buried in an iPhone, practicing to try out for a spot on the basketball team isn’t even an afterthought.
Some schools are cancelling tryouts altogether. After all, why cut players if there aren’t enough of them in the first place?
“It used to be more of an honor to be a part of the team,” South Decatur coach Kendall Wildey said. “In today’s culture, young people have so much more to do to occupy their time.”
WHAT WORK ETHIC?
South Decatur girls basketball coach Kelly Fox has been on both boys and girls basketball coaching staffs during her career. In recent years, Fox has started trying to develop youth programs in order to get more kids to play sports in the summer.
She’s not seeing the results she sought when she started the program.
“The number of younger children participating in youth leagues has been on the decline, either because the parent was too busy, thought it was not affordable, or the athlete was trying something new like dance, gymnastics or ice-skating that are not IHSAA activities,” Fox said.
“I am struggling with finding ways to change it. We have incorporated all-sports youth camps and travel teams that are free to play; however, none of these has significantly increased the elementary numbers.”
Northwestern senior Tayson Parker thinks fewer students are playing basketball because of the high skill level required to compete on a high school team in Indiana.
Parker is the Tigers’ all-time leading scorer and averaged 28.8 points a game this past season. He will attend Indiana Wesleyan University to continue his basketball career.
“Basketball is the sport that you need the most skill for,” Parker said. “You have to be able to dribble, shoot, be coordinated. Some kids just don’t have those skills and they tend to go to baseball or football. … It’s a hard sport; it takes work ethic and the will to do it.”
Many coaches and athletic directors believe a cultural tide generated by instant gratification is sweeping would-be ballers away.
“I don’t think our kids understand the full concept of what it takes to work hard to succeed,” Lebanon athletic director Phil Levine said. “It used to be very difficult to make a team, and when you did you were excited.
“Then the next goal was to get a letter. Now, our freshmen come in and want to play right away. And if they aren’t playing, instead of understanding how to work hard, get better and earn time the right way, they quit, find something else or transfer.”
Both Fox and Wildey believe strong basketball programs on and off the court are the elixir for puny participation.
“No player wants to lose; however, I think that the ability to push through to get at the competitive level and accept criticism has declined,” Fox explained. “As coaches, we have to be sure to incorporate additional team building and social activities to keep players.
“Many of the top athletes are multi-sport athletes that are academically taking a full load. We have to be sensitive to that in a small school.”
Wildey emphasizes building strong relationships with players, no matter how few.
“In today’s society, things are more about ‘me’ and less about ‘we’ and ‘team,’” he said. “As a coach, you really have to work to create a strong culture.”
While the number of players participating has declined, hoop dreams are still alive for many Hoosier schoolboys.
“Just hearing the stories about my cousin and my uncle and my dad playing in college — I wanted to be like them,” said Charlie Yoder, who just finished his senior season at Westview, where his father is the coach.
Yoder is 25th all-time in state scoring history with 2,163 points and helped the Warriors to a school record 91 victories as a varsity starter. He grew up in a basketball household and was inspired to play by his relatives.
“I looked up to all of them a lot,” Yoder said. “Those guys were like NBA players to me. That kind of influenced me, and I wanted to be like that when I got older.”
Players like Yoder and Parker are throwbacks. They revere the game of basketball, just like the stereotypical Hoosier boys of generations past.
“Basketball in Indiana, it’s right next to religion,” Parker said.