High school basketball in Indiana is still the state’s biggest sport.
But its heyday may have been in the 50s, 60s and 70s as the popularity of college and pro basketball was still building.
In many parts of Indiana, basketball wasn’t merely a game. It was a way of life.
For some, it was almost like a religion.
Hollywood tried capturing that feeling in the 1986 film, “Hoosiers.”
The movies, starring Gene Hackman, is considered by many to be among the top movies about sports.
The film is loosely based on Milan High School, Indiana’s state basketball champions in 1954.
The story behind Milan was glamorized mainly because it was a tiny school in southeast Indiana near Cincinnati that beat a much larger team from Muncie Central High School.
But it was the next year in 1955 that many feel really made history.
That’s because for the first time in Indiana, two black high schools would faced each other for the state basketball championship.
“You’ve got to remember that this was 1955. This is the beginning of the convergence in America in terms of race, the doctrine of separate but equal,” said Dick Barnett, a starting forward for the Gary Roosevelt High School team in 1955 who now lives in San Francisco. “The civil rights movement was right ahead of us.”
The Gary Chamber of Commerce will commemorate that game with activities this weekend and two basketball games in the Lakeshore Classic.
The City of Gary was a much different place back in the 1950s than it is today, a struggling industry town that’s largely black with a host of social and economic problems.
In the 50s, Gary was much larger in terms of population, it was more prosperous and it was predominantly white.
Of the city’s eight high schools, Roosevelt was created exclusively for black students.
“Up until the late 60s, Gary was pretty much segregated. Gary was a very fractured city,” says Ron Cohen, who lives in Gary and is a retired history professor from Indiana University’s Northwest campus in Gary. “Before 1949, black schools could not play white schools in basketball or any sport. Black schools, such as Roosevelt, could not play any high school in Gary. So Roosevelt played nationally. They only played other black high schools.”
Even when Indiana dropped the rule, it was still tough when black schools played against white teams.
Roosevelt and a few other Northwest Indiana high school teams with black players found it especially difficult when traveling out of the Calumet Region to central and southern Indiana.
“Getting out of the region to play those games was devastating, because you knew the referees are going to be against you,” Cohen said. “So, you had to put up with all of this crap and the referees and the stands were filled with all these white kids who want to see you destroyed. Indiana was not kind to black basketball teams.”
Roosevelt player Wilson “Jake” Eisen remembers how tough those games could be.
But his coach, John, D. Smith, wanted his players focused on the game -- not anything else.
“He would always say “You go out there and do what you’re supposed to do; Don’t pay any attention to the refs or get on the refs,” Eisen said. “We had very few technical fouls. If you argued with the ref, he’d pull you out and sit you on the bench.”
But in 1955, Gary Roosevelt’s basketball team did make it out and down to the state title game in Indianapolis.
It had a great shot at making history since the team also on its roster Wilson “Jake” Eison, voted that year as “Mr. Basketball” the top honor for high school basketball players in Indiana.
There was only one thing standing in the way.
“We were just happy as teenagers to be playing, not only be there but try to match our skills with the Indianapolis Attucks and the great Oscar Robertson,” Barnett said.
That’s right … the Big O.
Oscar Robertson was a sophomore for Indianapolis Crispus Attucks, Indiana’s other all black high school.
“This was a huge thing for the entire African American population of Indiana because before then it was just white on white,” Cohen said. “I think it was incredible and probably a big shock to all the white schools.”
Unfortunately for Gary, Oscar Robertson dominated Roosevelt.
Robertson’s brilliance wasn’t lost on Barnett.
“He was special then,” Barnett said. “He had all those attributes even as a sophomore in high school.”
Attucks would go on to win the game 97 to 74 and thus lay claim to the title of being the first black high school basketball team to win a state championship in Indiana.
This weekend’s commemoration is intended to remind Hoosiers and others of the accomplishments of Attucks and Roosevelt high schools almost 60 years ago.
Oscar Robertson, an NBA legend who some was the game’s greatest player ever, is expected to be on hand.
The Gary Chamber of Commerce is bringing the two teams together, along with other festivities, including a game featuring the current Gary Roosevelt Panthers.
Chamber president Chuck Hughes.
“In 1954, they made the movie Hoosiers. These guys, they’re called the ‘Forgotten Hoosiers,” Hughes said. “But that’s the beauty of years and that’s history. History will prove that that was a remarkable feat.”
Even though Roosevelt lost the game, they had a lot to be proud of.
Jake Eisen, who went on to become a school teacher after serving in Vietnam, would be named Mr. Basketball that year, the top honor for high school basketball in Indiana.
His teammate, now known as Dr. Dick Barnett after earning a doctorate in education, would go on to have a legendary NBA career with the New York Knicks.
Barnett’s Number 12 jersey was retired by the Knicks and it’s hanging in the rafters of Madison Square Garden in New York City.