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Bringing Basketball to Life at the Hoosier Gym

By Ryan Krenzke

Ryan is The Children’s Museum’s Curator of History and is currently curating the History of Hoops exhibit.  He’s been watching basketball his entire life and still remembers all those sprints his coaches made him run.

There’s something strange about walking into an empty gymnasium; a place designed for noise and activity that is silent and still. The grey lattice-work ceiling trusses and the narrow space between the court and the bleachers gives the Hoosier Gym a sense of intimacy completely lost in larger venues.

I’d never been to the Hoosier Gym before, but in another sense I’d been there a hundred times. The common experiences we have in these places make even unfamiliar gyms instantly familiar. Even without anything there, you can tell where the team benches sat, where the cheerleaders probably stood, and where to get popcorn. You think back to your playing days and just as easily recall the timeless soundscape of high school basketball: yelling fans, squeaking shoes, buzzers, whistles, and the swish-crack of a perfect shot.

The charm of these places is their history, and the artifacts they maintain and display to tell that story. The lobby walls aren’t covered with advertisements for health insurance or trial lawyers, but black-and-white photos of scrawny teenagers in ill-fitting uniforms. Yellowing newspaper headlines immortalize stunning defeats and last second victories—surely one of the most unique and exciting experiences in sports, where, in a second, half of the fans explode with joyous shouting and clapping, and the other half are crestfallen and silent. It’s the stuff of highlight reels and community lore.

This experience really helped to inspire our team when developing the History of Hoops exhibit opening this March. Our trip to the Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Indiana helped me consider the kinds of objects we’d like to display to capture some of that basketball nostalgia so deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of Hoosiers. One object in particular that we are excited for our guests to see is a ring from the 1954 Milan championship team, on loan from the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame.  

Image courtesy of MGM Media Licensing

When the rest of the country watches Hoosiers they see the Hickory Huskers, but here at home we recognize them for who they really are—our Milan Indians.  And I say “our” Milan Indians because in that unlikely, improbable, incredible season the Milan Indians became what every basketball player and fan in the state of Indiana hopes to share in some day. After walking around the Hoosier Gym I have a greater appreciation for this particular chapter in Indiana basketball history. My nostalgia for the fictional Hickory Huskers gave me a taste of what it must have been like to cheer on the Milan Indians, to witness a miracle.  

Stop by the Hoosier Gym in Knightstown sometime and you’ll feel what I felt.  You’ll smell the popcorn, hear the squeaks of frantic shoes on the hardwood, and maybe even get a stern look from Gene Hackman because he thinks you’re running too slowly.  Even if the gym is empty, you’ll feel right at home. I promise.

There will be a lot more high school, Pacers, and Fever items on display, so join us in March to see Indiana basketball history up close!

The History of Hoops exhibit opens March 17 in the Efroymson Pavilion. It’s all part of the Riley Children's Health Sports Legends Experience® at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis!

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Categories: Exhibits
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