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How Were the Sports Legends Chosen?

By Skip Berry

Skip Berry is a former magazine and newspaper journalist who has written histories of several cultural institutions, including The Children’s Museum’s comprehensive online history. Here he shares the process behind the selection of the sports legends who will be represented on the Old National Bank Sports Legends Avenue of Champions within the Riley Children's Health Sports Legends Experience®. See the full list

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word legend as both “a story coming down from the past” and “a person or thing that inspires legends.” Simple enough, right? In theory, yes, but try applying those definitions to a list of sports figures and you quickly discover that legends abound.

What’s more, you discover that one person’s legend is another’s shrug. All of us have our own ideas about who qualifies as a legend in sports— athletes, coaches, team owners, and broadcasters. But for everyone involved in the planning of The Children’s Museum’s new sports experience, it was crucial to whittle down dozens of possible candidates to . . . well, an actual dozen who would be honored with sculptures throughout the park.

To generate a list of prospects, museum officials asked me to assemble a group of advisors from both the local sports community and the community-at-large. I’ve been involved with the Sports Legends Experience project since its early stages, which is why they tapped me. The advisors I enlisted included former sports writers, executives from sports organizations, academics, and representatives from various community organizations.

Our assignment was to compile a list of notable people from the 10 sports featured in the sports experience— baseball, football, basketball, golf, soccer, tennis, track and field, auto racing, drag racing, and hockey. The focus was on people with a strong Indiana connection— they were raised here and/or spent part of their sports career here. That was the easy part since Indiana has produced an array of significant sports figures over the past century.

The harder part was taking that original list, which included many times more than the dozen names we needed to suggest, and turning it into something that would be useful in the final selection process. To get to that point, however, took about five months of periodic meetings, email exchanges and conversations. 

Our concern from the beginning was to make sure the list we submitted was as balanced as possible— we wanted to make sure it recognized the achievements of both men and women, amateurs and professionals, from different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds. With only 13 slots to fill, it was a process full of friendly debates and serious thought— just the number of great athletes Indiana has nurtured over the past century made narrowing down our selections a difficult task. In the end, we suggested two or three prospects for each sport.

All of the advisors took our responsibility seriously, with many turning in preliminary lists that featured rationales for their selections. We then met in the Museum’s board room to make two rounds of cuts (like coaches choosing teams after tryouts). In the end, every subject that museum officials selected for one of the sculptures was a name on the final list we turned in. Clearly our suggestions were an important component in the selection process.

As someone who has been working with the Museum for many years as a consultant, I can say that has always been my experience. The Children’s Museum doesn’t ask people for input on projects only to ignore them— when you work on a project, the people you work with take your contributions seriously. The Riley Children's Health Sports Legends Experience® sculpture project is just the latest example of how well the Museum respects and utilizes local talent, knowledge and experience.