In the footsteps of Gene Hackman…

A few weeks back, I wrote about a “road trip” the good wife and I were about to embark upon, and I mentioned that I would

Here’s the dear boy himself, ready to retrace the footsteps of Coach Norman Dale.

write about it when we returned home. However, it seems as though I got a bit sidetracked (as I’m wont to do these days) and let the occasion slip away without a mention in my blog. So I think it only fair that I drop a few lines, now, about what turned out to be a wonderful twenty-four hour sojourn to Knightstown and New Castle, Indiana.

Now, you may be asking what in heaven’s name would two rather obscure Indiana towns in the central part of the state have that would lure Carolyn and me to their locales, nearly four hours from our home in northern Illinois? Two reasons, really:

First, my wife is an ardent genealogist, driven to locate as many of her ancestors as humanly possible. Thus, a visit to a pleasant and venerable county historical museum in New Castle to try to find out if one of her “people” did, in fact, spend time in that area. She calls it “proof,” and I’m still trying to figure all that ancestry stuff out, but I am beginning to enjoy tagging along with her on these little research field trips.

Second, I have always had a strong fascination with old schools and gymnasiums that may or may not still be in use for high school basketball games. Basketball, particularly high school basketball, is a passionate religion in Indiana. There are gyms throughout every nook and cranny of the state, which are treasure troves of legend and lore from years past. And having spent my “formative” years in the state (before I absconded to Ohio where football is king), I have always had that Hoosier curiosity about basketball and the gyms that provided the setting for so many magical moments. And since it is a mere hop, skip, and jump from New Castle to Knightstown, thus, our visit there.

More specifically, our journey to the quaint burg of Knightstown was to visit The Hoosier Gym, the location for one of the best sports movies of all time, Hoosiers. Most folks are well aware of this film, starring Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper, and Barbara Hershey, and the David vs. Goliath theme. Made in 1985, the film was a huge box office success. Based on the actual legendary and astonishing upset win by a tiny school (Milan) against the big school powerhouse (Muncie) in the early 50s, Hoosiers captured that feel-good quality, with several sub plots and typical small-town quirky characters thrown in throughout. For example, Dennis Hopper’s character, Shooter, was the star ball player from an earlier team who missed the shot that would have won the big game for the team, the school, and the town. Alas, the shot rolled off the rim, and he never lived it down, crawling inside a bottle of liquor thereafter. But he somehow has redemption as the story unfolds.

If one has never seen this film, one should immediately locate a copy and sit down and enjoy. It’s particularly good if one is into the “way of life” passions of small town Midwestern folk and the little guy winning out over the big guy. It’s a theme that’s been done many times, but it still works.

When I first saw Hoosiers in the theater, I was completely taken with the beautiful scenes and on-location footage throughout. Perhaps I was recalling my own experiences and recollections of places in Indiana when I was young. One of the first things that came to mind, though, was where in the world did the producers of this film find a gym that was so authentic and representative of a small town high school in the 1950s?

When I heard of the location of the gym, about forty minutes east of Indianapolis on the old National Road (U.S. 40), I expressed an interest in actually seeing it for myself—up close and personal—whenever the opportunity presented itself. Well, that opportunity came a few weeks ago when the good wife wanted to take a “road trip” to New Castle.

I picked her up from work one late Thursday afternoon, and we had a very nice drive down I-65, over the top of Indy, and hooked up with I-70 east to Greenfield, a short drive from Knightstown. We arranged a room at the Super8, had a wonderful Chinese buffet next to the motel, and settled in for the night. Up and out to the nearby McDonald’s for drive-thru coffee by 8 a.m. Friday,  we were soon on our way to the Hoosier Gym!

The gym is now a community center, used for all sorts of events (wedding receptions, bachelor parties, fund-raisers, etc.) but it still looks like it could be the home of the fictional Hickory Huskers. It sits quietly in a nice, pleasant neighborhood that exudes small-town America. The gym is right next to the old Knightstown Academy (now it houses retirement residences) with the spectacular sculptures of a globe and telescope on the roof. Carolyn snapped a picture of me in front of the gym before we entered. There is no admission charge, but they do accept donations.

A kind gentleman named Mervin Kilmer, the only other person there, greeted us, and he was most helpful and informative about all things regarding the Hoosier Gym. He took us on a tour of the place, with the exception of walking on the gym floor (my only disappointment) because it had recently been re-sealed. We did, however, get down into the ancient locker room and on the stage at the one end of the gym.

The whole place appeared exactly as it was in the movie, and I could almost expect Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) to come strolling through the door, basketball under one arm, whistle around his neck, and get practice started. There was something uniquely magical about the place, and I’m glad we had paid it a visit. Having bid farewell to Mr. Kilmer, Carolyn and I took a quick trip through Knightstown and then turned east for a few miles and then north for a short drive up to New Castle.

We drove around the town until the library/museum opened and were met by a kind lady volunteer. Carolyn came up a bit short on what she’d hoped to find, but it was worthwhile all the same. I enjoyed listening to her questions and watching as she and the volunteer tried various sources to locate information regarding the relative. In the end, we took a quick tour of the old museum and left New Castle to head back home to Illinois. It had been a fun twenty-four hour road trip, but someday I want to actually walk on that gym floor!…CortlandWriter


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