Hoosiers, arguably the greatest sports movie ever made, tells the story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship against a stacked urban school and against all odds. It is based in history. In 1954 the Milan basketball team from a tiny Indiana town won the Indiana basketball championship.
Like Hoosiers, Arsenal Tech High School’s Indiana basketball championship in 2014 was a victory-against-all-odds, though in reverse. It featured a basketball team from a gritty, downtrodden urban school beating the big township, suburban and rural schools and inspiring urban kids and eventually a whole city in doing so.
But when my son Julian and started filming Tech’s 2013-2014 season none of this was a reality. It was just a dream. We had no idea how our filming project would sweep us up in Hoosier hysteria.
Don’t get me wrong. Tech’s team, led by Coach Jason Delaney and star player Trey Lyles surrounded by a cast of very gifted seniors, was good and they were motivated. The last two seasons they had suffered heartbreaking losses: two years before they lost to Lawrence Central at regionals by a last second buzzer beater shot by Jeremy Holloway. The previous year they had lost a hard-fought sectional game to Cathedral with Trey Lyles, who had hurt his knee in the game before, watching from the bench. Going into the 2013 season, Coach Delaney had said that this was an all-or-nothing season; anything short of a state championship was a failure.
Even with their strong team, Tech was an underdog to win it all. After all, Tech had never won an Indiana Basketball Championship since it had been established as a high school in 1912, though its teams had played in the championship game four times, losing in 1929, 1934, 1956 and 1966. And no Indianapolis Public School (IPS) team had won the state basketball championship since Broad Ripple did in 1980. The reputation of IPS basketball teams was that they had great athletes but they had low basketball IQ’s, little discipline, and didn’t play well as a team. IPS teams were routinely dismissed from the playoffs by the powerful township, suburban and parochial schools. Certainly, Tech’s program had been limping along for the last couple of decades. Up to a few years before this, no player at Tech really expected to have a chance to win the Indiana Basketball Championship. It was a distant, hazy dream held forth by Coach Delaney and bought into by his team. The odds were stacked against them.
Nevertheless, after an impressive, in fact, a dominant season with only two losses, anticipation was building about Tech’s chance to go all the way. The school was abuzz. Something special was happening. It was.
The sectional games were held at Lawrence North. In the first sectional game Tech beat Lawrence North soundly. Then they clobbered Lawrence Central, wiping out some of the pain from two years before.
The sectional championship was against Roncalli, a team built on a program and disciplined to play as a team. Roncalli kept the game close by playing a zone, a box in one defense on Trey and hitting their shots from outside. But at the end of the day they were no match. The Tech team held high the sectional trophy, but their sight was set on higher goals.
By this time, not only was there a buzz about the team on Tech’s campus, Tech alumni were coming out to the games in droves, filling the seats and cheering on their alma mater.
The Regional finals were held at Southport: two games in one day. The first game was against Richmond. The stands were packed with Tech fans. It was a fun game, with Tech clearly superior. Between the games my wife, Jenny, and I hosted Tech players and coaches at our home for some “down time.” It was great to be able to support the team in that way.
The second game was against Pike. This is now known as the “pink jersey” game. It was quite a fiasco. Here is what happened. In support of the battle against breast cancer, and a couple of players on the team who had family members fighting that battle, Tech had gotten pink jerseys and worn them as their uniform at previous games throughout the season. Having the platform of the regional finals game, they chose to wear the pink jerseys. But one of the Pike coaches complained, the officials conferred, and Tech was ordered to wear their regular green jerseys. However, those were back at the school. And so the game was delayed while one of Tech’s coaches sped home to retrieve the green jerseys. I think Tech was charged a double technical. A Pike player made the free throws, and so Tech started the game down four to zero, or something like that. It didn’t matter. Despite the strong play of Tech player John Robert’s brother, a sophomore at Pike, Tech beat Pike soundly. After winning the game, Tech put back on the pink jerseys for the photos and for cutting down the net. Afterwards Coach Delaney had to write a letter to the Indiana High School Basketball Association apologizing, but I don’t think he minded doing that very much. They had made their statement in support of the battle against breast cancer quite well after all.
Semi-state was held in Richmond against Bloomington. Before the Bloomington North game I interviewed a bunch of Tech alumni and other fans who had gathered at the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Richmond. They were confident in their team winning. But that victory was not as easy or straightforward as it should have been.
I’ll never forget walking into the Richmond gym. It was absolutely packed. Hearing the roaring crowd I felt goose bumps up and down my arms and back. It was “Hoosier Hysteria” at its best.
Tech played a tough Bloomington North team and just dominated in the first three quarters. Tech was up by well over twenty points going into the last minutes of the game, so Coach Delaney sat his starters and brought in the bench. That was almost disastrous. Bloomington North kept fighting. They got shots and stops and breaks and calls. And before you knew it the game was well within their reach. Delaney put his starting five back in, and they barely held off the charging Bloomington team. The Regional Championship trophy was Techs, and their fans were ecstatic, if not a little shaken, after the dramatic ending. Tech was going to the State championship for the fifth time. Would they finally win it all?
Now not only was Tech’s students and alumni rallying around the Tech team, but hosts of Indianapolis Public Schools players, coaches, fans, alumni and supporters were cheering them on. Tech’s team represented them. “We are Family” had come to symbolize not only the team as family, but a whole school district as family.
The Indiana High School State Championship game was at Bankers fieldhouse vs. Lake Central, a team Tech had already beaten in the regular season. I was personally not feeling well at the time. In fact, about that time I had to have surgery to check my lymph nodes to check and make sure that I did not have cancer. Thankfully I didn’t; I just was under a great deal of stress due to a hard situation at work. So I wasn’t able to join in all of the festivities before the game, although I was in attendance. However, my son Julian was brought up with the team and so he was on the inside and able to shoot video. He got great video of the team’s first practice at Banker’s fieldhouse before the game, their walking out onto that court for the first time. It feels a lot like the scene from Hoosiers when the Milan team walks out onto the Butler Fieldhouse before their championship game.
In the locker room before the game quotes from Lake Central players were posted, just in case the Tech team needed added motivation.
What an awesome moment that was to walk into the Fieldhouse packed by fans, to have the players introduced under the lights, and to watch them finally play on that big stage.
Julian, and other players, shot video from the bench before, during and after the game, capturing the magic of it all.
Bankers Fieldhouse was packed with Tech fans who cheered their team on. Tech was in control of the game from the beginning, but Lake Central never gave up and kept it close all the way to the end. When the last seconds of the game came to a close and Trey threw the basketball into the air I think I was not alone among the fans in shedding a tear.
I know that Trey also cried in the joy of the victory. There is a great picture of him hugging his dad crying with I’m sure the joy of accomplishing the dream.
What a thrilling culmination of hard work and family faithfulness for that team.
I doubt if Trey and that Tech team could know what their victory against-the-odds would come to mean for other kids in urban Indianapolis playing for IPS schools: a door had opened to the impossible dream that a team from IPS could win it all too.
Two snapshots gave premonitions of how much that victory meant to Tech and IPS. The first was a student assembly to celebrate the Tech team that finally brought the trophy home. That was a fun, relaxed, joyful, playful time for the teammates and their friends.
The second was a celebration in Tech’s gym on April 8th. The gym was filled with students and alumni and fans and news reporters. It was a party atmosphere. current and past cheerleaders danced and led cheers. One highlight for me was a cheering line for past Tech players. I caught every player coming through the line with big smiles and lots of back slapping and high-fives and handshakes.
At the end of the day, how much did Tech’s victory matter? How much of an impact would it make? It would only be years later that the full impact of their victory could be assessed.
And then could their story be captured and told?
A story about family.
A story about a team of young men and coaches who had a dream
A story of friends and family who came around them to support them in their dream
A story of an urban basketball program that wasn’t supposed to have a chance
A story “for all the inner city kids who are told” you can’t do this
A story about a team inspiring first an inner-city school, then its alumni, then a school district, then a city around their quest to win it all.
In the last article in this series I’ll share the steps that have gone into the making of the documentary We are Family that is due to come out in March of 2019, five years after that inspiring game at Bankers Fieldhouse.