Tiny town heroes? Might take a second look

A few months ago, we were driving west of Indianapolis when I saw a road sign pointing to Cloverdale.

My heart skipped a beat. Part of me wanted to drive 20-plus miles out of our way to explore that little town. But what I was really looking for was a trip 50-some years back in time.

In those years of my youth, places like Cloverdale became magical because of the Indiana high school state basketball tournament. During many a March, tiny towns would have the right combination of five teen-age boys who would capture the state’s attention on a championship run.

In 1954, Milan actually won it. With an enrollment of just 161 students and a 24-year-old coach, Marvin Wood, Milan won it all. You already know this: That season was the inspiration for the movie “Hoosiers,” which has scenes that still bring grown men to tears.

Cloverdale almost repeated the Milan Miracle a dozen years later. Those plucky Clovers made it all the way to the finals at Hinkle Fieldhouse in 1966 but lost to Indianapolis Tech, the largest school in that group, in the afternoon game. 

Hearts sank throughout the state. We Hoosiers loved our underdogs. 

In that year and others, we pulled for schools like Lebanon or Loogootee or Argos, presumably, because small-town boys worked harder. That’s what I believed.

Our mythology tells us our best people are those who rise from humble beginnings. Christ was born in a barn and slept in a manger. Abraham Lincoln spent his childhood in frontier cabins and taught himself to read by the dim light of an oil lamp.

The message was, we are better off if we grow up surrounded by folksy wisdom instead of big-city sophistication and corruption. We would be more moral. In communities where everyone knows your family, you can’t filch an apple and disappear into a crowd. People know and remember your sins.

That’s a nice thought. There still are communities where old-fashioned virtues continue to be practiced seven days a week. Just as certainly, there are small towns where the opposite is true.

We drive the old state highways through small towns on our visits to family. We see the courthouses and libraries, but we also notice Confederate flags on porches and the billboards about opioid addiction. We wonder about the way of life these small towns are protecting.

What I see now that I didn’t acknowledge in 1966 is an underlying racial aspect to this reverence for teams like Milan and Cloverdale and Lebanon. My hard-working, basketball-loving heroes all were white, like me. Their big-school opponents – our enemies – mainly had Black players. 

I know a little more now. For the two years immediately following the Milan Miracle, Indianapolis Crispus Attucks won back-to-back state championships, in 1955 and 1956. Attucks was the first all-Black school to win the title. 

The team included the legendary Oscar Robertson, who was told by the Indiana University coach that he wouldn’t be offered a scholarship because I.U. already had its quota of Black players. After both state championship games, Attucks had parades through the capital city, but the big celebrations were moved to an out-of-the-way park – “to prevent trouble.”

Here’s a little-known fact: Arthur Trester, for whom the state finals mental attitude award is named, used his power as IHSAA commissioner to prevent all-Black schools from competing in the tournament until 1942. 

Here are some dates to put that in context. The last documented lynching in Indiana was in 1930 when two young Black men were dragged out of a jail cell in Marion, Indiana. That was a year after Ku Klux Klan member Edward Jackson finished his term as Indiana governor.

Racism has different code words now. South Bend is ringed by small towns, most of which received a growth spurt because of white flight. People who left will say they moved because of safer neighborhoods, better schools or a better selection of homes. For them, it’s true — but it also was true when one mom told us she didn’t like being around “too many coloreds.”

And there’s those other questions: Why haven’t we made their old neighborhoods safer and the schools and homes better?

These small towns are the bullies now. Their politicians are the ones suppressing the minority vote and gerrymandering districts so Black folks are underrepresented. They are the ones diverting public education funds to private, parochial and charter schools, where Black children aren’t always welcomed.

When a team led by Black girls from South Bend Washington wins a state basketball championship, ignorant folks are stunned. How can a school overcome so many problems to produce such a fine team? People assume, without ever having been there, that schools like Washington struggle to make it through every miserable day.

I’ll admit that, all these years later, I still don’t know much about Cloverdale. Wikipedia tells me the 2010 census found 2,172 people there. The African-American percentage was 0.6 percent, which computes to 13 people. It’s just a 42-mile drive from Indianapolis, where about 300,000 Black people live.

I can’t judge Cloverdale from afar because I probably would be wrong, just as others shouldn’t judge Washington. If I drive near either school on a sunny afternoon, maybe I’ll see hard-working boys and girls on basketball courts, setting picks, snapping off bounce passes and boxing out for rebounds.

We should make these visits someday. These impressions we have — shadows and stereotypes — are hard to shake. But we won’t see unless we make an effort to look. It’s not 1966 anymore.