Hoosier Gym, home of Hickory Huskers, still resonates with fans

The Hoosier Gym is shown Monday in Knightstown, Ind. Thousands of people still visit The Hoosier Gym annually. The gym where many scenes from the movie “Hoosiers” were filmed in the mid-1980s plays host to dozens of high school games each year as fans still flock to the site. (Associated Press)
The Hoosier Gym is shown Monday in Knightstown, Ind. Thousands of people still visit The Hoosier Gym annually. The gym where many scenes from the movie “Hoosiers” were filmed in the mid-1980s plays host to dozens of high school games each year as fans still flock to the site. (Associated Press)

KNIGHTSTOWN, Ind. -- The court is the same one where Jimmy Chitwood played. The locker room is exactly as it was when Norman Dale coached. The wall separating the bleachers from the floor is still there.

Things change. The Hoosier Gym doesn’t.

About 35 miles east of Indianapolis is the little town of Knightstown, which most people probably aren’t too familiar with. Basketball fans, however, are likely very aware of the place that brings more people into the town than anything else -- a small brick building the Hickory Huskers of the movie “Hoosiers” called home. 

It’s still there, still iconic nearly four decades after the film’s release, hosting more than 50,000 visitors and dozens of high school games each year.

“When you get that many people coming here every year,” said Larry Loveall, one of the volunteers who keep the gym running, “you know you’re doing something right.”

The movie -- ranked as the No. 1 sports film of all-time by the Associated Press in 2020 -- was released in 1986. Gene Hackman starred as coach Dale, a man who was given a second chance at coaching after his first one ended for striking one of his players years earlier. Hackman famously thought the movie would end his career; he didn’t think it would be a success.

He was very, very wrong. The tale of the Huskers, a small-town team that in the movie version took on the big-city South Bend Central in the 1952 Indiana state championship game and won in a David vs. Goliath story with Chitwood -- a sharpshooter who initially didn’t want to play for the team -- hitting the buzzer-beater to win the state title, still resonates. It’s an underdog story, a Cinderella story, one loosely based on the real-life story of small-school Milan winning Indiana’s 1954 state championship.

“It’s about basketball, obviously,” said Brad Long, who plays Buddy Walker in the film. “But it’s about redemption and anytime you have a movie where the underdog does well and overachieves, it makes people feel good about themselves. That formula always works.”

It still does.

The movie plays on a loop in the lobby of the building, which was Knightstown High’s home gym until 1966. The court, which is meticulously maintained, has been down since 1936 and there isn’t a single dead spot to thwart dribblers. Down the steep staircase at the far end is the Hickory locker room; people have wanted to repaint it over the years but have smartly resisted -- because the faded white walls and scuffed-up gray floor is how it looked in the movie, and so it shall remain.

There have been some upgrades, of course. The backboards are glass, not wood like they were in the film. There are digital scoreboards. Electric heat was added to the locker room. The playing surface was slightly widened to make it conform to current standards.

That’s about it.

“I’ve been maintaining this gym since 1998,” Loveall said. “It’s our pride and joy.”

The gym is in Knightstown, though the movie isn’t about the town. The school -- enrollment of nearly 400, not quite the 64 that Hickory famously had in the movie -- goes by the nickname Panthers, not Huskers. The Panthers don’t play their home games in The Hoosier Gym, and there has been a time or two where the gym and the school have disagreed on where some items like a long-abandoned victory bell belong; it’s displayed at the gym, in a room filled with Knightstown memorabilia and not artifacts from the movie.

The place remains open largely because fans keep visiting. It has been the site of everything from political rallies to fundraising dinners. The court can be rented for $100 an hour -- and groups come from all over to play or just get shots up.

“It’s always an honor to be back,” actor Maris Valainis, who plays Chitwood in the movie, said when the team was assembled in Knightstown for a 35th anniversary gathering a couple of years ago.

Of the many lines in the movie that resonate, one -- “Welcome to Indiana basketball,” the line uttered by Dale as he fixes his tie before stepping onto the court for his first game as coach -- might stand out a bit more than most others.

Thing is, the court isn’t just about Indiana basketball anymore.

High school teams from across the country come to play there now, and from that was born a new tradition. They leave a jersey behind, all signed by players. They hang in the locker room and other parts of the building, more than 300 of them now in a collection that’s constantly growing. Some leave little notes behind on the jerseys as well; Cale Leitch of Talawanda High in Ohio hit a shot at the buzzer to give his team a 48-46 win there last year and scrawled “Game winner” under his name and number.

“I envisioned it,” Leitch told the Southwest Ohio Sports Daily after his winning shot.

There have been more famous visitors as well. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were there once as their NBA careers were starting, posing at midcourt with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Chris Mullin has gotten shots up there, while Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. played there as high schoolers.

The movie even got talked about at NBA All-Star weekend in Indianapolis. 

Commissioner Adam Silver and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama were on stage together at the tech summit discussing how artificial intelligence can change the way people view the game. Part of their presentation included a clip from “Hoosiers,” a movie Wembanyama had just been introduced to.

“It’s based in Indiana,” Silver told Wembanyama. “Parts of it were filmed right down the street here.”

Maybe fittingly, there’s still the whole David vs. Goliath thing going on, just like in the movie.

New Castle -- like Knightstown, part of Henry County -- boasts the biggest high school basketball arena in the country, the 8,400-seat New Castle Fieldhouse. The Hoosier Gym might hold 400, tops.

“They’ll always tell us that they’ve got the world’s largest high school gym,” Loveall said. “And I said, ‘Isn’t that amazing, in the same county we’ve got the world’s largest -- and the world’s most famous.’”

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