Monday, May 27, 2013

Knightstown's Gym of Inspiration

Hoosiers (1986) has been listed by many media outlets as one of the greatest sports movies ever made. The film was ranked #13 by the American Film Institute on its 100 Years… 100 Cheers list of most inspirational films.  More importantly, Hoosiers was been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  

It is a timeless movie that transcends generations and incites inspiration.  The story may take place in the basketball rich-tradition state of Indiana in the early 1950s, but its premise relates to teams around the globe since it could happen any year, anywhere, to anyone.  It could even happen to the small community of Knightstown, Ind.

The movie is known for its inspirational plot, inspired by the story of the 1954 Milan Indians, as well as its cast of known actors. Casting Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale, Dennis Hopper as Shooter, and Barbara Hershey as Myra Fleener was a huge step towards the movie's success even before a scene was filmed. I have always felt that in many films, the actors alone are not the most memorable characters in a scene.  In many cases, the film location creates the perfect backdrop that without it, I question if the scene would have had the same impact on viewers. As a result, my favorite character casted in the movie Hoosiers is none other than the small Knightstown gym used as the home of the Hickory Huskers.

My twin brother and I with the Hickory Huskers
Over the last ten years, I have visited The Hoosier Gym seven times.  My first visit was in 2003 when I was completing an internship with Pacers Sports & Entertainment in Indianapolis.  I have attended various events held in the gym since then, including the 20th and 25th anniversary reunions of the filming of Hoosiers, which brought back many of the cast and extras.  In addition, my brother and I attended the 2009 Hoosier Reunion All-Star Classic basketball game where we cheered on the likes of Parade Magazine All-Americans Skylar Diggins (Notre Dame) and Kelly Faris (UConn), as well as, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, Jordan Hulls (Indiana).  My brother’s varsity girls basketball team from Northeast Missouri also had the opportunity to practice prior to the big game as the All-Stars watched on.  A memory that will stay with them forever, especially as they watched many of these players compete for a NCAA National Championship the next four years.

I was amazed how well the old gym had been maintained and how much it still resembled how it looked when filming wrapped in 1985. The lobby contains a vast amount of memorabilia from Knightstown basketball past, as well as, Hoosiers production and filming pictures and much more.  The timeworn ticket booth as you enter the lobby is only a glimpse of the nostalgia that awaits as you step through the doors and walk onto the gym floor.  The lobby, gym, and basement gives you a rare look into what small-town, early twentieth century basketball would have been like. While shooting around, you can't help but be inspired by your surroundings.

Ticket Booth
The Historic Hoosier Gym should be included on every basketball fan’s bucket list. When driving through Indiana on Interstate 70, it is only a 4 mile detour southeast on IN-109. It's accessibility is just one of the reasons I enjoy visiting.  It is available to the public to tour and even shoot a few baskets. If you want to rent it, you can do that as well. I guarantee you’ll visit it more than once.

Scotland Co. Lady Tigers practicing
2009 Hoosier Reunion All-Star Classic basketball game

Shooting hoops prior to the 25th Hoosiers Anniversary Reunion
Thousands of basketball and movie fans visit the gym annually, but that wasn’t the case years before Hollywood set up production in the small community. With the persistence of one resident and a little luck, Knightstown's old gym has went from unused to inciting inspiration to all who visit it.

According to The Hoosier Gym website (, in the early 1920s the Knightstown Community School didn’t have a gymnasium of their own.  Games were either played above the local drugstore or in the basement of a local church. Knowing the importance of having a gymnasium, hundreds of citizens and local businesses in the small Knightstown community helped raise the funds to begin construction. In late 1922, the construction of the Knightstown Gym was completed and available for games and civic and community events.  Improvements were made over time, which included the exterior face lift with a front entrance and lobby, basement dressing rooms, and large classrooms.

Knightstown gymnasium in 1935 before the front lobby was added

The front of The Hoosier Gym today

Locker room used in filming

In 1966, the Knightstown Panthers played their last regular season game at the gym.  A newer facility was constructed and for the next 20 years, the old gym saw little activity...until 1985.

According to Gayle L. Johnson, author of The Making of Hoosiers - How a Small Movie From the Heartland Became One of America's Favorite Films, in March 1985 the filmmakers and studio were scouting locations throughout Indiana to film Hoosiers. Their goal was to find a community with everything they needed - an early 1900s era high school and gymnasium and an appealing downtown.  Director David Anspaugh and the writer, Angelo Pizzo explored the state, including the town Milan, which inspired the film but it was considered too large even though it had a population under 2,000. They visited many communities in the southern region but those towns were also too large or the gyms too new. 

Front entrance to the lobby
While reading about the location search in the newspaper, longtime Knightstown resident Peg Mayhill immediately thought of the Knightstown gym.  In The Making of Hoosiers, Johnson states that with a school yearbook in hand that showcased her town's 1920s era gymnasium, Peg visited the Indiana Film Commission. Mayhill made multiple follow-up contacts with the Film Commission to make certain her community's gym would be under consideration. 

Her persistence paid off when the filmmakers decided to visit Knightstown in late spring. The old Knightstown gym would be considered but a decision would not be made for several months. In late summer, a press conference was held at Butler University, where Pizzo and Anspaugh announced the list of possible filming locations had been narrowed done to five locations, Knightstown included.

In the upcoming days, Mayhill and the Knightstown community would learn that the Knightstown gym was selected to be the home of the Hickory Huskers.  Johnson mentions in her book that writer, David Anspaugh would comment, "we saw countless gymnasiums. ... We walked into this gym in Knightstown, and there was no mistake. We were home; this was it."  Pizzo said that the building reminded him of the "glory days" of Indiana basketball, before school consolidation, when every town, no matter how small, had its own school and team.

Not only was the design of the gym what the filmmakers were looking for but the gym was ideal for filming as well. The filmmakers liked that the gym had windows on three sides which brightened the space and gave it a feeling of openness.  The rafters formed a intricate latticework.  Greenish gray paneling separated the bleachers from the court. 

Let's win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here. - Merle Webb (Hoosiers)

When reading about Mayhill's determination to have the old Knightstown gym considered for the movie, I couldn't help but be reminded of the Hickory player Merle Webb and his message before the state final game about "winning the game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here."   The quote also ties well into what the Knightstown gym was up against.  The gym was once a center-piece of the community for decades but had seen little activity for years.  Knightstown's newer, larger gym was now serving the community.  The old gym's chances of surviving were growing less and less each year.  But thanks to an outspoken and determined community member, the old Knightstown gym had won the chance to be an essential part of something special.  It had won the BIG game.

Walls consist of greenish gray wood paneling

Intricate latticework in rafters & greenish gray bleachers

Memorabilia display in lobby

The film's producers would choose multiple communities, like Knightstown, near the Indianapolis hub to film their sports movie.  Since they were unable to find a single town that provided the school, gym and downtown, the film would use separate locations for each. New Richmond, to the west of Indianapolis, would serve as the fictional town of Hickory. Nineveh, to the south, would be home to Hickory High since they had the old schoolhouse that the film producers were looking for.  All classroom scenes, as well as, Jimmy Chitwood shooting hoops outdoors where filmed there. 

The hidden gem that many Hoosiers fans might not be aware of is that the film's writer and director did find their ideal community that had everything they needed.  In April of 1985, they scouted Waveland, a community of 460 located in the west-central Indiana, near Crawfordsville.  Its 1912 school, 1937 built gym, along with the town's downtown square were ideal for what they were looking for in the same location. However, they would soon learn that construction was to begin on a new school. Waveland had passed a bond to tear down the old high school (then used as an elementary school) and build a new school. Construction could not be halted since contracts had been signed, nor could the community leaders be convinced to hold-off demolition.  As a result, scouting continued and Knightstown would eventually be selected.

Waveland High School - built in 1912

Waveland High School Gym (Kyle Neddenriep photo)

It’s hard to say what the fate of the Knightstown gym would have been if another gym was selected for the film. Would it have been torn down or left to deteriorate or used as a community center?  I'm not sure anyone knows. What is known is that due to fate, thousands of fans flock to Knightstown each year to see the old gym and find inspiration.  Celebrities, college teams, and ordinary people across the world know of Knightstown and their historic gym.  With the help of the community and those that care for the gym, it will probably never be demolished and the inspiration that we all get from stepping inside, will live on.

In 1987, respected movie critic Roger Ebert published the following review of Hoosiers.  He said, "'Hoosiers' is a comeback movie, but it's not simply about the comeback of this small team, the Hickory Huskers. It's also about the comeback of their coach, a mysterious middle-age guy named Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), who seems to be too old and too experienced to be coaching in an obscure backwater like Hickory. And it's also the comeback story of Shooter, the town drunk (played by Dennis Hopper, whose supporting performance just won an Oscar nomination). Everybody in this movie seems to be trying to start over in life, and, in a way, basketball is simply their excuse."

You could say the same thing about Knightstown's Hoosier Gym.