INDIANAPOLIS — Folks hereabouts are innately curious about anything that has to do with this sport called basketball.
When you come to Indiana to cover a team from San Diego, you have an inquisitive audience.
When someone would ask why I happened to be here, I would say, "I am here to cover USD in the NCAA Midwestern Regional over at the Hoosier Dome."
"USD?" they would respond.
"The University of San Diego," I would explain.
This would be something new and different. This would not be one of those known commodities from the western United States, neither a UNLV nor a UCLA. When it comes to basketball, Hoosiers don't like to feel that there is anything they don't know . . . sort of like folks from Detroit hearing about a new brand of automobile.
It was a constant replay of the old Newman-Redford routine from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Who are these guys? Who do they play? Where do they play?
Of course, no one asks why they play because everyone in this neck of the woods knows basketball is the greatest invention since heat. They would only be bewildered why anyone wouldn't play.
These folks knew very little about USD, and, in fact, usually would first wonder what in the world a "Torero" might be. I was initially taken aback, but I recovered to speculate that "toro" being a bull, a torero must be someone who fights bulls . . . or maybe grooms them.
Such trivia pursued, I would then listen as these Hoosiers would advise me what a marvelous team USD must be. They were quite aware that the team from San Diego--the initials USD had momentarily befuddled them--had a record of 24-5 and had come to this regional seeded ninth among 16 teams.
"The town must be going a little bit crazy with a team like that," one chap gushed. "Probably impossible to get tickets to their games, eh?"
"You're right about the tickets," I said. "No way you can get into their home games, at least not when the students get back from Christmas break."
"How big is their arena?" he wondered.
"Twenty-five," I said.
"That's huge!" he gasped. "I didn't know San Diego had an arena that would hold 25,000."
"Hundred," I said.
"Hundred?" he said, even more flabbergasted. " This team plays in an arena that holds 25 hundred ? We have gyms that big in villages with 800 people."
Obviously, basketball is a different game in Indiana from its Southern California version. It's a different game a lot of places from its Southern California version.
It would have startled this gent to learn that USD drew 25,945 in 14 home games this season. This same team played in front of a crowd of 29,610 Thursday night in the Hoosier Dome.
And this was a most appreciative crowd. It was demonstrably in USD's corner in the game against Auburn, the hardly prohibitive favorite from the better-known Southeastern Conference.
In the aftermath of the heartbreaking 62-61 loss, the red-clad--Indiana University also was on the card--multitudes accorded the Toreros a standing ovation as they dejectedly walked through the tunnel toward their locker room.
" Great ballgame!" voices yelled.
It was. The problem, however, was that this little team from the little university with the little gymnasium was not in Indianapolis seeking moral victories.
"You can write this down," guard Eric Musselman said before the game. "We're going to beat these guys."
Musselman was right. USD did beat Auburn. It just didn't win.
It was a could-have-won game, a should-have-won game. A couple of untimely twists of fate kept the Toreros, of all people, from playing Bobby Knight and his Hoosiers on national television today. And, I assure you, they would not have been embarrassed, not the way Fairfield was Thursday night and not the way undisciplined Auburn may well be.
USD might have actually gained a measure of respectability and credibility where it is probably most noticeably missing.
The community at large does not yet really know what to make of the basketball team in Alcala Park. The gym is so small that the uninvolved fan simply does not bother trying to get to the games. It's one of those incongruous situations in which no one goes there because it's too crowded.
It is at this point that I will suggest that USD's basketball program is at a crossroads.
USD must decide whether it is a big-time program or one of those little darlings that come along to play the role of Cinderella in the first round or two of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament. I know how the players want to be perceived. Rightly so, they felt that Auburn was downright lucky to have survived an encounter with them.
Given the right circumstances, USD basketball can be an athletic force in San Diego . . . not just in Spokane and Portland and Moraga and the other way stations of the West Coast Athletic Assn.
Most important, USD needs a place to play that Joe Fan can find . . . and get into. The San Diego Sports Arena is too big and too expensive, but a 6,000-seat multipurpose facility on campus would be a nice showcase.
Of course, the program must sustain itself. The heart of the team--four out of five starters--will be graduating, something USD's players really do. The coach, Hank Egan, likely will be pursued by bigger schools after such an excellent season.
USD must build its facilities, rebuild its team and retain its coach. If it can do these things, it may even become as well-known at home as it came to be in Indiana . . . where folks know their basketball like a Frenchman knows fine wine.