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Hard times press on temple to Indiana basketball

Anderson High's 9,000-seat Wigwam is no longer packed on game nights. Its closure is now an agonizing possibility, dividing residents in a city hemorrhaging jobs tied to the automobile.

February 23, 2009|Tim Jones

ANDERSON, IND. — When the lights go down in the cavernous Wigwam and two high school kids dressed as Indians come out and dance in the spotlight on the glossy maple wood basketball court, it's as if nothing has changed.

This is Anderson Indian basketball night at the 9,000-seat Wigwam, a crucial piece of the fabric of a city torn apart by years of auto parts plant closings and the loss of more than 25,000 jobs.

Anderson is certainly no longer a General Motors town, but it is the proud home of the Wigwam, the second-largest high school athletic venue in the world. That status -- and the bragging rights that go with it -- are threatened because the city's school district is in a $5-million budget hole. A special committee is considering shutting the Wigwam to cut costs.

It's only high school basketball, you might say, but the road to sentimentality about sports stadiums and arenas is well-traveled, stopping in Detroit, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago and other cities. Today, it goes through basketball-crazed Indiana.

In Anderson, the Wigwam approaches shrine status -- but not for everyone.

Mikella Lowe, superintendent of Anderson Community Schools Inc., is buffeted with a daily earful about the big brick fortress sporting a mosaic Indian chief.

"I went to a convenience store the other day to buy a Coke and the lady behind the counter said, 'No, you can't close the Wigwam,' and the gentleman behind me said, 'How can you keep that thing open?' " said Lowe, who artfully slipped away to let the two partisans battle.

Anderson is divided, emotionally and rationally. The head basketball coach at Anderson High, Ron Hecklinski, has vowed to quit if the Wigwam is closed, saying he won't coach "in some dinky little gym." Others argue education should never take a back seat to sports. The Wigwam debate runs deep in the roots and psyche of the community.

"We've lost so much in Anderson," said Carl Erskine, a lifetime resident, former varsity basketball Indian and onetime pitching great with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. Erskine, who was with the Dodgers when they left Ebbets Field, says the Wigwam is important to Anderson's identity and self-esteem and "if there is a reasonable way to save it, we have to do it."

"But I say 'reasonable,' " emphasized Erskine, 82 and a Wigwam season ticket holder. "We have to look at the reality. This can't be at just any cost."

In Anderson, reality is heavily influenced by memories. Older residents, say those 50 and above, wax fondly about the days when every wooden bench seat, all the way up to nose-bleed altitude, was filled.

Erskine said he didn't "know if putting on my Dodger uniform gave me a bigger thrill than wearing the varsity uniform for the Indians." People would bequeath season tickets in their wills and quarreling couples would fight over them in divorce proceedings.

Jim Russell, who was 8 when he began attending Wigwam games, said it "was a place that tied us all together. I'd know exactly where Carl Erskine sat, where the banker and the teachers sat. These were constants. This gave us a sense of community," Russell said.

"In the factories people would talk about basketball all week, 52 weeks a year."

The factories that supported middle-class lifestyles, however, are gone. Since 1970, Anderson's population has dropped 20%, to 57,000, and the school district has lost more than half its students. Radios that blared weekend Indian games have been overwhelmed by other entertainment. And some residents, while not dismissing the symbolic import of the Wigwam, say times have changed.

"You hate to see something like this close, but it's hard to justify keeping it open when the revenue is so small," said David Ward, who owns an office supply store in downtown Anderson. "Do I want to see it closed? Absolutely not. But I understand the money situation."

The district said it cost nearly $350,000 to heat and cool the Wigwam last year. But that includes the entire Wigwam complex, which houses the district's administrative offices and other support services.

If the arena is closed, Hecklinski and others argued, the result would simply be another empty structure waiting for the wrecking ball.

Still, there is no denying a change in the town's ticket-buying affection for their Indians. At a recent game, about 800 people showed up, including 465 season ticket holders, most of them old enough to remember when it was packed to the top. Twenty years ago there were 4,000 season ticket holders.

"Our fans are dying off. We lost three just last month," Hecklinski said.

But any unease seemed to disappear during a recent pregame ritual. The bass drums pounded and the crowd chanted "Ahh-Roo-Rooo," as the chief and maiden leaped onto the floor to perform. A prize fight bell rang and the spotlight turned to the Indians, whose names were announced in elongated fashion as the crowd cheered.

The Indians beat Huntington North, from former Vice President Dan Quayle's hometown, 61 to 46.

"People remember wonderful things that happened here," said Jumpin' Johnny Wilson, the former Mr. Indiana Basketball of 1946, the last year Anderson High School won the state championship. "To take somebody's memories away is a terrible thing. It's all they have."

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tmjones@tribune.com

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