Note: This is the fifth in a series of stories this week on the 30th anniversary of Bedford North Lawrence’s 1990 state championship.
By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – The scene from the movie Hoosiers is iconic. Hickory’s underdog, overwhelmed team files into Hinkle Fieldhouse in silence, gazing around and gasping in wonder and awe. The massive gymnasium, larger than anything those small-town kids had ever seen, was empty.
Head coach Norman Dale, anticipating that reaction and obviously thinking ahead, is handed a tape measure. Of course, every basketball coach carries one of those to practice. He asked Buddy to hold the tape under the backboard and steps to the foul line.
“What is it?” 15 feet. “15 feet.”
“Strap, put Ollie on your shoulders. Measure this down from the rim. Buddy? How far?” 10 feet. “10 feet.”
“I think you’ll find these exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory.”
His team laughs nervously, understanding the reference. As they leave the floor to prepare for practice, one of the Huskers shouts “Hickory!” to hear the echoes. Dale chuckles.
“It is big.”
Norman Dale never saw the Hoosier Dome.
Built in 1983, in part to lure professional football to Indianapolis, the enormous structure included a 233-ton roof (193 feet high at its zenith) and seated over 60,000 when the Colts moved in for the 1984 season. The roof was held up by air pressure inside the building. Signs warned of high winds when exiting the facility as that pressure released. It was a technological wonder for the era.
And in 1990, the Indiana High School Athletic Association made the brilliant move – after 15 years in Market Square Arena – to switch locations and hold the boys basketball state finals in the Dome. The court was shifted to one end, temporary bleachers installed on one side. Basketball had been played there (the 1984 exhibition between Bob Knight’s Olympic team and the NBA All-Stars, the 1985 NBA All-Star Game). But high school games? How many would show up?
On March 24, the Dome swelled as 41,046 (plus over 400 members of the media) showed up. Twice, for the morning semifinals and evening championship. It set a world record for attendance for a high school game. All to watch Bedford North Lawrence, with state legend Damon Bailey as the main attraction, compete for a state crown. The circus finally had a big top.
If any team was equipped for the magnitude of this stage, the Stars were. They had played in packed gymnasiums before sell-out crowds all year, in the biggest buildings around (Hinkle, Assembly Hall, Hulman Center, with a combined seating capacity of 41,000. The Dome matched those three). But even those experiences were overshadowed by the sheer, colossal vastness and enormity of this place.
“I remember going to practice there and it was ‘Wow, this is a big place,’” Chad Mills said. “It‘s no douht you knew it was a big place and there were a lot of people. But our focus was never really on the crowds, it was on the floor and what you had to do to win the game. It’s still 10 feet to the rim, there was just a lot of space around you.”
“The locker rooms were way off the floor, it was a good quarter-mile jog to get to the court,” Alan Bush said. “As we were jogging out, you look around, you came out behind the temporary bleachers, and part of the view was blocked. You couldn’t see everything. But when you took that first step on the court and looked around, it was like ‘Whoa.’
“The way the game is today, it’s just absolutely ludicrous that something like that was even possible. Twice that day, that place sold out.”
BNL coach Dan Bush wasn’t worried about the dimensions. After all, it was still 15 feet to the foul line, still 10 feet to the rim. But it didn’t look like it. All the space created depth-perception issues.
“I’m sure playing in front of that many people was a little different, but I was more concerned about the background for the shooting,” Bush said. “It’s tough to shoot in those big places.”
Did the IHSAA, which announced the venue change in the summer of 1989, make a calculated gamble to host the finals in the biggest barn in Midwest farm country? Perhaps. BNL almost didn’t get there. The Stars survived two tough semistate battles in Terre Haute, else the last party would have been quite a letdown. The perfect storm gathered as BNL advanced through the third stage of the state tournament series to reach the Final Four for the third time in four years.
First, BNL faced Terre Haute North in the afternoon round of the semistate. BNL bolted in front early but could never put away Mark Hisle and the Patriots. Bailey was held in check, scoring only 19 points, but on this day the Stars counted on other heroes.
During the 56-54 win over Terre Hate North, one of those was senior reserve Paul Stevens, who scored all 9 of his points in the fourth quarter. Another was Dwayne Curry, who doubled his average with 7 points. Jason Lambrecht had 6 points during a key stretch of the third quarter. “We’ve got some other kids on this team besides 32,” Bush said, defending the popular sentiment about his squad’s worthiness. “I’ve been trying to tell you guys that for four years.”
In the semistate final, BNL collided with powerful Evansville Bosse. The Bulldogs had muscle, athleticism and speed, a pair of Division I recruits. They presented, by far, the toughest tournament test BNL had faced.
“That was a crazy game,” Bailey said. “You talk about athleticism, teams that contrasted in athletic ability and types of players, that was a unbelievable game.”
Bosse threatened to end the storybook run, blasting to a 16-11 lead after the first quarter, moving ahead by 8 in the second quarter, surging back in front by 7 midway through the third as Ron Darrett and Andy Elkins did a lot of damage.
That was Bailey’s cue. After a rough start, he scored 30 of BNL’s final 50 points, finishing with 34. Alan Bush, smothered by Bosse’s physical man-to-man defense in the first three quarters, got loose when Bosse went zone to protect its stars in foul trouble. Bush scored all 10 of his points in the final frame.
His biggest shot was also his luckiest. With 3:20 left, from directly in front of the BNL bench, he launched a 3-pointer that caught the front of the rim, bounced high the air, and dropped through the net for a 62-58 lead. “That’s a shooter’s bounce,” his father said that evening, smiling with a little pride and a lot of relief. Bailey, who would run past Bush and mumble “Good shot” before the ball was even in the net during previous games, had to laugh at that one.
“When I let go of the shot, I thought it was good,” Alan Bush said. “It was right on line, it felt good, I had my legs underneath me. Then when you see it hit front iron and bounce straight up in the air, that’s usually not a terribly great sign. Occasionally the basketball gods smile upon you and give you a roll.
“When it went in, when you’re the team on the other end of that and see a ball bounce straight up in the air and go in from 3-point range, it can take some of the air out of your sails real quick. If one or two bounces had gone their way . . .
“Bosse had played man-to-man the entire game, but they got in some foul trouble and had to go to a zone,” Dan Bush said. “They had put a man on Alan and he wasn’t getting shots at all. When they went zone, it opened it up for him. It takes a little bit of luck, too.”
Even with that fortune, BNL wasn’t safe. The Stars needed clutch free throws from Jamie Cummings, Bush and Bailey in the final 72 seconds to salt away the thrilling 72-67 victory.
“I don’t know why I did it, but we had broken the huddle and I happened to look over at press row and saw Myron (Rainey, the voice of the Stars on the radio waves),” Bush said. “He was looking right at me, and we made eye contact. And I winked at him. I don’t know why.
“After that game, he got on his soap box and really defended me, basically said that anyone who had qualms of me being on the team, they needed to shut up because we wouldn’t have won (without him). To this day, I don’t know what made me do that.”
So that set the stage for the Final Four, for the semifinal clash with Southport. The Stars got their first exposure to the throng in the Dome while sitting and watching top-ranked Concord’s win over Anderson in the first game of the wild day.
“It was an amazing, inspiring thing to see and feel,” Cummings said. “What was weird was how far away the people were. Some of the smaller gyms were louder, but it was just the space the Dome had. I enjoyed playing in the smaller gyms.”
“It was 41,000 people,” Stevens said. “We were used to playing packed places, but that’s a little different. It was more weird when we practiced, when it was empty. When you first walk out, it’s like ‘Holy crap.’
“But on game day, when you see the people, my initial thought was it was kind of crazy. But to be honest, you block it out, once the game starts and you get going. It’s weird, but you don’t notice the people.”
Is it possible to ignore 41,000 people? The sound crashed to the floor in waves, first from the lower levels of the arena, then from the upper tiers. The noise was relentless, crushing, threatening to blow that air-pressure roof off the place.
“Now, it’s unbelievable to think that many people would be in one place to watch anything, let alone a high school basketball game,” Bailey said. “But I say it all the time, and I know people don’t believe me but I know it’s truly how I felt and the way we felt, as an athlete you get stuck in that moment. Once it becomes your turn, it is just another game. That’s hard for people to understand.
“Maybe it was a little bit easier for us because it was another full arena, just a lot of people. We were on a mission, we had a goal to accomplish, and that was just the next step. Once you get on the floor, it’s really amazing. It’s not anything you do intentionally, but it’s like nobody’s there.”
“Once the ball is tipped, you lose sight of all that stuff,” Bush said. “You’re playing ball again. Once I got in the game, all that disappears. You’re focused on the task at hand at that point. When you’re going through that, you don’t really realize it.”
BNL might not have been nervous, but the Stars were tentative in the battle with Southport. William Moore scored 23 first-half points as the Cardinals (who led 32-18 at one point) clawed to a 32-23 lead. Curry made a huge 3-pointer to end the first half, then donned Superman’s cape in the second.
The smallest guy on the BNL roster was assigned the biggest task – use his quickness to slow down Moore. And Curry came up huge, limiting Moore to 5 points after intermission. Bailey scored 25 points, Mills added 13, and the Stars scored all 15 of their fourth-quarter points from the foul line to secure a 58-55 win and a spot in the championship.
Now it all came down to one final contest. BNL was ready for the challenge, even in the midst of the roaring Dome and the intense pressure. It was like riding in an airplane. The ears felt like popping.
“Every game was that way,” Cummings said. “We had been exposed to it, basically our high school career. I was always nervous before a game, but once we got tipped, I felt really good about our chances.”
“Going back to our Shawswick days, we were playing in front of crazy crowds,” Mills said. “To say you got accustomed to it, I guess you did.”
That night, BNL faced Concord. The Minutemen were undefeated, ranked No.1. It was the classic confrontation, set on the greatest stage in state history. The world was watching.
“I remember walking out prior to the championship game, looking around and not seeing an empty seat,“ Dan Bush said. “And I’m thinking to myself ‘This will never happen again.’”
Next: The final 2:38 and the conclusion of destiny