November 8, 2023

Once Upon a Time in Indiana: James Dean and Hoosier Hysteria

By Stuart Mitchner

Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.

—James Dean (1931-1955)

You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye…

—Taylor Swift (born 1989)

The reality of writing an open-ended weekly column is that at the last minute someone or something may come out of nowhere to redirect a piece that was originally triggered, in this case, by controversial basketball coach Bobby Knight’s front page obituary in the New York Times. First thought is you’ll be writing about growing up with Indiana basketball, which goes according to plan until you remember a player you admired as a 10-year-old, who reawakens thoughts of James Dean, the actor you were obsessed with at 17.

It seems incredible that at the time I was buying everything about James Dean I could lay my hands on, I missed the poem with the line about dreaming and living that contains other “last words” such as “Forgive quickly, kiss slowly,” “Dance as if no one’s watching,” and “Love as if it’s all you know.” Any one of those lines could be the title of a song by Taylor Swift, who brought Dean dancing back into the pop culture conversation in 2014 and then again last week in her rerecorded version of “Style.”

Page One

In the 25th-anniversary edition of A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers (Simon & Schuster paperback 2011), John Feinstein writes: “If I had a dollar for every time someone told me a story about encountering Knight and finding him gracious and charming and funny, I would never have to work another day in my life. If I also had a dollar for every time I’ve been told a story about Knight being a bully or being rude and obnoxious, I’d be Bill Gates.”

The Bobby Knight who would have made Feinstein as rich as Bill Gates is the one whose page one photo appeared in the November 2 New York Times under the headline “Title-Winning, Temper-Losing Basketball Coach.” In the online edition, Knight, who died last week at 83, is famous for “Trophies and Tantrums.”  Without all the copy generated by the coach who threw chairs at referees and torture-trained his players, even Knight’s three NCAA championships and 11 Big Ten titles might not have been enough to make his death front page news. When he was fired by Indiana University in 2000 for violating a zero-tolerance policy instituted because of his abusive behavior, Knight was the most popular public figure in the state. If he’d run for governor, he’d have won in a landslide. If he’d run for president as a Democrat in 2016, he’d have been a formidable opponent to Donald Trump, the reality TV version of himself he twice enthusiastically endorsed.

Page 27

I grew up rooting for the Indiana teams that played during the years before Knight’s 1971-2000 reign, namely those coached by his predecessor Branch McCracken, who led I.U. to the National Championship in 1940 and 1953 and received an obit and a mug shot on page 27 in the June 5, 1970 Times. Having seen Knight in action only on TV, my most vivid memory of IU basketball remains the sight of McCracken towering over everyone else on the sidelines, grey-haired and distinguished looking in suit and tie, in contrast to Knight’s red sweater and casual trousers. The Times account of McCracken has the flavor of Indiana folklore: “a poor farm boy” from Monrovia, a town 40 miles from Bloomington, whose first basketball was “an inflated pig’s bladder,” his first basket “a discarded peach basket nailed to the side of a barn.” More to the point, Coach McCracken was famous for drilling his players in the fast-break style that inspired the brand name “Hurrying Hoosiers.” Although the man they called Big Bear growled on the sidelines and occasionally barked at the referees, there were no chair-throwing rages in spite of his being “so tense about the game that he often walked the campus until 3 a.m.”

Absolute Pandemonium

“Hoosier Hysteria” is another snazzy piece of journalistic doggerel but it doesn’t do full-bodied justice to the excitement of Indiana basketball that heats up with the high school sectionals and regionals and boils over in the state finals. One thing that made sectional hoops so exciting in particular was the size of the venue; the smaller the gym, the louder the noise; all those last-shot-at-the-buzzer-frenzied moments often took place in an echo-
chamber whose acoustics engulfed everyone and everything in absolute pandemonium.

The Big Ten

Even so, the ultimate excitement was watching McCracken’s Indiana teams go up against Big Ten rivals in the cavernous IU Fieldhouse when the star was Bill Garrett, the team’s first Black player. Garrett was already famous in Indiana, having led Shelbyville to the state championship in 1947. Other favorite players of mine were Lou Watson, who reminded me of the movie star Dan Dailey; the feisty guard with the musical name, Sammy Miranda; and forward Jerry Stuteville, the only player I felt on familiar terms with — he waved and smiled once when I shouted “Hey Jerry!”

Sudden Death

In later years I shuddered every time I drove across the small bridge on the state road to Indianapolis where Jerry Stuteville had died in an accident, the defining sudden death of my life until September 30, 1955. Probably the closest I ever came to the same fate was while pretending to be James Dean after a drive-in double feature of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, my seemingly austere, buttoned-up English professor father having brought a fire-engine-red Buick Special convertible into the family just in time for me to drive it at high speeds through the night during my senior year in high school. It was in a moment of vicarious angst that I swerved and narrowly missed an oncoming car.

No Adults

My first memory of actually playing basketball is a burning pain on the palms of both hands from shooting baskets on a stone court in sub-freezing weather. The hoop was located in Hoosier Courts, which now that I think of it sounds like a housing development for basketball players, but was in fact a cluster of barracks for graduate students and vets on the GI Bill. When we moved to a “real house,” it was located directly across the street from a basketball goal with a single netless hoop (this is Indiana, after all), where my nearly six-foot-tall friend and I were virtually unbeatable as a two-man team we called the Mercurys. That was before adults entered the picture in junior high and the simple joy of playing disappeared. By sophomore year I was covering sports for the school paper and my friend was on the varsity basketball team. Even when I was pulling for Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers 20 years later, the bullying, hands-on coach was a reminder of what had driven me away from organized sports. 

Jimmy’s Glasses

I started wearing glasses when I was 7 and in second grade (there’s an amusing note in my mother’s journal: “Stuart broke his glasses in a sword fight”); the oft-taped specs got broken fairly often, another reason I didn’t play roundball in high school. I’ve already described, both here and in a novel James Dean inspired, the humiliating moment the junior high football coach refused to let me play in the “big game” with our crosstown rival, even though I was suited up and had been told I could as long as I wore a protective mask.

Glasses were key to my identification with James Dean, who hadn’t let the “four eyes” stigma or adult coaches keep him down. I recently found a 2018 Indianapolis Star article about Dean’s high school basketball career accompanied by a photo of him posed in uniform wearing glasses (which were “such a nuisance to Jimmy, always sliding down his nose, going crooked on his face”). He was “almost blind without them” and had gone through 15 pairs by the time he graduated from Fairmount High in 1949, according to Wes Gehring’s James Dean: Rebel With a Cause (2005), a book published by the Indiana Historical Society on the 50th anniversary of his death. According to Gehring, whenever a foul was called on Dean that he thought unfair, he would yank off his glasses and hurl them to the floor: “Another mark of a young man who — if he was going to do something — was going to do it grandly, with a fire inside.” 

Both Bobby Knights — the funny charmer and the bully — might smile at the thought of all those broken glasses.

Knight’s Obit

Interviewed about his book The Power of Negative Thinking (New Harvest 2013), Bobby Knight was asked what he would leave out if he were allowed to write his own obituary, he said, “Well, seeing as I won’t be able to, I would simply quote Clark Gable. Quite frankly, I just don’t give a damn.”