Dayton, you had a good run.
There are so many reasons why the Birthplace of Aviation was the first capital of Hoops Nation. No other city's fans can match its awesomeness-to-population ratio; the University of Dayton Arena will always be packed, no matter if the Flyers are 28-1 or 1-28. Ever since the Atlantic 10/12/14 tourney left Philadelphia's Spectrum, no other city has hosted the event with as much class and diligence as Dayton. The NCAA chose wisely when it picked UD as the perennial host of the Play-In Game
, "the most honest game in college basketball." In no other place would people care to wave "GO 65 SEED" signs.
"Hoops Nation" is a concept nearing its four-year anniversary. Our definition has little or nothing to do with this Hoops Nation, which is a fine and well-written directory of pick-up playgrounds from coast-to-coast. Ours is a land of individual entities bound together by a shared struggle and a common dream, under a wide banner of 251 stars. Our Hoops Nation is the country at-large, which hardly ever gets at-large bids. Hoops Nation is not the constantly-shifting Top 25. It is the united foundation of Division I college basketball. If you live below the Red Line, you hold automatic citizenship.
For our purposes here, the term was born nearly four years ago, in one of those old ESPN.com Insider blog entries about a UD-Wright State doubleheader I pulled in February 2006. The piece is covered in so much digital dust that Google can't even find it, but Dayton was declared the capital and few disputed it. The University of Dayton Arena became Hoops Nation's Congress. The South Park Tavern was its House of Representatives, a place to gather every March to root for the SWAC or the NEC in the P.I.G..
Moving a capital is serious business. It's not an entirely unprecedented event, though; it happens all the time. In the early days of the United States, the capital moved eight times before 1800, when it settled in some cheap land in the District of Columbia. There was the whole Constantinople thing back in Roman times. Just this year, the Indonesian island province of North Maluku moved its capital from Ternate to Sofifi. A capital is where the heart is.
And now we're moving. The spiritual center of Hoops Nation is moving 117 miles to the west. We hereby declare Hoops Nation's center of democratic power to be Indianapolis, Indiana.
The importance of Indianapolis to the college basketball world should be obvious. It's the self-described and rightfully-named Amateur Sports Capital of the World. It's the location of headquarters buildings for both the NCAA and AAU. In the city center, there's a Westin Hotel where the gatekeepers to the Big Bracket meet on the 15th floor every March, to decide whose dreams live and die. (For the people of Hoops Nation, most of them die.) But we know how hard those decisions can be, from direct experience.
Indianapolis is home to Sports Bubble Stadium, where the 2010 Final Four will be held. And the 2015 one. The Women's Final Four in 2011 and 2016 will be there as well. And a few other events take place, but not enough to fill out an actual calendar.
But the NCAA matrix is merely a sideshow and shadowy parallel in our new capital city. Hoops Nation doesn't need some oversized Monopoly hotel as a congressional hall; we have an 81-year-old U.S. National Historic Landmark, one of the two true cathedrals of Our Game. There's no dome on top, just a convex arced roof with windows that make the interior look like church in the afternoon and 1928 at night. The baskets are 10 feet high, just like at your gym -- that's democracy. You can address all relevant and appropriate political correspondence to 510 West 49th Street.
Indianapolis is a city of underdog dreams. It's where Bobby Plump hit a last-second shot to complete the Milan Miracle, and it's where he went on to open an fantastic restaurant in the Broad Ripple district. At the 1987 Pan American Games, Hinkle was where the Brazilian men's volleyball team completed a stunning marathon upset over a United States team, which held the Olympic and World Cup titles at the time. Indy was the Final destination of George Mason 2006 -- an NCAA journey that began in, of all places, Dayton.
Indianapolis is a city of crazy brilliance. A lot of things have been the "best thing since sliced bread," but this is where sliced bread was actually invented! It's where some guy said, "Hey, why don't we make a huge speedway out of bricks?" Indianapolis and innovation both start with I, and the individuals who live there are pushing the envelope of progress.
Indianapolis is a city of inspiration and hope. It was the birthplace of a barefoot coaching movement that changed a million lives. Four decades ago, it was the site of one of the great forgotten speeches of the civil rights movement, one delivered by Robert F. Kennedy after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. He said, "The vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land."
On the night of April 4, 1968, every American city with a sizable black population erupted in fiery violence. Each, that is, except Indianapolis.
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Hoops Nation's capital city is where we keep our headquarters. It's a magical building that holds a special place in Mid-Majority history, and I want to tell you about it.
ESPN flew me to Indianapolis to cover the 2006 Final Four, and once again to cover the epic 2007 BracketBusters clash between Butler and Southern Illinois -- a classic game that featured two schools destined for that year's Sweet 16. Both times, I flew into the city's 30-year-old terminal. It was charming and precious and low-ceilinged, like a little boutique airport, but on Final Four weekend it was overmatched by the endless lines and sweatsuit herds.
Back then, the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport (formerly a Holiday Inn) was the best hotel that the airport had to offer. It was right across the street from the terminal, a two-minute walk. It had everything you'd expect from a four-star facility -- a grand courtyard with fountains, seven conference rooms, an indoor pool and hot tub, three restaurants (including a French place on the fifth floor) and an executive lounge. It was always full... and always expensive. I never got to stay there.
The city grew so fast that it needed a new airport. On November 11, 2008, all inbound flights to Indianapolis were diverted to a new terminal. The local authorities built a gleaming steel/glass structure with 1.2 million square feet of floorspace and 40 gates. As the only major air passenger facility built since 9/11/2001, it has the most advanced security features of any American airport.
The new IND took years to complete, but Google Maps hasn't caught up yet. If you type "IND" into most GPS navigation systems, you'll be led to the wrong place.
In January of this year, I drove to Indianapolis through a snowstorm to write an ESPN.com story about the second season of Samaritan's Feet's barefoot coaching initiative. My auto club gave me a cut-rate deal at the CPIA, and the sudden change in local topography was a bit of a shock. Satellite photos of the area still show a terminal in full operation, but all that's really left now are vacant parking garages, cracked asphalt runways, and a deserted Hertz rental center with a chain-link fence and "kepe out" signs. High School Road, the north-south service artery that parallels the Interstate, is a street of ghosts. Everything's gone.
The Crowne Plaza International Airport never changed its name, even though the terminal is now six miles and a 15-minute shuttle ride away. Airport Blvd. is now Sam Jones Blvd., and all the directional signs are gone. Driving by on I-465 at 70 miles per hour, you'd never know there was ever an airport there.
Lonely, obsolete hotels might be expected to close down or cut back on amenities and services, but not this one. All the staff at the CPIA is still in full uniform -- the desk attendants in their beige suits, the bellhops with their clean white shirts, the shuttle drivers with black blazers and police-style hats. The restaurant and catering workers all wear coats and ties. Even though the place is 90 percent empty on most nights, the staff never eases up or takes a night off. Nobody's stopped caring, hardly anybody's watching, but no one takes less pride in their work.
I like to imagine that there's a connection between an ethos of an unremembered hotel and the graceful disposition of an outdated arena. An underworked yet overeager lodge staff has a lot in common with the players and coaches and SID's at a sparsely-attended small-college basketball game. It takes a special kind of pride to ensure that everything you do lives up to Division I status, no matter how neglected and forgotten it may be by most. This is a spirit I can understand.
There's a special kind of energy there that inspires me to create. I wrote that article about Samaritan's Feet in a room on the third floor; that story led to my being asked to write a book about the charity's founder, Manny Ohonme (it's called Sole Purpose and it'll be out this winter). Hours after I filed that story, I received an e-mail that informed me that my ESPN contributions (and income) would be cut in half. I took a deep breath and stared out the east-facing window. And then I wrote this, which was good enough to get me fired.
Later on in the season, I often returned to the CPIA. That's where I'm sitting with Bally on the cover of Sports Bubble Blues. In March, I drew this cartoon there. Finally, after Season 5 was over, I polished up the epilogue from a room on the first floor. Colleagues, friends and fans came to the CPIA in September for our first annual Season Symposium, and it was the kind of fun I hope we get to repeat next year.
There's a set of ropes to learn, a CPIA mythology. A room on the fifth floor gives you free 24-hour keycard access to the executive lounge, where there's a refrigerator full of drinks and a cupboard full of cereal. There's a player piano in the second-floor Gallery that plays a bizarre rotation of digital rolls ranging from Motown to classic rock to pop, and a life-sized puppet named Guido sits at the pneumatic keys. At 5 p.m., Guido gears up for yet another surprise theme evening; it might be girl groups, the Doobie Brothers or the hits of 1994. As the sun goes down outside, those soft and mellow chords echo throughout a courtyard dotted by golden lights.
And never order the "vegetables florentine" at The Landing restaurant.
I'm not sure why this is a place where ideas come so easy. Thoughts that are so jumbled elsewhere fall into neat order among the dark woods. When I'm sitting in the Gallery at 2 a.m., overlooking the wide and empty sweep of the facility, listening to the fountain gurgle and splash, concepts click together and attach to other in interesting ways.
I can feel the city beyond those walls, a city with dreams bigger than its population, where progressive and positive thought trumps regression and destruction. There in Indianapolis, David and Goliath coexist in spite of each other. It's the Circle City, an unbroken wheel with asphalt spokes that reach into the distance in every direction, towards every far corner of Hoops Nation.
And this is the center.
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