When Religion Defeated Indiana’s Worship of Basketball

During March in Indiana, basketball is King. Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness both take center court and few Hoosiers are immune from it’s influence—this year being an obvious exception. But in 1940, for the first time since the inaugural state tournament in 1911, high school basketball took a backseat to another March tradition that year—Easter.

In November of 1939, the state’s collection of ministers and religious bodies took a look at the 1940 March calendar and noticed Holy Week and Easter would fall smack dab during the state finals at Butler Fieldhouse scheduled for March 23. A letter writing campaign from all corners of the state began in earnest to dissuade the IHSAA from holding the games that weekend. The Church Federation of Indianapolis implored the IHSAA and it’s commissioner, Arthur Trester, with this plea:

“We recognize basketball as a fine, clean sport, and are proud of the distinction it has brought to the field of Indiana sports, and the games played at any other time should have statewide support. But if the date for the finals is to be the day preceding Easter, thousands of basketball fans will feel that they must forego the pleasure of seeing them.

Furthermore, it must be evident that the celebration attending the results of the game will inevitably conflict with preparation for Easter services of worship, “ the letter continued.

The IHSAA Board of Control was in a bit of a pickle. Extend the tournament schedule by a week (making it 5 weeks long) with a gap from March 16 until the 30th, or risk the wrath of the state’s clergy. A member of the Board revealed to the Indianapolis Star some internal strife over the decision.

“We thrashed that thing out for three hours last Saturday and still did not reach a decision. We will need to see what arrangements can be made with Butler University….we will get cussed by four sides—the church faction, the school faction, the players and the spectator faction. It is one of those from the frying-pan-into-the-fire things.”

In the end it probably wasn’t that divisive of a decision. As the ministers had strongly hinted at, an Easter weekend Final would no doubt cut into attendance and resulting hoopla of the state’s premiere basketball gathering—and the lucrative money that accompanied it. They announced on November 18 that sectional play would begin February 29 and conclude with the Finals on March 30–taking the Easter weekend of the 23rd off.

The state’s men of the cloth lauded the decision, including Bishop Titus Lowe of the Methodist Church, telling the Indianapolis Star:

”I am highly gratified that the board has changed the date. Many of our people are basketball fans and this change will make it better for all concerned.”

Adding to more Indiana basketball lore, pushing the state final back freed up Butler Fieldhouse (now Hinkle Fieldhouse) for another historic event—the 1940 NCAA East Regional games. In it’s first year under the NCAA’s guidance, the National Tournament kicked off in both Indianapolis and Kansas City, Mo. on March 22 with games also played on the 23rd. Tony Hinkle, Butler University’s coach, was appointed to the NCAA selection committee and asked to manage the Regional games at Butler. Indiana University, along with Duquesne, Springfield College and Western Teachers State of Kentucky competed—with IU advancing to the Final game in Kansas City. There, they won their first National Title, beating Kansas on March 30.

Interestingly, the same ministerial groups gave just lukewarm resistance to the NCAA games being played over Easter weekend. After a minor protest to the tournament chairman, Harold Olsen, coach of Ohio State, they retreated. Some of their reservations, quelled no doubt by Tony Hinkle, who told the Indianapolis Star he assured them that the college event “would be free of the usual high school hysteria“ which marks competition for the IHSAA title.

The evening of March 30, 1940, over 14,883 Hoosiers gathered at Butler Fieldhouse to watch Hammond Tech win their first Indiana High School Basketball Championship, defeating Mitchell High School, 33-21. Some likely sporting new Easter garb from the previous week’s services.

And while Hammond Tech was the only team to take home the state crown that year, it was a win for all Hoosiers. High School basketball went on—with a small delay, Easter had no competition for attention, and NCAA tournament games were played for the first time here.

Some say Basketball is a religion in this state, but in March of 1940, it was a runner up to, well, Religion. In the end, Hoosier Hysteria was preserved and March Madness crept into our hearts that year. How fitting the games were played at Hinkle Fieldhouse—Indiana’s Basketball Cathedral.

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