When the barely completed Butler Fieldhouse doors swung open on March 7, 1928, it was a bold declaration that the game of basketball mattered, and that it mattered in Indiana more than anywhere else. Six stories high and more than 2 acres under roof, the fieldhouse was designed to hold nearly 15,000 basketball crazed fans. It was the largest basketball arena in America—and it would stay that way for another 20 years. But why would Butler University need a mammoth venue when the student body totaled around 1,200? Two words: Hoosier Hysteria.
The proposed Butler Fieldhouse would be the home of the Butler Bulldogs when the University moved onto its fledging Fairview campus in 1928. But the massive brick and limestone trimmed structure only took shape when the Indiana High School Athletic Association made a bold commitment to the game of “Basket Ball”. A 10 year lease agreement totaling $150,000 with the Fieldhouse owners, gave them the rights to stage the Boy’s State Championship at the proposed arena. It’s popularity skyrocketing, the game had already laid claim to the hearts of Hoosiers and provided a welcome diversion from Midwest winters. The Exposition Building at the State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis could no longer hold the throngs demanding tickets to the title games. It was clearly time to grow the game and give both fans and players from Evansville to Elkhart and all stops between—a place, a palace—serving notice that basketball was our game. It was not only how we survived our dreary winters, it was the hope of who we could become—a champion in March. The season served as a parable illustrating that determination, teamwork, and communities woven tightly together like the laces on early basketballs could achieve greatness. Although the new Fieldhouse was Butler’s own, in March it would belong to all Hoosiers dreaming that their team, and by extension themselves, could raise a championship trophy under its soaring arched roofline.
In addition to showcasing Butler athletics, the Fieldhouse was also intended to be a gathering place for Indianapolis community events. To that end, 41 Indianapolis businessmen, many with no strong ties to Butler, formed a corporation. They pooled their funds and covered the construction costs—nearly $800,000–and ground was broken in October of 1927. Per the contract with the IHSAA, the 1928 state finals were set for March 16 & 17 when 16 teams would descend on the newly minted fieldhouse. But before then, the Butler Bulldogs would christen their impressive arena with an inaugural game against Notre Dame on March 7. The Bulldogs, who would claim their second national championship (Veteran Athletes of Philadelphia) the following season, defeated Notre Dame 21-13 in an overtime barnburner before 12,000 fans. Just 19 days later the State Finals were staged over two days, with eventual winner Muncie downing the reigning champions Martinsville and their senior star John Wooden, 13-12.
So began the fabled partnership between now-Hinkle Fieldhouse and the game that defines Indiana as no other sport can. The game that even its inventor, Dr. James Naismith stated, ”had its beginning in Indiana” when visiting Indianapolis in March of 1936. Soon, 94 Marches will have passed since those 12,000 Hoosiers streamed into the Fieldhouse to watch Tony Hinkle’s Bulldogs take on Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. But those magical moments of captivating drama played out on 49th Street over time live on in our Hoosier hearts. As each season reaches its frenzied madness we are reminded that Hinkle Fieldhouse was, literally, made for March.
NOTE: More March lore was added when Hinkle Fieldhouse hosted 16 games in the first and second rounds of the 2021 NCAA Championship. Both the national champs Baylor and runnerup Gonzaga advanced to the Elite Eight from rounds at Hinkle Fieldhouse. It was the first time NCAA games had been played at the Fieldhouse since 1940 when East Regionals of the first NCAA sponsored national tournament took place here.