Cannetlon hosts Whitesville, KY in a homecoming game in 1977. Note the queen’s court on the stage at the far left of the gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Michael Keating
Cannetlon hosts Whitesville, KY in a homecoming game in 1977. Note the queen’s court on the stage at the far left of the gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Michael Keating
CANNELTON – A new publication available from the Indiana University Press is taking a deep dive into the history of community gyms in Indiana, with one of the authors of the book hailing from Cannelton.

Chasing Indiana’s Game: The Hoosier Hardwood Project was released earlier this month by the IU Press. The book was co-authored by Michael Keating and Chris Smith and represents roughly seven years of effort, including more than 400,000 total photographs (so far) and 300 gymnasiums.

Keating was formerly a part-time photographer at the Perry County News in the 1970s. He later went on to work for the Evansville Courier & Press and was named Indiana News Photographer of the Year in 1977 and joined the Cincinnati Enquirer the following year. Keating also earned an Emmy award in 2009 for a collection of his videos.

Smith has been a photographer for more than 35 years and his work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian magazine. He currently teaches photography at Northern Kentucky University.

How it all began

Smith began the Hoosier Hardwood Project in 2013 after looking at a photograph of his father’s 1937 basketball team. With the Indiana bicentennial coming up in 2016, Smith decided to take some inspiration from his father’s photo.

“I thought it would be cool to photograph some old Indiana high school basketball gyms. That’s kind of how we started. We started in my, southeast, corner of Indiana and worked our way all around the state, photographing gyms, people and games,” Smith said. “I think at first it was a lot about architecture, these old buildings.”

Keating said he soon realized that there was another angle to the project that could add depth and heart to it.

“For almost 40 years I worked at different places as a photojournalist, almost everything centered around people and their narratives,” Keating said. “I wasn’t one of those people that could look at a building and make the clever, interesting architectural photographs that were going to stimulate me.”

It was in Vernon, Indiana that the pieces fell into place, Keating said. While photographing a boy shooting baskets in an old gym there, the boy’s mother shared with them that the boy’s grandfather had once played basketball there, too.

“At that moment, I realized there was this linkage between the buildings and the people who use them and the people who had used them,” Keating said.

And with people in the pictures, the buildings seemed to come to life.

“We kind of got the bug that we need to see some games [in the gyms],” Smith said. “You get a whole different feel when you’ve got a crowd there. That was a transition that, during the basketball season, we had a shot list of places we wanted to go to.”

Community heart and soul

Keating added that in their communities, these buildings represent much more than just a physical structure. Nine of the 10 largest high school basketball gyms in the United States are in Indiana (No. 6 is in Dallas, Texas).

“They are palaces. Some of them are grand. Some of them are on that list of the largest in the country,” Keating said. “There are bragging rights attached to that. They’re treasured by their community and establish the legacy of the community.”

And as a community’s fortunes rise and fall, the state of its gym often does, too.

“As schools grow and change, they can’t maintain them, they tear them down, they become elementary schools or community centers. Each one of those gyms have the personality of the town,” Smith said. “They are a living history. They are still here.”

And in some cases, the stories grew and flourished in unexpected ways.

“There are a number of little short essays in here. Two of my favorites are one about a guy who builds a gym in his dairy barn,” Smith said. “I also did a little story on James Dean, the actor, who had a history in Indiana and his hoop is still hanging in the family’s barn near Fairmount.”

Inclusive

Both Keating and Smith said the book is also meant to be inclusive and tell a broader story.

One major facet of that is their inclusion of women’s basketball history and photos.

“There’s a tremendous amount of diversity in this book. We’re proud of the gender diversity that’s in there,” Keating said. “The women’s game in Indiana has always been there. In the years prior to World War II, you can go back to historical societies or places like that, or even some of the schools, and you will find photographs of girls’ teams from the late 1900s all the way to the 1930s.”

And they also tried to show photos that told the story from different sides. One sequence of photos shows the reactions of both teams from a game, exhilaration on the faces of the winning team and resignation on the faces of the losing team.

“There’s a whole series of pictures, about eight or 10 of them in quick succession, about the emotion of the game, and how emotion can change the tone of the game,” Keating said.

Including the history in its different forms was especially important, Smith said.

“It’s not just interesting to preserve the physical history, but also the people’s stories,” Smith said.

Preserved for history

Keating said part of the reason for doing this book is because these gymnasiums are aging and, in many cases, vanishing.

“The other thing that I like about what this book establishes is that it gives us a record from 2013, when we started, through now,” Keating said. “We’ve seen places that are actually no longer [gyms]. They’re not used for play or by schools. Some of them have turned into community centers. Some of them have disappeared or will shortly disappear.”

One such gym that is currently in jeopardy is the Cannelton gymnasium, which has many features that make it unique. For one, it’s on the second floor of its building. Back when it was in use, the first floor was occupied by the police department, fire department and library.

“It was unique,” Keating said. “If a fire call came, they’d stop the game because the sirens were going off.”

Keating said he was glad to come back to feature the gym in his hometown.

“It was fun to go back and to visit and see the area and get reacquainted with it,” Keating said. “I know those folks are desperately seeking a way to preserve the community building.”

And Smith said that history – at the local level and also statewide – deserves to be preserved and treasured.

“This is a deep part of Indiana’s history,” Smith said. “They [the gyms] are a living history. They are still here.”
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