Author’s note–this post was written before the March 28th Indiana and Syracuse basketball game in the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. However, much of the sentiment below is timeless.
Some people never move away from their birthplace. Perhaps the circumstances and desire to leave was never kindled. Or perhaps some native sons and daughters looked around the world and agreed that there is no place like their small town. John Mellencamp captured that sentiment in one of his better diddies:
“No I cannot forget where it is that I come from/
I cannot forget the people who love me/
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town/
And people let me be just what I want to be.”
Mellencamp is a native Hoosier. And for a time, I was a Hoosier too. I wasn’t born Hoosier. I was a Hoosier by choice—spending over five years deep in the American heartland. I also married into the tribe./
What is a Hoosier? As Aaron Sorkin plagurized in his series The West Wing, “A Hoosier’s someone from Indiana.” That may seem like a smart-aleky answer, or an answer that carries no meaning–no answer at all to the query. However, a Hoosier might view the question as dunderheaded–a contemptuous question put down best with a straight-forward answer.
In truth, the etymology of the word is unknown. Storytellers and factotums have their theories, but I agree with the great travel diarist Bill Bryson that there is no universal agreement on the term. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia (*cough*), a Hoosier could be:
A derivative of the English Anglo-Saxon “hoozer”–a “hill person;
An Ohio River steamboat slang for an Indiana farmer operating a flat-boat;
The last name of a black Methodist circuit preacher of the second Great Awakening; and
A poem, “The Hoosier’s Nest” described people from Indiana.
None of those answers are very satisfactory, are they? Debunked in order, firstly, there are no mountains or hills in Indiana, really. In southern Indiana, the best you get is something the locals call a “knob.” And the settlers of the river valleys of Indiana were from Germany, not England. Secondly, as for the Ohio River contender, let’s suppose that “Indiana Farmers on Flat-Boats” is the definition. How does the word “hoosier” derive from that? Thirdly, as for the itinerant preacher, Indiana sadly held the largest per capita membership of the Klan in its history. It is unlikely that the those old-timey citizens would have accepted the last name of a black minister as their handle in 1850. Moreover, like the second explanation, contender number three seems to be a non-sequitur. Lastly, the poem explanation also proclaims a Hoosier is someone from Indiana, with no context.
My favorite explanation goes something like this:
Two Frenchman are in a frontier tavern. They get just plastered on moonshine, and when it comes time to settle the tab, they have a quarrel over the bill. A fight ensues, knifes are wielding, people are getting cut up. A third Frenchmen, watching the melee, reaches to the floor, to pick up a grizzly hunk of flesh. He then asks the mob:
Maybe a Hoosier is a redneck—a French redneck.
Outside of Indiana, to call someone a Hoosier is hardly a compliment. In other parts of the Midwest, “Hoosier” is another word for “redneck” or “hick.” Given the Midwestern predilection for unalloyed kindness toward strangers (a habit that puts the New Yorkers ill-at-ease), the Indiana Hoosier grins and proudly wears their name, a name that means, well, that they are from Indiana!
And how does a transplant to the land of the Hoosiers develop such a deep appreciation for this rather eclectic tribe? I had two educations in my experience among the Hoosiers. The first education was purely academic, cloistered away from native Hoosier territory. A student could breeze in and out of Indiana and never really understand much about the state outside of his college bubble.
The second education was cultural–as I lived and worked outside of the college bubble for a time. And when you open yourself up to the customs and habits of a new world, you become acculturated—you become part of the tribe. The Hoosier tribe has its deities. As the recent NCAA basketball wunderkind Victor Oladipo as said, the reason he chose to play basketball at Indiana was because “it is like a basketball atmosphere everywhere you go.”
That is what the Hoosier is to me—a disciple of basketball. Or a least the love of basketball is the foundation stone of being a Hoosier. The Hoosiers’ love of basketball borders on religious. While Indiana has several universities, each where the roundball is played on glossy hardwood, the Mother Church can be found in Bloomington, Indiana—home of the state’s flagship Indiana University whose teams carry that eponymous name.
But certainly, the dear reader may ask, is there more to the story than a bunch of fanboys and midlife-crisis alums wearing candy-striped pants and jerseys, cheering on a college sports team? In fact, there is. If the NCAA tournament is the New Testament of Hoosierism, the Old Testament is found in the state’s old high school tournament system. Until 1997, every Indiana high school, large and small, competed for a chance to play in the statewide tournament. There were no divisions among large and small schools. All high school teams were able to qualify. While bigger towns were always the favorite, the legend of the most hick-infested, most Hoosier, Podunk village sending its team into the heart of Indianapolis to compete for the state title gave hope to any young kid nailing a backboard and rim to their old barn and practicing hoops. Hinkle Fieldhouse, the home of the state championship, was Zion. And in the 1950’s, a small town team did make Hoosier history by winning it all. That story was immortalized by native Hoosier Angelo Pizzo in his “Hoosiers,” a 1986 movie staring Gene Hackman as the single-minded coach who fashioned a championship team out of very small town.
In truth, there are other parts of America that could lay a better claim to their supreme devotion to roundball. Duke has been dominant in college basketball in recent memory, and UCLA has more championships than Indiana. However, winning alone does not make a definition. In this case, passion is the measure. And any good Hoosier—either native or transplanted—will tell you all basketball roads lead back to Indiana. Coach K learned the art of coaching from IU’s Bobby Knight (though both at Army at the time). UCLA’s basketball dominance in the 60’s and 70’s was led by Indiana native, coach John Wooden.
Generations of Hoosiers played youth basketball under little Woodens or Knights. Fundamentals meant something more than the three R’s–the boys knew hoops as well. And while Title IX has only recently opened up the sport to women, grandmothers will also know the fundamentals. I have heard old women crying foul at bad calls, doubting play calling, and developing their own zone coverage analysis. Every grandma in every town hoped that their team would reach the tournament, each town hoped their star player might be the next “Mr. Basketball” and maybe even don the cream and crimson for Coach Knight someday. Basketball was hope.
There are of course, other admirable qualities in the land of the Hoosiers. Tom Petty mooned over the girls who grew up in Indiana towns in his “Last Dance with Mary Jane” (as did your author.) Multimillionaire race car drivers will consider their career incomplete unless they kiss the brick finish line and douse themselves in the “sweet milk of victory” at the Indianapolis 500. From the Indiana seedbed came not just Wooden and Pizzo and Mellencamp, but the Rebel James Dean, Late Night’s David Letterman, Larry Bird, songwriters Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, Johnny Appleseed, Lincoln for a time, and the novelist Theodore Dreiser.
As America learned during the NCAA 2013 March Madness college basketball tournament, Hoosiers and basketball are synonymous. Or perhaps they learned that “Hoosier” is really another word for blissfully infectious hope.