Basketball’s beginnings in Montgomery County

Photo courtesy of Butch Dale
Darlington High School Basketball Team (1909-10). The high school had only had a basketball team for four years when this photo was taken. Since they practiced outside much of the time, the team wore football-style pants. Left to right: Lloyd Stewart, Lowell Cornell, Harry Weliever, John Larrick and Will Weliever.

Montgomery County is considered the “cradle of Indiana basketball.” The first game between two organized teams in our state took place in Crawfordsville on March 16, 1894 when the Crawfordsville YMCA team beat the Lafayette YMCA squad 45 to 21. The original rules were quite different than today, some of which were: (1) a player had to throw the ball from the spot at which he caught it, and players could not dribble or run with the ball (2) if the ball went out of bounds, it was thrown in by the first player to touch it; (3) a player who committed two fouls was disqualified until the next goal was made; (4) a player who purposely tried to injure an opponent was disqualified for the remainder of the game, and no substitutes were allowed; (5) players could not strike the ball with their fist; (6) if the score was tied at the end, the game was continued until a goal was made (sudden death overtime); (7) there was no ten-second line and players could move all around the floor; (8) after each basket, the ball was taken back to the center circle for a jump ball; (9) if the ball was tied up between two players, then a jump ball occurred right at that spot where the official blew his whistle.

In a short time, new rules emerged…players were allowed to dribble the ball instead of just passing it, free throws were awarded when a foul was committed, opponents were given the ball after a goal was scored, teams had ten seconds to cross the center line, and players could not stay in the free throw lane more than three seconds.

The uniforms in the early days consisted of a standard athletic shirt, gym shoes, wool stockings, and below-the-knee baseball pants. Fouls were not called as close as they are today, and players often took a chance of getting back at an opponent by giving him a good elbow or kick when the referee wasn’t looking! A player who was fouled did not have to shoot the free throw. He could let the designated free throw “pitcher” try the free throw. Most free throws were shot underhanded, and most all other shots were two-handed set shots, unless it was a lay-up. The first baskets were not open-ended, and someone had to jump up and knock the ball out of the basket after each goal. Some of the first games were played on outdoor courts, as a few schools had no gym and were unable to rent an indoor court.

The first games played in this county had small crowds, but as time passed and the game became more popular, the students, teachers, and residents of the town showed up to encourage and root for their team. Some high school teams played against college teams like Wabash, DePauw, and Butler. The students soon composed school songs and cheers for their teams.

Of course, many of you are aware that Crawfordsville won the first state championship in 1911, defeating Lebanon in the title game 24 to 17. The Lebanon squad won the next year, and then tiny little Wingate, led by all-time great Homer Stonebraker, won the next two state championships by defeating South Bend in 1913 and Anderson in 1914 in the final games. During that 1914 championship run, the Wingate boys, known as the “Gymless Wonders” (because they had no gym of their own) humiliated Crawfordsville by a score of 24 to 1, using what many believe was the first zone press in basketball history. When the team returned home, the residents of Wingate awarded all of the boys gold Elgin pocket watches for their great accomplishment.

There were more rule changes through the years, and although the style of play and strategy has changed many times, the game of basketball still occupies an important place in the lives of sports fans here in good ol’ Montgomery County.

John “Butch” Dale is a retired teacher and County Sheriff. He has also been the librarian at Darlington the past 32 years, and is a well-known artist and author of local history.