In the first six months I lived in Indiana, back in 2003, I had a pretty solid sports run. I went to the RCA Dome for a Colts pre-season game. I went to a Notre Dame football game in South Bend. I’m told that I went to West Lafayette for a Purdue football game, although that day is rather fuzzy thanks to a huge amount of alcohol. I went to an IU basketball game in Assembly Hall. And I sat in a suite at (then) Conseco Fieldhouse and watched the Indiana Pacers play the New York Knicks. The next winter I went to a boys high school basketball sectional championship game and watched two future NBA players battle it out1.
It took a few more years, but in time I made it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, first for practice and qualifying for the Indy 500, and then for an actual 500 mile race. I also visited Victory Field for an Indianapolis Indians game.
There wasn’t much of the Indianapolis sporting experience that I missed. Well, expect for one glaring omission that became much bigger over time.
I had never gone to Hinkle Fieldhouse for a Butler basketball game. Which, you would think, was something that I would have knocked out very early in my time here. But, for whatever reason, likely because most of my friends here are IU and Purdue alums, no one was ever asking me to go with them. And when I mentioned it to those Hoosiers and Boilermakers, it was always greeted as a fine idea, but not one there was ever any great motivation to follow up on.
After over 11 years, I finally crossed that notable checkbox off Saturday. And I got paid to do it!
I went down to Butler to watch them play Franklin College, a Division III school in the town where my paper is based, in an exhibition game. I got to walk through the media entrance. I got to go into the press room and page through the materials the two sports information departments had put together for us. I got to walk out and sit right next to where a national writer has a permanent reserved seat. And after the game I could have sat in and talked to the interim Butler coach and a couple players as they sat on the dais and took questions from the assembled press.2
Thus, it was a bit of an odd experience. I knew going in my story would be less about the game itself, which proved to be the lopsided blowout you would expect when a solid DI program plays a young DIII program, than about the experience of the FC team. So I sat and casually took in the action, getting a feel for the flow of the game but not taking detailed notes or keeping a running play-by-play. If I needed stats, I just looked down at my computer to see the instantly updated stats Butler was providing. Hell, the guy next to me pulled up the Minnesota-Iowa football game on his computer and either watched that or sent out Tweets the entire time.
Our seats were not great. We were stacked into three rows that are back in a corner, well behind the baseline. And, given the opponent, the crowd was not great.
Still, I was finally in Hinkle! They just finished a big $36 million refurb of the building. It was fascinating to compare the inside of the arena, which is all shiny and new now, with the guts of the building. As I was waiting to talk to the FC coach after the game, I looked around and saw big steel doors, railings, and structural supports that had clearly been installed when the building opened in 1928. I didn’t make a thorough tour of the building, but it definitely has that older than old school feel to it.
The playing area itself has an odd setup. The court runs across, rather than with, the long end of the building. There are small balconies above the ends of the court, with seven-row student bleachers underneath, and then the side walls of the building hit. But on the sides of the court, the lower levels slope up gently before hitting the upper sections, which reach high and far away from the court. When you look across the court, and see the seats high above the opposite side, it’s easy to imagine those classic images from old high school state championship games where it seemed like there were 40,000 people watching instead of just 15,0003. You can envision entire towns packed into the building to watch their teams play for the state title, the air heavy with smoke. Like Allen Fieldhouse, there are large windows around most of the building. Unlike Allen Fieldhouse, though, some of the windows are covered with shades.
The game-day atmosphere was pretty cool. For the non-Indy folks, Butler is located in the heart of an area of town that is full of large, gorgeous, old homes. My Kansas City friends should think of the area between the Plaza and Brookside. Rather than being on a large campus, it very much feels like you’re still part of the neighborhood as you’re walking to the Fieldhouse. Folks are parked on side streets, or just walking over from their homes a few blocks away. I would imagine it’s a whole lot cooler on days when a Big East school comes to town and the every seat is packed.
Because of the opponent, it was tough to gauge the game day feel inside the arena. Attendance was listed at just over 6600, and that may have been a little optimistic. There were plenty of “OOOHS” and “AHHHS” for the plethora of dunks the Bulldogs threw down, but there were never the kinds of roars I’ve heard from this arena on TV when teams like Gonzaga and Xavier and Stanford came in and lost in recent years.
I’m glad I finally made it to Hinkle. I wish I had done so much sooner, and I definitely want to get back for a regular season game and sit in regular seats to get a better feel for the place. Fifteen years ago, I bet most college fans around the country didn’t know much about Hinkle. You could say, “You know, where they played the last game in Hoosiers,” and people would get it. But until Butler’s rise, I don’t think it registered with people the way names like Allen, Cameron, and the Palestra do. I still don’t know if Hinkle is quite in that league, but people certainly know about it. It’s pretty cool that I can tell people I’ve been there now, though.
Oh, and a quick note about Butler’s team. They were down a little last year, mostly because they lost like 800 games either on the last possession or in overtime. They have some good talent this year. They are athletic, long if not huge, and have shooters. And they’re deep. They have three freshmen, all between 6’6’’ and 6’8’’, who look like they could turn into really good players. There’s some uncertainty in the program right now, with head coach Brandon Miller in the midst of a leave of absence for an undisclosed medical issue. I think it’s safe to say Butler has very long odds to ever reach one, let alone two-straight, national title games again. But I wouldn’t write them off in the post-Brad Stevens era just yet either.