An Indiana town so poor, even basketball is dying: NYT

Dateline: Wed 02 Dec 2009

John Branch wrote a compelling sports-related story about Indiana in the New York Times last week; I picked up on it when a former Star staffer referenced it on his Facebook page.

The gist is in the headline: little Medora (565 people in the 2000 census), located in southeastern Indiana in Jackson County, is so impoverished both in income and spirit that there is no place for that Hoosier tradition, basketball.

Here is the story's beginning:

"MEDORA, Ind. — Players for Medora High School have taken the court wearing work boots because their families cannot afford basketball shoes. Most smoke cigarettes. Some talk openly of drug use. All but a few come from broken homes.

"Of the roughly 400 schools in a state that reveres boys high school basketball, none lost more last season than the 0-22 Medora Hornets, under the first-year coach Marty Young, the youngest head coach in the state.

"Now 23, Young is not expecting many, if any, on-court victories during the season that starts on Saturday, either. But he counts wins and losses differently from most.

"'If they’re in the gym these two hours, then I know they’re not in trouble,' Young said.

"Poverty rates are high here, college graduates few. Drug use is rampant, several said, and many residents live in ramshackle trailer homes strewn about the hills that surround the checkerboard streets of the town. In these depressed times, there is little to cheer but the high school basketball team.

"Except it does not win"

Medora, which is 99.65 percent white, is a crushing example of how rural Indiana -- parts of it, anyhow -- is in a "failure to thrive" mode. Basketball just happens to be the vehicle for examining the little town's sad existence, but in fact the writer could have focused on any number of topics: the economy, single-parent homes, meth labs and meth addiction, even self-involved parents who create wretched homes for their offspring. Another telling line:

“You’ve got kids who struggle with clothes or coats or shoes,” (Dennis) Pace said. “Yet their parents always have cigarettes or beer or satellite TVs.”

The only hero in the story is the coach Marty Young, a recent Franklin College graduate. Young has reached into his own pocket in order to pay for $40 physicals for the boys wanting to play basketball; he also has enlisted help from his parents, grandparents and his uncle Dennis Pace.

My only complaint about the story is that it was told in the New York Times instead of the Indianapolis Star, which no longer subscribes to the Times wire service (too much money). The story deserves to be talked about here, in the capital, in classrooms and anywhere discussions about the welfare of children and Indiana's future are being held.

Rural Indiana is easy for most of us in Central Indiana to ignore. But the problems there are depressingly real, and they are getting worse instead of better.





Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Been to Medora. Grew up in a town of about 5000, and it's much the same. But the conditions described in this article aren't new--far from it.

Like 20-25 years ago it was exactly the same.

It's a sad story, but I seriously doubt anyone wore work boots on a basketball floor. You'd have blisters the size of pancakes.

It does make good copy, though.

Whenever I read a national media story like this, there's usually one part of it, that lets me know the writer is sensationalizing. The boots thing did it for me.

Class basketball ruined the sport for many in this state. The small towns across Indiana are said to have loved the new Class system. More champions. More chances.

Tell the Hornets that.

Milan won't happen again. But the movie is still one of the best.

2009-12-02 16:07:48

hendy [Member] said:

No, you won't find this in The Star because even if they did subscribe to NYT feeds, they don't care.

I'll agree with TTT that the class system stinks. I was raised in Jasper, about 10K people in the 50's and '60s when I was raised there. It didn't have the poverty of Medora, but Medora isn't unlike a lot of small towns in Indiana, especially in the south.

BBall is a uniting community sport, like hockey in the northern climes. The wind is out of those sails now. The championship doesn't mean as much when you're playing cities of your own size, as TTT mentions in the Milam example, above. I remember listening to the radio (yeah, I'm an old f*rt) and listening to Gary Roosevelt and Evansville Bossi and Crispus Attucks getting whanged by little tiny schools. None of that these days.

But we have to do something about smoking and drugs with kids. Testing? Pledges? Something. We need to get a smoke free generation, so parents won't 'teach' their kids addictive habits.

2009-12-02 17:04:46

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

Ruth, if I read you correctly, I think your focus in sharing this was more on the socio-economic conditions of many neglected (by the nation's worst General Assembly) rural areas of this state than on basketball.

Within that context, I think your commentary really said it all.

Also of interest is that conditions for kids in this mostly white small town out in the country sounded very much like conditions for a lot of minority kids in the inner city of Indianapolis.

2009-12-02 20:41:59

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Isn't that funny, Whitebeard? Sometimes, simple things unite us more than we realize.

I'm told the IHSAA is ruled by principals, which is a freaking shame, because the good among their ranks has diminished greatly. And the small-school principals outnumber the large-school ones, so they pushed this multi-class BB thing.

A real shame.

Gonna go now. Gotta go to my office in work boots.

2009-12-03 05:42:42

ruthholl [Member] said:

Whitebread said what I had neglected to mention, but it was on my mind: poverty grinds down dreamless white kids in the country as much as it does black kids in the urban hotbeds.
When we lived in Putnam, I got an eyeful. One of the leading lights in Greencastle used to regularly visit the schools in the county and tell the kids, at the 3rd or 4th grade level: "You have to do this for yourselves" (meaning, learn), because, he said, the parents did not care. But in the end, he gave up; the message was not getting thru, and he said he finally chose to simply concentrate on his own three kids.
The whole IHSAA thing is a mystery to me -- just not my field of knowledge. But I remember what a huge flap it was when we changed the sytem, and all the columns of ink written about it. As I recall, Dan Carpenter favored the changes while many sportswriters wrote on behalf of the old system. But I could be wrong.
I hope that young coach stays there and makes a difference. Maybe that will be the new Hoosiers....we've had a lot of Hollywood treatments of teachers who came to burned out urban schools and saved the day, or a few kids, or one kid: why not Medora????

2009-12-03 07:44:22

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Medora could be a success story, but the teen pop culture today invades even smalltown Indiana.

They've got computers, cell phones and cable, Ruthie dear.

How ya gonna keep em down on the farm....?

Innocence is lost earlier than it should be, when thos epop culture items become accepted norms.

In my hometown, the retired school superintendent lived four doors away. When I had time, on college breaks or other times, I'd wander down and liusten to his thoughts.

He retired young (60). Stayed active in sports, church, community. A truly beloved man. Not typical of today's school admins--a true pioneer and teacher.

He bemoaned the loss of smalltown pride and honor--and this was the early 70s. He pinned a lot of this on sports. Properly guided, he thought, sports could be an ideal vessel for community pride.

"Once the corral of acceptable behavior expands a little, that becomes the new 'outside boundary,'" he said. And once young folks see it move a little, they think in their youthful zeal, that they can move it equally far in a shorter timeframe.

He died in his 90s at the Methodist Home in Warren. He moved there after his beloved wife died. He was aghast at the seniors who were illiterate, and started a GED class there for the old folks.

When I have time, he will be the subject of a book. Not sure who'll buy it or read it.

But his observations about sports, community pride and education, would be good guides for us today.

2009-12-03 08:01:04

medorafan [unverified] said:

this article has the town up in arms. and yes, unfortunately, the work boot portion is true.

2009-12-03 09:25:48

George Stuteville [unverified] said:

This was a great story on so many levels, and it was the kind of story that could have (should have) originated from The Star -- a few years back.

2009-12-03 09:33:39

Whitebeard [unverified] said:


Your story on Putnam Co. brought up another issue.

I'm close to age 60. In my childhood I grew up in a horribly dysfunctional family like a lot of these kids in Medora, Putnam and the inner city of Indianapolis.

Until my senior year of high school, I had no interest in school because if my parents didn't care then I figured why should I care?

This is what is going on in Medora, Putnam and IPS now. There is a lot of blame directed at those making paychecks as educators, but very little "accountability" on the part of parents being involved in their kids' educations (I realize there are exceptions).

Now, another issue. I used to be a newspaper/magazine sportswriter. Many of the parents of high school athletes I ran into could have cared less about how their kid did in school - as long as the basketball/football etc. coach gave he/she enough playing time during games.

Historically, I believe that high school sports as a religion in Indiana has been detrimental to education.
You know how it goes.....the successful basketball coach gets elevated to become the principal because of his/her coaching exploits. Not much concern about whether they are actually qualified to be a principal if they have posted a good win/loss record and played the kids of school board members sufficiently.

Which, by the way, has also been a common practice in rural areas: people run for school board so they can get a coach fired or so they can make sure their kid gets enough playing time.

I'm saying this as a former sportswriter: I would like to see sanctioned sports end in Indiana public schools to be replaced by club sports. This has worked out quite well in Japan and in other countries. It makes the focus of school sports solely recreational and eliminates most of the exhorbitant expense public schools devote to athletics.

2009-12-03 11:36:51

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Medora fan, I just don't believe the workboot thing. Sorry. Sounds like the Medora version of urban legend to me.

2009-12-03 14:01:19

cranky [unverified] said:

Oh come on. I read this in the NYtimes on-line Sunday a.m. and my first thought and still is - why does a town with a population of 500 have a high school?
I don't think Indiana should have so many school systems. We are ripe for more consolidation. I live in Putnam Co. and the 4 superintendents are some of the best paying jobs out here.
That's where our education and tax dollars are going - to the administrators.
I do enjoy high school sports. I am the parent of a Broad Ripple grad and a Bishop Chatard grad. And it sounds like I am a bit younger than some folks here. However, I think all the time, what do we need to do to make things better?
Ultimately, the kids adopt what the parents value. As a former city school teacher sub, I've found this to be true over and over again. It's not what's taught in school - all teachers come out of the same teacher colleges. It's what's valued at home.
Still, I see people in Cloverdale who really care about these kids and will volunteer to coach sports, take them to church, and shake down business leaders for extra funds. Cloverdale is having a parade on Saturday with carriage rides Friday night. Ruth, I hope your opinion of our town has changed since we've had a change in town board leaders. We are trying.

2009-12-03 16:43:34

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

"why does a town with a population of 500 have a high school?"

Yeah, what's that about?
I also don't believe for a minute the work boots nonsense.

School consolidation had many unanticipated consequences, not least removing a source of bonding pride in many small towns.

And as for rural hopelessness, heroin addiction and overdose deaths are rampant in Wayne County, with Hagerstown the epicenter of heroin use. The stuff is cheaper than beer, but alas, much more addictive and deadly.

"Hopelessness," by the way, is created when self reliance and personal endeavor are smothered. I believe that neither schools nor parents are teaching these attributes. Kids are left to care of the xBox rather than self discovery...way too much television instead of making things on their own.
Generations have been robbed, are being robbed, of imagination, creativity, adventure, exploration and the opportunity to fail, which make success even sweeter. Uncriticial parenting and education eliminate aspiration: what's there to aspire to if everything a kid does is without risk but still earns praise.

And don't get me started on the excessive adulation, attention, money and praise that we give athletes. (And now we find out Tiger is actually a wanker?! Most fined golfer on the PGA tour?!)

2009-12-04 08:13:54

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