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Scrabble to a Black Cat: Searching for the meaning of Indiana basketball in one season with the Hoosiers

On a sun-splashed Friday afternoon an iPad badly wants to play Scrabble. But the wifi outside of Assembly Hall does not want to play Scrabble. So Colby Knerr sticks with word games on a piece of paper. He is the first fan in line for Hoosier Hysteria — the Indiana basketball tip-off event in early October. Waiting patiently for 24 hours for the start of the most anticipated season of Indiana men’s basketball in 10 years.


A season that starts with all the promise. Delicious cupcakes, hook shots off the glass and a barrage of 3s. After the first big triumph a few Crimson-clad, middle-aged men bounce through a Cincinnati parking lot outside the Cintas Center. They hoot and holler, getting the attention of anyone listening, even the shadowy figures striding through the luminous lights on a freezing November night.

Soon a sea of white overtakes the opera house for the evening. Riding a blue blood out of town. Life is bliss early in most years. Optimism breeds the highest of heights, thoughts of a new tableau to the Hall.


I remember the first time I understood. The Devonte Green game. Thirty points versus a top-25 Florida State team. A noise. A passion. I had never seen a spectacle like this. 

It’s an intoxicating drug that thousands take together every Midwest winter. A part of a community unlike anything else. Then I knew why. 


When the calendar turns to December the sky darkens. On the road. Will travel. Seas of Crimson rush over slot machines. Late night, early flight, crack of dawn ride. Eager to support on a Saturday night what’s a lost cause. In the bowels of the MGM Grand someone is sobbing.

Maybe we all cry the next weekend. Amongst the king of the hill — reigning champs. The captain of the ship has fallen. He will not be steering the crew anymore. So as the tears fall is it the unabated freezing wind wiping across the Kansas plains or something else?


It always snows the most in January. Heavy horrible unsolvable snow. Filling our lawn with nightmares of a massive blown lead, hot shooting guards and a blinding rain of 3s. After three straight losses has a night in State College ever felt so cruel? Fire everyone they declare. The voices from the pews decry the pastor, preacher and principal.


The man is indeed hearing voices in his head. January 2022. He tells anyone who will listen long enough. A prophet came and told him the news. Mike Woodson, he’s going to bring us back to greatness. The voice cuts through all the madness in his mind. Maybe the prophet is right. A few days later, the shot. Phinesse. The streak is broken. Court stormed, couches burned. Voices in our heads.


Everything clicks and the basketball is beautiful. 

After another win Miller Kopp swaggers through a dreary Sunday afternoon. Black fur lined hooded coat. White undershirt. He’s the beacon of attention today, the Sultan of Shot making. A family, young girls crowd around his confident gait. Autographs, photos. Soon five triumphs in a row. Late January is the warmest it's been in years.


To slay the dragon once is worth a fortune. To slay the dragon twice is worth eternity. February offers its bumps and bruises. Comebacks that fall short, a complete collapse for just one night. But it’ll be remembered for those two nights. A court stormed and a court silencer. Seven-foot-four monster corralled. A freshman phenom unleashed. Some say legacies are built on championships but maybe these two nights will hold a permanent place in Hoosier hearts. Hardware and banners can’t be everything.  


March is always memorable. But this year there’s no bubble enveloping our minds. For it’s memorable for the emotion of a final night on 17th Street. Tears fall, electricity. He’ll never grace these hardwood floors again. Watch him, admire him. He is superhuman on the court yet so human off the court. 

And yet March was not enough for many. Summed up by a Saturday night in Chicago. Funk, then Lundy, and Pickett. But wait. After many fans had streamed for the exits, a comeback more shocking than the sun appearing in the Windy City. Until it’s just short. A shot just off, yet for a moment the feeling was in your throat, burning the eyes and raising your heart. 

That again one weekend later in Albany. A night to soak it all in that turns into morning. Mourning a season that ends one offensive rebound at a time. 

But life is not about the end. It’s about the journey. 


There’s a hole in my heart. A hole I never knew was filled. When things feel meaningless, here was my North Star leading the way. Maybe it was my church as so many others go on Sunday morning. 17,222 loud voices. Trombones waving, candy stripes dancing. 


Where millions have waited hours in line. A red sweater marched on the sideline. Benson, May, Isiah, Alford. Zeller, Oladipo, Jackson-Davis. This has been to so many the sanctuary to feel something through the cruel winters. To gaze at glory. To learn. A feeling that can’t be described by words on a screen. Except that there’s a hole in my heart.


The last fan exits. An oversized Everglades bird named Sebastian stows his head. And the team buses rumble toward the hotel.  

Only a few reporters remain inside MVP Arena in Albany. Well past midnight, they trickle out into the biting cold and wind of a late winter night in upstate New York. 

The large glowing screens above the arena entrance show a still-live court camera. Someone is always watching even when you think nobody is paying attention.

But for now, the reporters stumble back in the direction of a hotel, past the rumbling truck, mumbling street dwellers, and the cruel slap of a Monday morning. 

Steps from the end of the season, a black cat peers out at the journeymen. Green eyes pierce the night to peer at the disturbance. The furry feline turns and sprints into a hillside alley, racing uphill into the future.


Photos by Cam Schultz and Griffin Epstein

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