“Look at it. It’s iconic.”

Those are the words uttered by “Hoosiers” film director David Anspaugh when he discovered the now famous gym in the small community of Knightstown, Indiana, according to historians in that community.

The 1986 movie features a small town high school basketball team that struggles with a new coach who demands respect. It’s set in the 1950s.

Just walking into The Historic Hoosier Gym Community Center of Knightstown does something for a basketball fan. There’s something special about the venue for the game that captures people, whether one is seated on the gray wooden bleachers as a spectator – or as one of the players on the 1936 gym floor.

Recently, the Neoga High School boys basketball team played Chrisman High School and the Neoga High School girls played Newton Community High School on that iconic floor. Those matches were among five scheduled at the Indiana gymnasium for a nostalgic contest on Dec. 21.

Adam Fearday, a junior at Neoga High School, played during the game and afterwards considered it a worthwhile event.

“It was pretty interesting,” Fearday said after Neoga’s win over Chrisman. “Going into the locker room and seeing where parts of the movie happened and being able to re-live part of it was interesting.”

Newton Community High School girls competed against Neoga girls for the win in another contest that day.

Newton Senior Allison Harris, wearing No. 5, enjoyed the experience, although it was a tad bit different set up than most larger gyms they play in today. She scored three points that game.

“It’s a small gym,” said Harris. “The bleachers are close to sidelines. And where the players sit was underneath the baskets on the out of bounds. That was different.”

Another change in how things worked at the Hoosier gym was how substitutions come in from the corners of the gym, not at the scorers’ table, as is done in most gyms today.

“Subs met up the corners because there is no room scorers’ bench,” said Harris. “It was a good experience.”

Neoga Boys Varsity Coach Andrew Snow said most of his team had seen the 1986 movie, Hoosiers, starring Gene Hackman as Coach Norman Dale.

The school was looking for an opportunity for the athletes and this came up.

“Our Athletics Director Mike Taylor sometime back in the fall came to me,” said Snow. “He said that since the baseball team sometimes gets to play at Busch Stadium, maybe the basketball teams could play here.”

Snow said it was nice to be able to play on the Hoosier floor against a local team, too.

“Chrisman is in our regional at the end of the year,” said Snow. “It was nice to be able to play a local school, rather some random team. We are happy they agreed to come play us, because we couldn’t have done it without them coming.”

And he added it was a plus that the Neoga High School girls team also could play against Newton on the Hoosiers’ floor.

Newton High School Girls Assistant Coach Amy Harris said this was a first for her team to play at the Indiana gym.

“It was a pretty awesome experience for them,” said Amy Harris, whose team came away with the win against Neoga girls, 56-42. It was a great experience.”

“We watched the movie together, during our Family Movie Day, in Newton. Many of them hadn’t seen it, although they had heard about the movie.”

Amy Harris said she watched the movie “when it was new” along with members of her basketball team at that time.

“It was good because then they could walk in and see the gym where the movie took place,” Amy Harris said about the team she coaches. “The parents were very appreciative and they could connect with it and enjoy watching from the stands. The movie is inspirational.”

Amy Harris assists her husband, Varsity Girls Coach Brad Harris at Newton. She said they’d like to play there again in three or four years, to give another group the same experience.

Bob Garner, events coordinator for The Historic Hoosier Gym, said in a podcast on the gym’s website, that the gym was built in 1921, at the cost of $19,000.

But it became famous in 1985 when a film crew came to town and it then became the home of the Hickory Huskers for the movie.

Closed as a public school gym in 1966, a group of volunteers and one paid staff keeps the gym open for contests between schools large and small across the mid-west region including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio – and as far away as Mississippi.

It also hosts Hoosiers Reunion All Star Classic where two dozen of the top seniors in Indiana high schools compete as teams in the fictional contest of “Hickory” against “Terhune” in the movie, Hoosiers, which was inspired by the real story about tiny Milan High School basketball that rallied and won the 1954 state championship, said Tom Hoepf, a volunteer and secretary, at The Hoosier Gym.

Hoepf said during the filming they used some school kids, dressed them up in 1950s attire and filled the gymnasium for the basketball game crowd effects.

“They spent most of September and October here filming here,” said Hoepf about the film crew that used the gym. “Our retired school librarian, Peg Mayhill happened to see that they were looking for a location. She lobbied the Indiana Film Commission. She brought this gym to their attention.”

Hoepf said the gym is owned by Knightstown. There are set rental fees to use the gymnasium and sometimes the use of it goes beyond playing basketball. It has also been used for reunions, wedding receptions and funerals. Annually, it hosts a movie night, showing “Hoosiers” to kick off the basketball season, he said.

“We collect a rental fee and there’s a formula from the ticket sales that breaks down and we get a portion,” said Hoepf. “This is an all-volunteer group who runs it, with one paid person.”

Garner was one of those who played the final Knightstown game in 1966.

“The Hoosier Gym sits just like it has since 1921,” said Garner, in a podcast. “It has been home to the Knightstown Falcons, the Knightstown Panthers, and became famous in 1985, when it became home of the Hickory Huskers from the movie Hoosiers.”

Today it hosts 100 basketball games per season with the highlight being the annual Hoosiers Reunion All-Star Classic.

The hype caused from the movie has benefited the community and the gym. Although they don’t charge admission to see the gym and locker rooms, they do accept donations to help keep the gym going.

On this December game day, Hoepf was busy selling t-shirts and other memorabilia from the gym to fans of the gym and the movie.

“We’ve been doing this since the early 90s,” said Hoepf. “That’s when we started fixing it up. It was the momentum from the movie that got the building fixed up. The town owns it, but the gym committee runs it.”

Hoepf said weekends such as Neoga, Newton and Chrisman’s games are common during the basketball season. He added it is usually public high school teams who come to play, but sometimes, there are junior high teams and also area Christian school teams.

“If it weren’t for the movie, the gym probably wouldn’t be standing here,” said Hoepf.

The rehabilitation of the building is ongoing. The project has been funded by a grant from the Office of Community and Rural Affairs. The project will in the end, have a new roof, new windows, tuck-pointing of the brick and new entrance doors.

“It’s very important to keep this structure in great condition, so that our 60,000 plus visitors per year can visit the home of the Hickory Huskers,” said Garner.

Matt Romack of Neoga was in the stands ready to watch his son, Luke, a sophomore, play on the Hoosier floor. Luke came away with five points for the game.

“We watched the Hoosiers game movie this week at home, to refresh our memories about being here,” said Romack. “It’s sort of an historic thing, playing here, for both the boys and the girls.”

Trey Sheehan, 14, an eighth grader at Neoga Middle School, was pumped to be in the gym where the Hoosiers movie was filmed. While he is a basketball player, he’s not at the high school level yet.

“I’ve seen the movie many times,” said Sheehan. “It’s really a pretty cool experience to be here. To see the movie and actually be here is cool – it is really awesome.”

Shari Fearday of Neoga had two of her four children playing on the Hoosiers floor

“I think it is really neat to watch the movie – and come here and watch the teams play,” said Fearday. “Even my one who is not playing – he’s in the fourth grade – is enjoying watching his brother and sister playing.”

Dawn Schabbing can be reached at dawn.schabbing@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151, ext 138.

Reporter

Dawn Schabbing is a senior reporter at the Effingham Daily News, covering Effingham City Hall, Unit 40, and special projects. A graduate of Lake Land College and Eastern Illinois University with degrees in journalism, she lives in Neoga.

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