HAMMOND, Ind.—If Indiana’s Senate race had an October surprise, it came when Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly accepted the endorsement of Victor Oladipo, an NBA All-Star for the Indiana Pacers, on a Friday night last month. In front of 2,300 people at the Hammond Civic Center, Oladipo—an Indiana University alum born to Nigerian immigrants and a native of Silver Spring, Md.—urged attendees to vote for Donnelly over his Republican challenger Mike Braun. “I call everybody from the state of Indiana my adopted family, because at the end of the day, this state believed in me when no one else did,” said Oladipo, whose name has been in the local news media recently for performing acts of kindness, such as holding open the door of a Chick-Fil-A for an elderly lady and writing a letter to an 8-year-old cancer patient.
The endorsement splashed across multiple news cycles here in “basketball-crazed Indianoplace,” as Hillary Clinton once called us in a 2010 email to then-State Department aide Jake Sullivan. The Indianapolis Star’s right-leaning columnist, Tim Swarens, wrote a piece suggesting that “Oladipo has a future in politics, if he wants it.” The Star’s Trump-supporting cartoonist, Gary Varvel, drew an image of Oladipo hoisting Donnelly’s hand against the backdrop of an American flag, as a man in the audience asked a woman next to him: “Who is the guy with Victor Oladipo?” Though he hasn’t yet reached the superstardom of former Pacers’ guard Reggie Miller, Oladipo’s presence on the trail so overshadowed the rest of the proceedings that the question the cartoon posed might as well have applied to Donnelly’s other surrogate in town that night: former Vice President Joe Biden.
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In netting (sorry) Oladipo’s endorsement, Donnelly became yet another in a long line of Indiana pols who have used basketball to appeal to Hoosier voters. Basketball has shaped the state’s perception nationally more than perhaps anything else. As the Pacers’ sideline at Bankers Life Fieldhouse reads: “We grow basketball here.” “In 49 states, it’s just basketball,” goes another saying. “This is Indiana.” With Oladipo, Donnelly may have checked—or maybe even surpassed—Trump’s get of Bobby Knight, the former Indiana University coach who endorsed the president in the state’s 2016 Republican primary.
The coach called “the General” has become made-for-MAGA-rally fodder whenever the president visits the state. At the time, Trump called it “the greatest endorsement in the history of Indiana.” On Friday, the president announced Knight would be a “secret” guest at his rally in Southport, Indiana, that evening, raising the possibility that the coach could endorse Braun and once again play a pivotal role in an Indiana race. But Knight’s stock in Indiana has dropped as Oladipo’s has risen. After the April premiere of The Last Days of Knight, an ESPN documentary about the coach’s firing from IU, WTHR columnist Bob Kravitz called Knight an “unrepentant bully” who “failed to change with the times.” “Gene Keady legend grows as Bob Knight’s continues to shrink,” read the headline of a March 23 column by the Star’s Gregg Doyel. The piece compared the former Purdue University basketball coach, who also endorsed Trump during the primary, to Knight. “The record book will suggest Bob Knight was a better coach than Gene Keady, and maybe he was,” Doyel wrote. “But as far as being a human being? Knight couldn’t hold Keady’s jock.” The column dropped days before Trump would return to the state again this past May to campaign with Braun.
In an episode reported here for the first time, Republican Sen. Todd Young rebuffed efforts by national GOP operatives who repeatedly encouraged him to seek Knight’s endorsement in the 2016 campaign, according to a Republican with knowledge of the matter who requested anonymity. This came even as Young faced a tough race against Democrat Evan Bayh. That Young declined to embrace Knight is evidence that the coach might not always be a slam dunk—again, my apologies—for a candidate, even in the Hoosier state. (Young did receive and tout the endorsement of three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, a fellow Marine.)
In 49 states, it may be just basketball. But this is Indiana. “Basketball is in our DNA,” says Kip Tew, a lifelong fan of the game, an IU alum and a Democratic lobbyist in the state. “It’s central to our culture as a state. Every politician tries to capitalize on that one thing we have in common.”
But the zeitgeist of basketball is shifting in Indiana, away from the chair-throwing, player-choking Knight and toward woke players like Oladipo, who represents basketball’s urbanization and internationalization. Oladipo plays America’s soft power export, the second-most popular game in the world. Invented by a Canadian-born gym teacher, basketball now draws foreign workers back into the United States and is an engine of assimilation for them, whether Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Basketball is Indiana’s best cultural export, and this state—like many others—is benefiting from its trade with other countries, a part of basketball’s global identity in the new century that’s in tension with Trumpism.
Hoosiers still embrace the “Milan Miracle” that inspired the 1986 Gene Hackman movie Hoosiers, but now we also celebrate the Crispus Attucks Tigers, the team that just a year after the Milan Miracle became the first all-black program to win the Indiana State High School Basketball Championship.
Not long after James Naismith, a physical education teacher, invented the game in Massachusetts in 1891, basketball grew roots as deep as Indiana’s corn. “Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport,” Naismith later observed. In 1911, the state adopted its storied single-class state high school tournament, which gave birth to the Milan Miracle, when the high school team from the small town of Milan (enrollment: 161) upset Muncie Central (enrollment: 1,600) in 1954.
Since then, pandering to basketball has become as time-honored a political ritual as noshing on a tenderloin at the Indiana State Fair. “I agree, and I plead guilty to that,” says former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who is also a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. “I was in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame because I was a member of Congress, and I was in Congress because I was in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.” (His dry one-liner more or less checks out: Voters in Indiana’s 9th Congressional District first elected Hamilton to the House in 1965, 17 years before his induction into the hall of fame, thanks to his all-state performance at Evansville Central High School, and his turn as the DePauw University Tigers’ outstanding senior in 1952.)
Here is a brief but by no means exhaustive history of politicians trying to score points with Indiana voters both on and off the court: In 1989, three years after Hoosiers, Gov. Evan Bayh added a basketball hoop at the Governor’s Residence. On a Saturday morning this past August, popular Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb unveiled an entire basketball court on the grounds of the Governor’s Residence that would host youth and community basketball events. Holcomb also has shot a basket in all 92 of Indiana’s counties. This Halloween, he dressed as a Pacer and handed out minibasketballs. Vice President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor, had a basketball court installed on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory, complete with the logo from the movie. In 2003, Gov. Mitch Daniels announced his gubernatorial campaign at Butler University Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the movie’s climactic game was shot. He announced his reelection bid there as well. Daniels also used the Milan Miracle as a metaphor for the state’s comeback.
In 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign played off the state’s love affair with the game, thanks in part to the former president’s adeptness at the game and the guidance of Tew, Obama’s state senior adviser in 2008. On April 25, after a rally in Kokomo, Obama played a three-on-three game at Maple Crest Middle School. During the primary, Tew and other staffers also arranged for Obama to tour the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame with George McGinnis, the ABA and NBA star and Washington High School standout. Before the first presidential debate, David Plouffe attempted to set debate prep at the French Lick Resort, where he would play hoops with Hall of Famer Larry Bird, “The Hick from French Lick.” Bird ultimately decided against getting involved in presidential politics that year, and advisers scuttled the plan. That year, Obama won the state in November.
But basketball is not a panacea for an unpopular candidate, or one who fails to embrace basketball in an authentic way. In 2000, a clip surfaced on local television featuring a Republican gubernatorial candidate, David McIntosh, playing basketball awkwardly. Gov. Frank O’Bannon challenged McIntosh to a three-on-three game. McIntosh declined. “We have an obligation to Hoosier voters everywhere to talk about taxes first and then to play basketball,” a McIntosh spokesperson said at the time. That didn’t work out well for McIntosh. “He was humiliated, and we spent the rest of the campaign continually challenging him to all manner of basketball competitions to remind voters he wasn’t an authentic Hoosier,” Tew, who advised O’Bannon’s campaign, recounted in his book about Obama’s 2008 campaign, Journey to Blue. “It hurt him, even among his base.”
There was also the brief and ill-fated 2002 secretary of state campaign of Kent Benson, a Knight product from IU and the No. 1 pick in the 1977 NBA draft. Despite his notoriety on the court, he couldn’t shake financial problems to get traction on the trail and dropped out.
And then, of course, there was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s legendary metaphorical air ball in May 2016. Cruz routinely quoted Hoosiers at campaign stops around the state. But at a rally at the Hoosiers Gym in Knightstown, Cruz had an aide measure the hoop, recreating a famous scene from the flick. “You know the amazing thing is, that basketball ring here in Indiana is the same height as it is in New York City and every other place in this country,” Cruz said. Ring? Clank. Cruz made himself the object of ridicule for days. He lost the state’s primary to the Knight-endorsed Trump.
In recent years, basketball has become perhaps the most liberal-minded game in American sports, led by players like Beto-hat-wearing LeBron James and Trump-critic coaches like Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Greg Popovich, a native of East Chicago, Ind., of the San Antonio Spurs. As the sport has tilted from Knight to Pop, the way the game is celebrated in Indiana has changed in similar ways. The Crispus Attucks Tigers, the first all-black team to win the state high school championship, was initially shunned by official Indiana. When they won the state championship in 1955, buoyed by all-time great Oscar Robertson, who later played for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, they didn’t get the customary celebration on Monument Circle after a team ride on a fire truck, for fear of fights breaking out. The Tigers became the first Indianapolis-area school to win the state title—and the first black school in the nation to win an open state tournament. The historic victory, though, has often been eclipsed by the fictional Hickory Hoosiers and that of the actual Milan team that inspired the film. In 2015, a group of Indiana lawmakers attempted to right that wrong: Then-Sen. Dan Coats and Donnelly honored the Tigers on the floor of the U.S. Senate, while Rep. Andre Carson did the same in the House. This week, Donnelly tweeted a two-minute video endorsement from Bill Hampton, the guard for the 1955 Tigers. It features grainy black and white video of that year’s championship game.
NBC’s coverage of the 2000 NBA Finals between the Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Lakers included a tight shot of a chain-link basketball hoop against a blue sky, before widening to reveal a red tractor and a barn and two white boys playing basketball near a dog that mills about. “If you created the perfect basketball fable, it might begin in a small town in Indiana, where kids grow up with a ball in one hand, a basket out back, and dreams of glory in their heads,” Bob Costas said in the voice-over. But Indiana, like the rest of the nation, is becoming increasingly urban, and that fable could just as easily play out on a neighborhood court on the Eastside of Indianapolis. According to the most recent 2010 Census, less than 14 percent of Hoosiers—891,906—live in rural counties. That’s compared to 62 percent, or about 4 million, who live in urban counties.
“For years and years, the movie Hoosiers was the iconic image of Indiana basketball,” Kravitz, the Indianapolis sports columnist, told me. Now there’s room for the Tigers, and for Oladipo.
When Rep. Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican, entered the Oval Office and met Donald Trump for the first time last March, Trump asked the Indiana University alumnus and Hoosiers basketball fan a question. “You got to tell me, did Bobby Knight or Mike Pence get me more votes in Indiana?” Trump asked Banks, according to the congressman. Banks, at the White House that day with other members of the Republican Study Committee to discuss changes to the American Health Care Act, took the question in stride.
“No question that Bobby Knight won the primary for you,” replied Banks, somewhat in jest, while standing next to the vice president, whom he had requested appear in the post-meeting photo op.
“Bobby Knight is such a great man—great man,” Trump said to Banks, the congressman told me in a recent interview.
“I went to IU largely so I could go to basketball games,” Banks, whom Trump invited on stage at an event with the Future Farmers of America in October, told me. “I was a student at Indiana University when [Knight] was fired. Basketball is ingrained in our Hoosier spirit, and the president tapped into that uniquely with Bobby Knight, who is the most storied legend and figure we have in college basketball. Bobby Knight is a mixed bag, of course. But to many of us, he made Indiana basketball what it is, what it always will be, and President Trump, as a candidate, recognized that.”
But for every person like Banks who says Knight helped cement Trump’s primary win in Indiana, you’ll find another here who claims it was tin-eared—especially as the coach’s relationship with his former university has soured. “I’ve always really enjoyed the fans and I always will,” Knight said on “The Dan Patrick show” in a March 2017 interview. “On my dying day, I will think about how great the fans at Indiana were. As far as the hierarchy at Indiana University at that time, I have absolutely no respect whatsoever for those people. With that in mind, I have no interest in ever going back to that university.” He added later in the interview: “I hope they are all dead.” Some were dead, Patrick pointed out. “Well, I hope the rest of them go,” Knight said.
“Bob Knight is an angry old man and he has lost his relevance in this state,” Tew says. “The Venn Diagram of Trump and Bob Knight supporters is a circle.”
Knight is Trump’s basketball avatar. Trumpism and Knightism are inextricable: Win until you are tired of winning, and then win some more. The two also weather crises similarly. In 1992, when Knight fake-bullwhipped Calbert Cheaney, a black small forward and shooting guard from Evansville who was bent over at practice, a photograph of it sparked outrage. In a Trumpian defense, Kit Klingelhoffer, a spokesman for the program at the time, chalked it up as a joke. Knight offered neither an apology nor a comment. And in a 1988 NBC News interview with Connie Chung, when asked about coping with stress, Knight said: “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Knight tried to talk his way past the remark in real time. “That’s just an old term that you’re going to use. The plane’s down, so you have no control over it. I’m not talking about that, about the act of rape. Don’t misinterpret me there. But what I’m talking about is, something happens to you, so you have to handle it—now.” (Chung shared her story of sexual assault in the 1960s earlier this fall, during Senate hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh.)
“I really have no interest in discussing Bob Knight,” Dan Dakich, an Indianapolis-based ESPN analyst and Knight’s former assistant for 12 seasons at Indiana University, told me this fall. Dakich is a Trump supporter but has broken with Knight, calling him a “miserable human being.” On Nov. 9, 2016, at 9:38 a.m., Dakich tweeted about Trump’s election: “The people not the media or special interests have spoken.”
Even Banks admitted that Donnelly’s Oladipo endorsement was a coup on Twitter: “If @VicOladipo ever endorsed my opponent I’d be a little heartbroken,” he tweeted the day after the endorsement. Donnelly’s campaign manager, Peter Hanscom, praised Oladipo’s “guts” for the endorsement in a tweet. But Kravitz, the Indianapolis sports columnist, said Oladipo’s endorsement was unlikely to lose him many fans. “If he can get 23 points a game, 6 rebounds and two steals a game, he could throw his support behind Mussolini and we’d still love him,” Kravitz told me.
I learned of the endorsement as I’d been trying to suss out whether an eleventh-hour Braun endorsement was coming from Knight in Indiana’s hotly contested Senate race. Braun’s campaign announced the support of former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz earlier in the summer, but they did not return emails seeking comment about whether a Knight endorsement was in the offing or whether it would help him in the same way that some say it helped Trump back in 2016. “Bob Knight is a beloved figure [for] a huge number of people in Indiana,” says Rob Kendall, a Trump-supporting talk radio host in Indianapolis. “So many, including blue-collar voters that Braun desperately needs, grew up loving Indiana basketball and Bob Knight.”
I asked Donnelly’s campaign spokesman, Will Baskin-Gerwitz, before the rally in Hammond with Biden: Would Donnelly, who’s trying win over Trump voters here, accept a Knight endorsement?
Forty-eight hours before the surprise Oladipo endorsement, the response came.
“Let’s just say we’re more of an Oladipo kind of campaign,” Baskin-Gerwitz replied.