Earlier this year my 12-year-old son and I had a knock-down-drag-out fight over patriotism and the evils of media influence. What incident set off these family fireworks? Was it the current U.N. wars or the influx of foreign goods? Was it Dan Rather or MTV? No, it was something much more important. My son, who misses no opportunity to criticize Indiana’s Hurrying Hoosiers, was backing the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five,” happily defeated earlier in the year by one of the dumbest mistakes in NCAA basketball history.

I suppose to the uninitiated this might raise a few eyebrows. How can you get from jump shots to Japan or from dunk shots to Dan Rather? The answer is that we take our basketball very seriously in this state. In order to understand this state’s passion for basketball, you must first understand that historically the heart of Indiana basketball has been not in the colleges, but in the high schools. Dr. Naismith may have invented the game in Massachusetts, but it took off like a three-point shot in Indiana. According to Herb Schwomeyer’s Hoosier Hysteria, the first game played in America outside of Massachusetts was in Crawfordsville in 1893. Eighteen years later Crawfordsville High School won the first state high school championship.

It is significant that Crawfordsville won the first state title. It is also significant that Muncie Central High School has won eight championships, more than any other school. It tells us something about Indiana culture. We are, in contrast to our image as a rural farm state, a state of small cities and towns. The 1990 census states that 65 percent of Indiana’s population lives in urban areas. True, one of the glories of Indiana high school basketball is that it has a classless or, as we anti-Marxists prefer to say, an equal-opportunity state tournament. All schools, regardless of their size or lack of it, compete against one another for the same championship. This means that tiny Milan, which loosely served as the basis for the movie Hoosiers and had an enrollment of only 161, was able to defeat Muncie Central in 1954, lay legitimate claim to being the best team in the state, and attain Hoosier immortality. Still, Milan’s great victory has become a myth obscuring the fact.

Most of our towns found their corporate identity through high school basketball teams and through employment in one or two factories. Entertainment and economies within the towns created and fostered intense local loyalties. My mother, a generous and kind Christian woman, born and reared in Madison, Indiana, still cannot prevent a look of contempt from spreading over her face whenever the name Jasper is mentioned. Jasper had the audacity to upset Madison in the 1949 championship game. I, to this day, cannot cheer for a Noblesville team, our arch rivals when I was in high school.

Unfortunately, our tradition is in serious danger. Our small-town culture is dying in the face of America’s contemporary centralizing “mediaocracy,” although school consolidation has done significant damage as well. The local basketball game is not the only show in town. Increasingly, people will sit in front of their televisions to watch Northeast Louisiana State play Oklahoma A&T rather than attend the game at their local gym. My son would rather have watched Chris Webber of Michigan, a mere media image in his life, than go to see a flesh-and-blood local hero fight for the glory of Carmel High.

Now, although the words catch in my Hoosier throat that has often gone hoarse at a ball game, I must admit that there is more than the game of basketball at stake here. The sin of the mediaocracy is that it makes us live in a world of illusory images. What appears on the screen is more real than our neighbor, to whom we only happen to say “Hi” in the driveway as we rush in to eat our frozen dinners in front of the boob tube. The result is moral voyeurism by which people become more agitated about defending the “rights” of Kuwaitis, Somalians, and Bosnians than about defending the integrity of their own community. After all, they don’t see Richmond and Kokomo on ABC news or even its Indianapolis affiliate. In a mediaocracy, whose motto is “I televise, therefore it is,” they quite simply do not exist.

Symbolic of this confusion of image with reality were the 1993 state championship games, which we attended since Carmel, my town’s high school, was among the “Final Four.” They were held in the Hoosier Dome, a professional football stadium converted for the use of basketball to accommodate 25,000-plus fans. The problem was that the floor was so far away for much of the crowd that they had to have a huge screen. Many, although in attendance at the game, still viewed it through a camera lens. Image was more real than flesh and blood.

The economic base of our community identities is fast eroding as well. Many of our small central and eastern Indiana towns, such as Muncie, which was the subject of the Lynd’s famous “Middletown” studies, experienced their first boom with the discovery of natural gas in the late 19th century. Glass factories, like the Ball Company, came in to take advantage of the readily available resource. Hoosier towns early on became automotive centers, often producing their own automobiles. Indeed, many of their consumer products were made for local consumption. This pattern continued into the 20’s, the very time basketball caught on in a big way. These two elements, economics and entertainment, helped to create a strong and independent community identity. Team names, such as the Bedford Stonecutters and the Ladoga Canners, reflected this fused identity. Bv the time of the Great Depression, the local industries were usually struggling or had been purchased by regional or national companies. The locally owned small factories, such as meat-packing plants, have almost entirely disappeared now. In the automotive industry, towns eventually came to produce only parts as part of a larger corporation. These factories are still alive, but in grave trouble.

Even areas in which there is some good economic news no longer foster a strong community identity. Take Anderson, for example. The town, home to a large Delco Remy plant, has been having serious economic difficulties, and its population declined by over 13,000 in the 1980’s. A recent article in the Indianapolis Star boasted of a current recovery. The problem is that the mild upturn is fueled to a large extent by the prospect of significantly cheaper housing, all within a relatively reasonable commuting distance to the north side of Indianapolis. Although I am glad for the financial boost to my brother-in-law’s hometown, it will no longer be Anderson that is prospering. It will cease to be an independent community and turn into a mere suburb of Indianapolis. People who work in Indianapolis and live in Anderson only because the housing is cheaper will not be real citizens in any sense of the word. They will not pass on a sense of joy and pride in their hometown and will resent any taxation that goes to support the local community. This attitude will be passed on to their children, who will long to be somewhere else than their hick town and would never think of passing up a night of MTV to attend the Indians game at the Wigwam, one of the truly great places to see a basketball game. Or they will root for Michigan against our Hoosiers and die in foreign lands without ever lifting a finger to help their neighbors.

It will be a sad day when the Wigwam no longer reverberates to the passionate cheers of those who live and die according to the success of their boys. It will be an even sadder day when the local community spirit, which made American democracy function, becomes a relic of the past.