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Hall of Fame gives economy big bounce

Chris May, executive director for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame Museum in New Castle, is animated as he talks about recent visitors to the facility, which is nearing a 30th anniversary.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

A headline in the Tuesday, March 10, 1987, Courier was like a shot heard around the Hoosier basketball world. Written by then Managing Editor Bill Brooks, the headline proclaimed “Our Shot at the Hall of Fame: NOTHIN’ BUT NET!!!”

New Castle had been chosen over several other communities, including places rich with basketball heritage like Indianapolis and Marion, as the new home for the museum.

Nearly 30 years after it opened, the facility continues to net visitors from near, far and wide, according to statistics Hall of Fame Executive Director Chris May shared Thursday morning with the New Castle-Henry County Economic Development Corp. Board.

May, the EDC’s guest speaker, said since opening here in June,1990, the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame has drawn 325,000 visitors from all 92 Hoosier counties and 64 foreign countries.

The museum has literally put New Castle on the destination map – make that globe.

“Six or seven years ago, we had a family of four from Italy – husband and wife with two daughters who both were basketball players in Italy, and they had planned a trip around the United States centered on basketball,” May said.  “So they had been to Madison Square Garden in New York City. They went south to North Carolina to see both Duke and University of North Carolina campuses. They’ve gone to Knoxville, Tenn., because of the women’s program there. And they came to New Castle, Indiana, because they knew Indiana was a basketball state and home of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

“We’ve had so many international visitors that we could tell stories like that,” May continued. “Just in the past year, we had a group of ladies from Japan who are huge Indiana Pacer fans. While they were here, the Pacers got them a driver to bring them out here to come see our place and the New Castle Fieldhouse. And their jaws dropped when they saw the gym. Their professional team in Japan doesn’t play in a facility this nice.”

The museum update made veteran EDC member Scott Hayes nostalgic.

“More than 30 years ago, it was Joe Morris’ brainchild,” Hayes said. “He was the head of the Chamber of Commerce here at the time and noticed the Hall of Fame was looking for a new home. At the time, it was thought the Hall would move maybe two, three, six blocks from where it was in Indianapolis. Joe enlisted the help of one of my partners, Dave Copenhaver, along with Danny Danielson and Paul Prior. And for the next year or more, it seemed to me they were on the road, recruiting the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. They engaged an architect who was head of the architecture school at Ball State to come up with a design. 

“He wanted to give you the impression as you were coming down a ramp that you were entering a high school gymnasium in the state of Indiana,” Hayes said, referring to the goose-bump creating entrance to exhibits, complete with basketball tournament sounds of the past.

“As one of the old-timers around here, I have a sense of pride anytime I go into the museum,” Hayes continued. “An ongoing part of why it’s been able to be here, stay here and succeed here obviously has been the community support. That was a big part of the pitch to bring it here.”

May said that community support continues to be a strong home court advantage for the museum.

“Volunteer support is really the lifeblood of what’s kept this going and made it work on our scale,” May said. “We benefit from so many volunteers. We have roughly 65 volunteers active now who help us on a daily basis from taking admissions and greeting visitors to giving tours, helping us with our archives, our storage and special events.”

Other interesting points made during Thursday’s presentation included:

• The museum is out-growing its space. “If you look at photos when the facility opened, it was fairly sparse,” May said. “Now, I have people trying to give us donations and artifacts that we just can’t take in anymore. We are studying options and possibilities down the road.”

• The museum has partnered with a pair of retired photographers for a new exhibit featuring nearly 100 large photographs of Hoosier gyms. “Chris Smith and Michael King have traveled the state, taking pictures of former and current high school gyms,” May said.  

• Among compliments May received was one from New Castle City Council President Mark Koger, who spoke of how contestants in the Elks Hoop Shoot State Finals are treated by the Hall. “You guys are gracious hosts to welcome the kids and their families,” Koger said.

Recent visitors have included two basketball icons and a renowned sports writer. May said twins Tom and Dick Van Arsdale were here not long ago.

“Tom had not been here to the museum,” May said. “He was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989, when it was still in Indianapolis. It was like they were two kids in a candy shop, reliving stories, players and coaches.”

Another recent visitor was Sports Illustrated writer and author Jack McCallum, who came here for the first time to do research on a book project.

“As he was leaving, he said ‘I don’t know what I expected, but this is far beyond anything I could have imagined,’” May said.

The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame will be a busy place next week, as an open house is held Wednesday to honor this year’s inductees. Coupled with the high school boys state basketball tournament entering its home stretch, May said “It’s Christmas in the basketball world.”