When Aurora’s Chris Smith found a news clipping photo of the 1937 Versailles Frenchies basketball team, for which his dad Glen (second row, far left) was student manager, it led to his collaboration with award-winning Cincinnati Enquirer photographer Michael Keating on the ‘ Hoosier Hardwood” blog, a photographic labor of love chronicling Indiana high school basketball’s gyms, history, rivalries and tradition. (The Versailles Republican)
Dale Moeller’s Aurora Red Devils letter jacket from the 1954 season hangs casually from a folding chair at the Aurora Community Recreation Center. Aurora was one of only two teams to beat state champion Milan that season. (Chris Smith/hoosierhardwood.blogspot.com/)
The Pierceville Alleycats - from left, Glenn Butte, Bobby Plump, Gene White and Roger Schroder - all starters on Milan’ High School’s legendary 1954 basketball state champions, gathered in 2016 for a portrait on the dirt court behind Schroder’s family store in the Ripley County village, where they all honed their basketball skills as youngsters. (Michael Keating/hoosierhardwood.blogspot.com/)
One of the most striking photos from the “Hoosier Hardwood” blog, which appears on the cover of its new “Chasing Indiana’s Game” book, depicts this sunlit Amish barn basketball floor, located near Bear Branch in Ohio County. (Chris Smith/hoosierhardwood.blogspot.com/)
Mark Comer’s barn near Osgood is now home to most of the old Lawrenceburg High School gym floor, salvaged from the Bud Bateman Gym demolition in 2015. It took Comer and helpers nearly a year to install. (Chris Smith/hoosierhardwood.blogspot.com/)
'CHASING INDIANA'S GAME'
AURORA - An old news clipping of the 1937 Versailles High School Frenchies basketball team started it all.
Now, seven years since the birth of their addictive “Hoosier Hardwood” blog - dedicated to high-quality photography capturing the history and spirit of Indiana high school hoops - Aurora’s Chris Smith and former Cincinnati Enquirer award-winning photographer Michael Keating are headed to print.
With the Aug. 18 scheduled release of “Chasing Indiana’s Game: The Hoosier Hardwood Project” - available for pre-order at Indiana University Press, Amazon and Barnes & Noble - the duo’s odyssey of 50,000-plus miles, visiting some 300 current and former Hoosier high school gyms to produce more than 400,000 digital frames takes a brief pause to catch its breath.
“When we started out, the idea was just to shoot architecture, to try and compile images of some of the great old gyms before they disappear,” said Smith, whose late father Glen was the student manager on that ’37 Versailles squad, the old photo of which sparked the Project back in 2013.
The Ohio native, a veteran corporate photographer and instructor at Northern Kentucky University, Smith still lives on his farm barely two miles north on Old Ind. 350 of South Dearborn High School - where he coached the Lady Knights soccer team from 1999-2007, including four years as head coach. Wife Elise, a former Sunman-Dearborn teacher, now manages the Aurora Community Recreation Center. Daughters Kaitlin (Haring) and Maggie (Brune), both full-time personal trainers, still live nearby.
With a resumé that includes images published in The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian magazine, in addition to Fortune 500 company publications, Smith and longtime Enquirer veteran Keating, a former Cannelton Bulldog, shot all of their captivating images of the gyms and the game that Indiana loves straight-up, with available light.
“We thought it would be fun to photograph the old gyms,” Smith said. “There have been 4,000 books about Indiana basketball, but nobody had done this. That’s what started us on our journey.”
Welcomed everywhere as they circled the Hoosier State, mostly during basketball seasons and often at tourney time, Smith and Keating soon discovered that their Hardwood Project ran deeper than some mere architectural study.
“We’d pull up to shoot an old gym and somebody would say ‘You need to talk to so and so’,” such as former Vevay Warriors star John Kinman, or 98-1/2 year old Paris Crossing (later consolidated into Madison) fan Loretah Blake (both featured in the book).
He and Keating arrived at the same conclusion. “We needed to start going to games,” Smith said.
“We learned pretty quickly that Indiana high school basketball is very personal to the people who’ve followed it over the years. It’s about community, the rivalries and the legacy. We tried to stay pretty non-partisan about it. It’s easy to ruffle some feathers at times.”
The quality and depth of the Hoosier Hardwood Project, with illustrative copy written by Smith, didn’t take long to draw its own fans. The Indiana Historical Society exhibited its photos in 2016 and the boys have 100 of their images on permanent display at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle.
Now comes “Chasing Indiana’s Game,” which features 178 select frames capturing 101 gyms and locations - including, locally, Aurora, Lawrenceburg, Milan, Osgood, Vevay, Holton, Rushville, Madison and Millhousen.
Admitting that it’s a tough choice, Smith has a few favorites.
“One night, we walked into the Milan gym to shoot the girls’ Ripley County Tourney trophy,” he noted. “The sun was setting, and it was shining on their 1954 state championship trophy case.
“Obviously, the one of the Jac-Cen-Del girls team, with one of their seniors leading a call-and-response cheer just before they left the locker room, is a favorite. That was before their regional game at Southwestern (Shelbyville). I just walked in and shot 15 quick frames. And they were gone.”
Lawrenceburg basketball fans may be surprised, also, to find that their old Bud Bateman Gym floor now resides on the upper level of former JCD player Mark Comer’s barn, near Osgood.
“I never could beat Lawrenceburg as a player,” quipped Comer, whose installation of the old hardwood is chronicled, including the capture of a renegade barnyard horse. “Now I own it.”
For more information on The Hoosier Hardwood Project visit: hhphotoproject.com.