February 6, 2013
Invincible, Indiana

“Once upon a time in Indiana . . . Giants roamed the land . . . and Davids stalked them.”

I love this book.

Invincible, Indiana is the single best literary representation of Hoosier Hysteria ever written. Why? Because it captures the nostalgia, the passion and the purity of Indiana high school basketball before the awful specter of class basketball appeared in 1997. And because it depicts small town Indiana so incisively that you wonder if author Nate Dunlevy’s portrait could possibly be true.

Take Invincible, a small town with deeply ingrained traditions – in this case, 49 straight years of .500 basketball. A precisely equal number of wins and losses for 49 years spells one thing: mediocrity.  And then add a young, ambitious coach who arrives from Indianapolis and wants to install a new system that will carry them to the state finals. You’re all set for a titanic and truly hilarious clash of values.

Coach Dale Cooper also teaches government, of course, an assignment that has its own quirks and funny moments. His relationships, both with his students and with the town hierarchy of principal, school superintendent, mayor and other adult notables, are complicated by his status of outsider. It’s a learning experience for him, too.

Two of the players on the team create a dynamic of conflict that brings out a deadly serious aspect of this novel. One is Calvin Turner, an African American kid who has come to live with his prosperous aunt and uncle and who is destined to be a star. The other is Tom Denton, a fierce competitor whose racial views seem stuck in the past. Their rivalry is at the heart of the book.

My favorite part? The team’s schedule. They play Whitko, Fort Wayne South Side, Adams Central, Huntington North, Churubusco, Wawasee, Goshen and so on around the circuit of northeast Indiana high schools. You can almost triangulate the location of fictional Invincible, Indiana, from this odyssey of weekly contests. I relished imagining the team in all those gyms.

“It was basketball. It was Indiana. It was real. It mattered.”

In February and March, Indiana Humanities is exploring the topic of “rivalry,” as part of its Spirit of Competition theme.This post was written by Nancy Conner, director of grants and coordinator of Novel Conversations.

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