State of Basketball: Part 5 – The Anderson Wigwam
Welcome to State of Basketball, a multi-part series from Inside The Hall taking readers on a tour of historic basketball gyms around the state of Indiana.
Each of the gyms included in the ‘State of Basketball’ series was featured in this season’s pregame introduction video for the Indiana University men’s basketball team.
The goal of the series is simple: To highlight the importance of basketball, at all levels, in the state of Indiana and to explain the importance that being featured in the introduction video for the state’s flagship team has on the communities these gyms are a part of.
It was nine years ago when everyone gathered at the Wigwam in Anderson for the final time.
Nothing was yet official about the future of Anderson’s prized possession, a gymnasium opened in November 1961 that sat nearly 9,000 during its heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
But the glory days for both Anderson and the Wigwam were long gone, and everyone recognized as much.
The perilous future of the building was known to the nearly 3,000 spectators who filled the Wigwam for its final game on Feb. 24, 2011, 13 days before the Anderson School Board voted, 6-1, to close the facility and save the district nearly $700,000 annually.
Economic issues had long ago claimed factories and jobs in Anderson, and it was poised to soon take away the city’s basketball haven as well.
So with that context understood, and the unfortunate future almost assumed, the people came to see the Wigwam while they could.
It wasn’t as much to support the specific 2010-11 Anderson Indians team, which had lost 11-straight games entering that February night, as it was to do right by past Anderson squads.
It was to do right by Ron Hecklinski, who spent 18 seasons as Anderson’s head coach and won 274 games with the Indians before resigning after the 2010-11 season, citing the closing of the Wigwam as one of the factors in his decision.
Before the final game at the Wigwam between Anderson and Bishop Chatard of Indianapolis, Hecklinski grabbed the arena microphone, and implored the crowd to show up to the upcoming school board meeting where future use of the building would be debated.
“When you talk about tradition in the city of Anderson, you talk about the Wigwam,” he said.
Cheers followed that proclamation, but they followed most everything that occurred that night.
The final Indian and Maiden pregame dance, the last announcement of pregame lineups and the scene at the final buzzer when students stormed the court in a sea of red and green following a 47-42 Anderson win all arrived with an air of finality about them.
This is how the Wigwam expired as a basketball venue, though its role as a community cornerstone is just now beginning its second act.
Anderson is one of those places where things change slowly, never all at once.
Located 40 miles northeast of Indianapolis, everything remains connected in Anderson: The decline of one thing can lead to the downfall of another.
When the Wigwam was constructed in 1961 at a cost of $2.1 million, it was a sparkling monument to high school basketball in Indiana. It’s capacity made it the second-largest high school gym in the country, trailing only the New Castle Fieldhouse.
An 80,000-tile mosaic of an American Indian chief greeted fans outside of Gate 1, and plenty of supporters passed through the doors, be it for Anderson games or when the Indiana Pacers or Harlem Globetrotters would occasionally pass through town.
The size and scope of the arena was designed with a specific purpose in mind: To host a sectional in the IHSAA state tournament.
Sectionals were awarded to the schools with the biggest gyms. From the creation of the Wigwam to the initiation of class high school basketball in the 1997-98 season, Anderson always found itself hosting the biggest games and the best players come March of each year.
Ray Tolbert played in the Wigwam for Madison Heights High School, formerly located in Anderson, before becoming an integral member of Indiana’s 1981 NCAA title team. Future Indiana Hoosier and NCAA champion Steve Alford played there while at New Castle, back when the Trojans were conference rivals with Anderson in the North Central Conference.
Anderson’s best individual player during the Wigwam’s existence was likely Troy Lewis, who went on to score more than 2,000 points in a four-year career as a guard at Purdue.
Even as Anderson excelled on the Wigwam hardwood (the Indians reached the state title game in 1979, 1981, 1983 and 1986, losing each time) it became apparent that off-court issues would soon harm the on-court product.
Anderson was a factory town, and a thriving one at that. General Motors (GM) had more than 20 plants in Anderson in the 1970s, and with a population then-around 70,000, the city was large enough to support three high schools — Anderson, Madison Heights and Highland.
The decline of Anderson from then to now is enough to comprise its own non-fiction novel, but it’s not a unique story in the midwest: Industry died and life fell apart.
The last GM factory closed in 1999. The death of each one took more jobs with it.
It seemed fitting that when Hillary Clinton delivered an hour-long speech at The Wigwam in March 2008 during that year’s Indiana Democratic primary, the topic was solutions for the American economy (Bobby Kennedy and Richard Nixon also once held campaign rallies at the Wigwam).
Consequently, the old Anderson High School, located next door to the Wigwam, was cut in 1997, meaning the gym outlasted the building it served.
Madison Heights High School was then renamed Anderson to preserve its identity and history. In 2010, Highland was turned into a middle school and its students consolidated into the new Anderson High.
There were once 5,000 people who had season tickets for boys basketball games at the Wigwam, but as life changed outside, the effect was noticeable inside.
Attendances dropped, and the 3,000 people who came to see the Wigwam on its final night represented an abnormality in its closing years, but also the strength of the relationship between the building and fans fostered over 50 years.
“One of the things that kept me here (for 18 years) was my great affinity for the Wigwam,” Hecklinski said when discussing his resignation soon after that final game. “The tradition that it holds and the great place that it holds in the lore of Indiana basketball.”
Maeghan Hobbs isn’t from Anderson, and she doesn’t have any ties to the city, which is now home to about 55,000 people.
But in her job as a partner and developer at Black and White Investments (BWI), an Indianapolis-based full-service construction company, developer and property manager, she’s gained an appreciation for the area and its affinity for the Wigwam.
“I can tell with everybody I’ve spoken to how deeply rooted (the Wigwam) is in that community,” Hobbs said. “Just since I’ve been working on it…I feel like I was there in those glory days.”
Harnessing that excitement and the energy of how Anderson residents view the Wigwam is crucial to its subsequent existence.
After the school board voted to close the Wigwam in 2011, it sat vacant for several years.
Maintenance and repairs to get the building back up to code cost too much money for an already cash-strapped school district.
Demolition was set to be the course of action until things changed at the last moment.
BWI’s plan to preserve the Wigwam was approved by the Anderson Redevelopment Commission and the Anderson Community Schools Board of Trustees in August 2014. The basic elements of the plan allow the Wigwam property (which includes the gym building itself, the former Anderson High School building and the nearby athletic fields) to be redeveloped and for the gym to be maintained at least through 2030.
For its part, the school board agreed to contribute $630,000 to help finance the renovation work, in exchange for the ability to use the facility 12 days a year without paying rent.
It’s a monetary contribution similar to what the cost of demolition would be, while keeping open a building rich in history that’s also set to help the struggling Anderson community.
BWI wanted to implement a ‘Health and Wellness’ concept for the Wigwam project once they acquired the property, and that plan has been in motion for several years now.
A Jane Pauley Community Health Center opened at the Wigwam complex in October 2017. In January 2019, a 44-unit affordable housing apartment complex called Fieldhouse Apartments opened on the track and field land, offering permanent housing for those who used to be homeless.
Hobbs said construction will begin by April 1 on another structure on the track and field land, this one being a 130-unit affordable assisted-living facility.
For the gym itself, the plan is to make that building the “training and development center” to support the two projects on the track and field land, according to Hobbs.
This calls for a renovation of the gym, turning it into an athletic training facility for people of all ages with room for multiple sports like baseball, basketball and pickleball.
The pool section of the building will include an aquaponics agriculture system, designed to produce organic food within a ‘food desert’ in Anderson.
In its basketball iteration, one end of the Wigwam court opened to a stage, and that spirit will continue as Hobbs said the building’s auditorium will be opened again with a dedicated visual and performing arts space complete with art rooms and galleries.
The goals for the Wigwam’s restoration are simultaneously ambitious and simplistic.
About 135,000 square feet of space will be dedicated to help bring jobs, training, education, health resources and housing to the low-income community found in Anderson and in Madison County at large.
“We have a lot of stuff going on over there, so when I got the call to be a part of the IU video, I thought it was great that people are still thinking about the Wigwam,” Hobbs explained. “I think what we’re doing is going to bring even more success to Anderson and acknowledgement that the Wigwam is still a building the can be utilized.”
For all the upcoming amenities and improvements that the Wigwam will house, the chances of it being remembered for anything but its basketball prestige are slim.
Hobbs said construction on the gym itself will take place this year, and BWI’s goal is to get the gym open in 2020, even if it’s just fixing the necessary things to get the structure up to code.
Her company has been entrusted with repairing a structure of significant cultural importance: The Wigwam was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018, meaning the federal government deems it worthy of preservation due to historical significance.
It’s not a task that Hobbs or BWI takes lightly.
“There’s certain things about that building that I think are memorable to people,” Hobbs said. “You can just see from the lighting to the tile walls, and even just preserving all the trophies and plaques and things like that. So we definitely plan on keeping that inside the Wigwam and having a ‘Hall of Fame,’ nostalgia area of the Wigwam.”
“We want you to feel that same feeling that you felt years ago.”
So much is changing around the Wigwam that it’s worth noting the things that will stay the same.
In addition to the preservation of trophies and plaques, Hobbs said the outside brick will stay, as will the distinct red and green color scheme used by Anderson. The bleachers may change slightly to ensure they’re safe for sitting and up to current building code, but BWI will try to maintain the overall look of the dark wooden bleachers as well.
“All of those things that make the Wigwam, we’re going to try to hold it together and keep it as best we can,” she said.
The sense of responsibility felt by Hobbs and BWI is obvious.
This is Anderson’s gym and it always will be. Now the challenge is making sure it remains useful without the tradition that defined it for a half-century.
“I think it just makes people from Anderson proud to say that’s their city. It’s something that’s so epic and really hard to duplicate anywhere else in the country,” Hobbs said. “They’re just really proud to have a point in history that people remember.
The Anderson Wigwam is featured once in the 2019-20 Indiana men’s basketball introduction video at the 0:44 mark. The video can be seen here.