The story behind the score
By Claire Wiseman
The final score sounded impossible: 107- 2.
It was one of the most lopsided outcomes in the history of Indiana high school girls’ basketball. Bloomington High School South, a perennial contender, went into the game last December on a 7-game winning streak. Arlington Community, a much smaller Indianapolis school that had struggled for years against academic woes and student flight, had only won one game in two seasons.
Ebony Jackson, the losing team’s coach, played so well for the Arlington Golden Knights that she was named an Indiana Girls’ Basketball All-Star. As she watched her team go down against BHHS, the game seemed to play out in fast-forward. Afterward, she told a reporter the way the opposing coach handled the game wasn’t okay.
Bloomington South had come out strong in a press, scoring breakaway layups and running a man-to-man defense. She looked down at the other bench only once, she said, to see if they might slow down. Her team’s only points came from free throws.
Larry Winters, veteran coach of the Bloomington South Panthers, said he wasn’t trying to run up the score. He said telling his players to hold back would have embarrassed the other team. They didn’t hold back — they scored an average of two points every 45 seconds.
News of the game sparked a visceral reaction around the country.
“Apparently, Bloomington Coach Larry Winters mistook this prep game for the Battle of Bunker Hill,” espnW blogger Jane McManus wrote. “He decided to go full-throttle on a team that hasn’t won in 23 games.”
“To the adults at B-town South,” Indianapolis Star Columnist Matthew Tully tweeted, “thanks for trying to crush the spirits of kids living in a neighborhood you wouldn’t spend five minutes in.”
Critics were quick to blame Bloomington South’s coach. But the final score was about more than basketball. It was about two schools and their respective histories, the way one was reduced to a shell of its former self while the other continued to shine. This game was lost long before the opening tipoff.
The outrage sparked by the game made those who were there reluctant to speak.
Arlington’s players appeared on television only once, on CNN’s “Starting Point” with Soledad O’Brien. They smiled into the camera as their coach said they were shocked by how decisively the Bloomington South players trounced them.
“They’d played longer than most of us,” one player told O’Brien, “and they worked very hard, and we just haven’t played before, and it was probably really hard for all of us.”
Arlington officials responded carefully as well. Though media attention was largely sympathetic to their team, the officials became wary of the impact further coverage would have on students. When asked what their team learned from the loss, Coach Jackson said perseverance.
“No matter what it is,” Jackson said, “you just gotta finish it.”
The parents of the Bloomington South players agreed together not to speak to reporters. School officials treated the game like ancient history.
“Everybody’s moved on,” said J.R. Holmes, Bloomington South’s athletic director. “It’s out of the news, and we don’t even discuss it anymore.”
The extreme loss touched a nerve. It raised questions. What do players learn from losing so badly? Can a defeat like this one really be considered a victory?
These teams hadn’t faced each other in eight seasons. The last time they had played, in 2004, Bloomington South won 52-42. Back then, Arlington’s enrollment in seventh through twelfth grades was around 1,500 students. This year, unofficial numbers provided to the Indiana High School Athletic Association place it at 422.
Bloomington South’s enrollment last year was 1,699. This season, Arlington was by far the smallest school on Bloomington South’s schedule.
The December game between them was far from typical. Holmes said Arlington asked Bloomington South to play them when Arlington needed to fill a hole in their schedule. Both sides, he said, were aware of the teams’ differences.
“They knew it was going to be a mismatch,” Holmes said, “but they wanted their girls to experience playing against good teams.”
Arlington asked. Bloomington accepted.
Arlington’s gym is filled with testaments to the school’s former glory. State championship banners for wrestling, baseball and girls’ track hang on the walls, evoking a time when the school’s athletics were strong. Another banner honors the school’s former Indiana Girls Basketball All-Stars, including Ebony Jackson.
But Coach Jackson attended a wholly different school.
When Arlington was ranked last year by the State Board of Education, it received an F. In the same year, it enrolled 1,224 students in grades 7-12. The school had a 74.7 percent graduation rate.
Before last school year, the school was designated a “Turnaround Academy.” After six consecutive years on the Department of Education’s probation, Indiana schools can be turned over to private operators that specialize in school improvement. Arlington, once handled by Indianapolis Public Schools, was put in the hands of turnaround operator EdPower.
“It was in pretty serious shape in terms of its academic perfomance,” EdPower’s Director of External Relations Beverly Rella said. “And so a lot of what we’ve done this year has been around setting the standards and the culture so that those kids can continue to learn and perform better.”
The school EdPower took over could be an intimidating place.
“You had teachers who were afraid to open their doors to the hallway during passing periods,” Rella said.
Bringing Arlington back would require a total restart and a buy-in from parents. But the school had been bleeding students for years. The depletion sped up when word of the takeover spread. Athletes left along with everyone else, headed for magnet or boundary or even private schools that wouldn’t be changing leadership. Last summer, Rella said, they weren’t sure how many students would return in the fall — or whether they’d even have enough to field a girls’ basketball team.
“If you don’t know how many kids are necessarily gonna show up at your school by the end of August,” Rella said, “you’re sure not sure what kind of basketball teams you’re gonna have.”
Most players on the team this year had no varsity, if any high school, basketball experience.
The team won one game last season. When they took on Bloomington South, they had lost 22 in a row.
What remains at Arlington is a program focused on academic success. Administrators have restored order to the hallways with monitors and patrolling police officers. They’re so eager to place college in the forefront of students’ minds that outside ever teachers’ door is a paper showing the logo of their alma mater.
As Arlington places a new emphasis on academics, athletic achievement has become secondary. Bloomington South successfully juggles both.
Last year the high school enrolled 1,699 students in ninth through twelfth grades. The school had a 90 percent graduation rate and was given an A rating from the State Board of Education.
Basketball is big at Bloomington South. In 2009, when IU’s starting guard Jordan Hulls was a senior there and named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, the team took home a state championship and was ranked third in the nation by USA Today. The girls’ basketball program has nine sectional and two regional championships.
Girls’ Basketball Coach Larry Winters is in his 14th season at the school. Courtney Ladyman, who played for Winters and later coached the school’s freshman team, remembers him as tough but fair. Basketball season stretches through the winter, but she remembers spring and summer workouts. Winters took the game seriously, Ladyman said, and so did his players.
“If you didn’t make that commitment,” she said “you didn’t play.”
Arlington’s athletic director, Bob Wonnell, said he called Bloomington South’s athletic director before the game.
A typical outing includes first a junior varsity and then a varsity game, but Arlington only had enough players for a single team. Bloomington South should only bring their varsity players, Wonnell said. By IHSAA rules, the game would be considered a varsity matchup.
So Winters brought his best, the product of years of coaching and teaching and training, to face up against Arlington.
“He’s not the kind of coach that would just cream a team just for the sake of doing that,” Ladyman said, noting the inexperience of Arlington’s players. “it’s hard to play against players like that.”
She wonders what else her former coach could have done.
“Do you just stop the game and not play? Or do you keep going?”
The game was Tuesday evening, December 11. They played in the Arlington gym.
Bloomington came out strong in the first half, running a full-court press and man-to-man defense. Coach Jackson, interviewed recently by the Indiana Daily Student, described Bloomington South pouring in layups while Arlington struggled to keep up.
By the end of the first quarter, Arlington hadn’t put any points on the board. The Golden Knights didn’t score until a shooting foul brought a player to the free throw line in the second quarter.
At halftime, the score was 60-1. When Jackson walked into the locker room, she began to process how quickly the Panthers were blowing her team away.
“I gotta give them their credit, they were good,” Jackson said. “From the time they stepped out on the floor they were consistent all four quarters.”
She tried to keep her players motivated. They had a choice, she said. They could accept one point on the scoreboard, or they could come out and fight back.
After the game, commentators would wonder whether the game should have been ended early. But Indiana has no mercy rule. If instituted, IHSAA Commissioner Bob Cox said, it would take the form of a point differential rule. When one team surpasses another by a certain number of points, officials would move to a running clock, stopping only for timeouts.
In the absence of any institutional mechanism, play is left up to coaches. Bloomington South’s defended his choice to keep playing as a normal game to the Indianapolis Star.
“I didn’t tell my girls to stop shooting because that would have been more embarrassing,” Winters said. “We were not trying to embarrass them or run up the score.”
Arlington’s Athletic Director, Bob Wonnell, doesn’t blame Winters.
“What are you going to tell a girl, to stop?” Wonnell asked. “Dribble all the way down there, stop, don’t shoot it? Throw the ball out of bounds? I mean that’s just as insulting to the other team. You know, let’s just get this thing done as quick as we can and go home.”
And Arlington’s Coach Jackson doesn’t believe in a mercy rule. She said she never considered forfeiting, either.
“I’ve never seen it done in all my years of playing ball,” Jackson said. “It never crossed my mind, ever.”
The second half of the game moved only a little more slowly than the first. Jackson remembers Bloomington South sliding out of a press and passing more. She still couldn’t find a way to break through the team’s defense.
“They totally overpowered us,” Jackson said.
In the third quarter, they were fouled and scored one more point. Jackson said the Arlington players were played aggressively throughout the game.
“I think I looked down at their benches one time just to see, like, are you gonna lay off the gas?” Jackson said. “But no, I mean I wasn’t frustrated, I was just really trying to coach the next play or figure out our next opportunity to even score.”
As the game wound down, Jackson wanted to make sure her players were alright. It wasn’t a moment for yelling, she said.
Once the game was over, she had her players pile their hands in a circle to cheer, but even as she did so, the score filled her head. The reporters, she knew would be calling tomorrow, she thought.
Every loss hurts.
A month later, Bloomington South suffered a stunning defeat by conference rival Pike High on the north side of Indianapolis. In this game, Bloomington South struggled to keep pace.
Even an hour and fifteen minutes from Bloomington, the stands were a sea of Panther purple, of chattering parents and siblings holding nachos.
Near the end of the fourth quarter, a senior guard began to bring them back. She started hitting three-pointers and didn’t stop, sparking fast breaks and ratcheting up the excitement in the gym until the game was tied in its final seconds.
And then, impossibly, with two seconds remaining, a Pike player hurled the ball from beyond half court. It was over instantly.
The Bloomington South players lined up, slapped opponents’ hands and watched Pike parents rush the court. The player whose streak brought the Panthers back walked slowly toward the locker room. As she neared the doors, her face crumbled and her eyes filled with tears. She broke into a jog, leaving the court behind as quickly as possible.
This week, Bloomington South will try to win another sectional. They’ll enter their first game ready with a full staff of coaches, a battalion of parents and years of practice behind them.
Arlington players won’t be competing in the tournament this year. After their historic defeat by Bloomington South, they played only two more games. At the end of the fall semester, some of the players’ grades were too low, and administrators decided the team would forfeit the rest of their season.
After all the media attention, the outpouring of support, even the pity — the Golden Knights’ season was done. Arlington’s standards are higher than those maintained by the IHSAA.
“We were chosen by the state to focus on those academic things, and that has to be our number one priority,” Arlington Athletic Director Wonnell said.
In this new Arlington, a student athlete’s life must be about more than winning or losing with a basketball in hand. And as the school struggles to regain footing, every passing grade, every relationship forged, every little achievement is a victory.
Arlington players don’t see their coach on the court anymore. But some of them visit her special education classroom nearly every passing period. Jackson will start planning for the next season this spring. Maybe soon, she and her girls will once again return to the gym, practicing under all those banners.