ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS: 40 years ago, Bankers took on Amish team in barn basketball
Of all the legendary Hoosier Hoops action in the 1970s, the game that looms largest in my mind involved neither Bob Knight nor Larry Bird.
The few spectators who showed up climbed the ladder to the haymow in my dad’s barn, where the “Berne Bankers” took on a team of Amish players in a series of full-court night games.
My brother and I watched, mesmerized, as the Amish players passed the ball around the court with the same workmanlike efficiency as they framed houses. Both sides had deadly shooters.
At one point, the Bankers’ shaggy-haired forward, Rod Lautzenheiser, took off on a fast break and, without breaking stride, leaped up and planted his foot on a beam under the basket to attain enough height for a slam dunk.
The crowd, all half a dozen of us, went wild.
No official documentation of this series exists today, except for a couple of lines in a 1979 First Bank of Berne newsletter.
Looking to flesh out my memories, I began interviewing some of the participants, starting with the unofficial captains: my dad, Charles Isch, the Berne bank’s retired president, and Marvin Hilty, an Adams County cabinetmaker and bishop of his district’s church.
HORSESHOW PIT ORIGINS
It was at the horseshoe pit behind Hilty’s Cabinet Shop north of Berne that the idea took shape.
Lautzenheiser loved to play horseshoes. So when he and Dad stopped in one day on bank business, he asked if he could pitch a few.
The Amish craftsmen were shy about taking on the “English” bankers.
“Go ahead, you play,” they told each other. “No, you. Go on!”
Eventually a game commenced. After that, a stop at Hilty’s always came with an invitation to play horseshoes or ping pong. It was only natural that talk turned to basketball; they’d all grown up playing haymow hoops.
Lautzenheiser, “sixth man” on the 1969 South Adams Starfires, honed his skills in an Amish neighbor’s barn. Dad never played for the 1961 Berne Bears who beat Fort Wayne South Side for the regional title, but he’d hosted a Monday night pickup game in his barn for years.
Part of the appeal for Hilty’s workers was the novelty of playing on a court equipped with lights. A date was set.
‘TWO STEP’ AND JOHNNY F.
The Amish team showed up in a hired van, wearing their usual outfits: work shirts, pants held up with suspenders, farm boots. It wouldn’t be hard to tell the two teams apart.
The Bankers had no jerseys and no game plan.
“We just played,” Dad said. “It was barn basketball. If anybody felt like shooting, they shot.”
Dad ran the backcourt, while Lautzenheiser ruled the frontcourt. The Bankers also had former Starfires center Gregg Sprunger and Jack Shoaf, who’d run cross country at Adams Central and a small college in Arkansas.
The Amish were led by sharpshooter Marvin Hilty and a tall, athletic guy everybody called Johnny F.
The “F” didn’t stand for anything; it was just an initial to help people avoid confusing him with all the other John Schwartzes in the Amish community. His teammate and younger brother, Walter F. Schwartz, used the same initial, as did all their siblings.
The Bankers – some of whom, at least, had played with referees – were amused by Hilty’s habit of taking extra steps to gain momentum for his jump shot. They began jokingly referring to him as “Two Step,” but nobody ever protested the maneuver.
As far as anybody on either side can remember, the Bankers won that first game, as well as a handful of follow-up contests. But the score was much closer than expected.
“If we had let up at all,” Dad said, “they would’ve beaten us.”
A HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE
Nearly 40 years later, I ride along with Dad as he picks up Marvin Hilty at his farm north of Berne and drives to a local restaurant for breakfast.
Hilty, dressed in a straw hat and black suit, has big news.
“You’ll never believe it,” he says. “I met the governor.”
It was at a recent meeting near Grabill, where Gov. Eric Holcomb answered Amish leaders’ questions about the feasibility of ID cards without photos.
“He shook my hand,” Hilty says. “It was awesome. Humbling.”
At the restaurant, the banker and the cabinetmaker compare their experiences as farm boys. Dad recounts Saturdays spent hauling manure with a pitchfork; Hilty recalls his father’s obsession with eradicating “bull” thistles by ordering his sons to chop them off and pour salt into the cut stalks.
When I comment that I didn’t know you could get rid of thistles that way, Hilty laughs.
“I don’t think it worked,” he said. “They always came up again the next year.”
Both men worry that today’s young people – of both cultures – don’t comprehend the value of hard work.
With less farmland available for a growing population, Hilty says 21st century Amish youth seem to spend more time hunting than doing farm chores.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with hunting,” he says with a sigh of resignation.
Even hard-working 1950s farm kids found time for fun, though. Mastering their aim with a basketball was an obsession. Dad’s personal best in free-throw contests with his buddies was 35 makes in a row – and he couldn’t even say, after all these years, if that was good enough for the barn record.
“Your dad had a homecourt advantage,” Hilty says. “Johnny F. was the same way. He hardly ever missed when he was playing in his own barn.”
The Amish players may have been a bit intimidated, Hilty admits – not because they were playing the town bankers, but because they’d see them jogging through the countryside, caught up in the 1970s running boom.
“Us slow farmers couldn’t keep up with those running bankers,” he laughs. “But it was fun.”
END OF AN ERA
Dad’s barn is gone now. With his kids grown and his knees shot from all that running, it wasn’t getting used much anymore. Rather than spend money on costly repairs, he donated it to an Amish farmer.
Lautzenheiser’s childhood barn is gone, too. And when he recently visited the Amish barn where he used to play, he found the hoops had been removed.
Barn basketball is increasingly a thing of the past, at least among the “English.” Kids play on travel teams now, and in decked-out pole barns. There’s no sweeping hay off the court, or learning where the soft spots are in the floor.
Even back then, though, haymow hoops was a different kind of game than what was played in school gyms. When I asked Lautzenheiser recently if he ever dunked in a South Adams game, he laughed.
“I was 5-10, 130 pounds,” he said. “I could barely touch the net.”
But I’m not the only one who remembers his acrobatic haymow dunks.
“I had an Amish guy ask me just the other day if I could still do that,” he says. “Forty years and 60 pounds later, I don’t think so. But at least now my hair wouldn’t get in my way.”
Tanya Isch Caylor is the author of A Swiss Banker in Indiana Farm County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.