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TOM DAVIS: Basketball in Fort Wayne is alive and absolutely very, very well

North Side boys basketball coach Shabaz Khaliq reacts to an official's call during a game against Blackhawk Christian earlier this season. (By Dan Vance of News- Sentinel.com)
The Fort Wayne bench erupts in celebration following a play against IUPUI at the Gates Sports Center last season. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
The Saint Francis men's basketball bench erupts in celebration following a play against Goshen last season at the Hutzell Athletic Center. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
The Indiana Tech men's basketball bench watches the Warriors compete against Davenport last season at the Schaefer Center. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

“… it’s questionable whether Fort Wayne is a basketball city any more.”

“Judging by the attendance this year and at various recent games, Fort Wayne doesn’t seem to care about basketball unless it’s on the television.”

“… not many fans care, and especially casual fans who aren’t directly related to the players. A half-filled gym would mark a significant achievement for some local teams because the crowds have been pathetic.”

Those words were written by News-Sentinel.com sports reporter Blake Sebring earlier this month, with the premise of his column being that lagging attendance, as compared to years ago, demonstrates a lack of passion today for hoops on the part of this town’s citizenry.

I take issue with that opinion because comparing attendance from differing eras isn’t a fair comparison to make, and over the past 72 hours, it appears that the people of Fort Wayne disagreed, as well.

“It’s unfortunate that column was even written,” Saint Francis men’s basketball coach Chad LaCross told News-Sentinel.com. “I do think that we have great basketball here.”

Sebring’s remarks were attendance-based, not talent-based, and he was quick to note that. However, when put into perspective, criticizing the fans of this city simply isn’t warranted.

Games from the Mad Ants to the high school level were very well attended this weekend, thus demonstrating that the people of northeast Indiana do in fact love quality basketball.

On Friday, there were 10 NBA G League games played and the Mad Ants beating Sioux Falls in a 131-130 thriller was the third-most attended of those with 3,776 fans at Memorial Coliseum.

The victory kept the Mad Ants in first place in the Central Division.

If you throw out the 6,613 fans that attended the Grand Rapids at Texas game, which skewed the numbers, the Fort Wayne crowd was nearly 44 percent larger than the league average for the night.

RELATED STORY:BLAKE SEBRING: Fort Wayne is no longer a basketball city

What makes that figure even more impressive is the fact that simultaneously, and just a long jump shot away from the Coliseum, over 3,000 fans were taking in the Homestead at North Side high school game.

So within a few miles, and this doesn’t even include any of the other 21 high school games that were played throughout the area Friday, or the fact that Indiana was playing Michigan State on national television, nearly 7,000 people paid their hard-earned money to watch basketball.

And Fort Wayne isn’t a basketball city? Really?

Less than 24 hours later, nearly 4,500 of those supposed apathetic fans turned out at three different locations to watch the local college teams go unbeaten – but definitely not unchallenged.

Fort Wayne rallied from 15 points down to knock off North Dakota State at the Coliseum, while Indiana Tech and Saint Francis continued to show the nation that the best of NAIA Division II basketball – anywhere – lies within this city.

The fifth-ranked Warriors rallied from 17 points down to beat No. 1-ranked Cornerstone, which sounds surprising until you consider that Indiana Tech has now beaten the number 1, 2, 3, and 4 teams in the nation this season under first-year coach Ted Albert.

“Obviously, Indiana Tech is doing a great job,” LaCross said. “It is just unbelievable what they are doing.”

LaCross could have been speaking about his own team.

Outside of a recent overtime loss at No. 7-ranked Indiana Wesleyan (yeah, Indiana Tech beat the Wildcats, too), No. 2-ranked Saint Francis hasn’t lost a game since it got beat on Nov. 4 by… well, Indiana Tech.

In Saturday’s victory over No. 11-ranked Bethel, Saint Francis improved to 19-3 and now holds a two-game lead atop the nation’s toughest conference (Crossroads League).

“The biggest thing is the way that we are playing together,” LaCross said of his team. “Everybody has bought into their role, accepted their role, and man, it’s been a lot of fun to coach these guys.”

The Cougars must be fun to watch, as well.

Almost 1,700 fans – including Fort Wayne men’s basketball coach Jon Coffman – were at the Hutzell Athletic Center to see Saint Francis allow Bethel to storm back from nine points down late in the game before beating the Pilots 72-70.

Albert recently sat behind the Fort Wayne bench for the Mastodons’ game with South Dakota because he said that he wanted to be close enough to hear Coffman teaching during the game.

“We all kind of support each other,” LaCross said of the three college programs in town. “Coach Coffman popped into our game and I’m going to go watch a Fort Wayne game in the next couple of weeks. We all have a tremendous amount of respect for each other.”

What made Saturday’s in-game attendance figure even more impressive was the fact that No. 3-ranked Purdue, which may ultimately win the NCAA championship, was on national television, as well as the Butler at DePaul game.

Oh, and for good measure, there were 17 different area high school games that day and evening, also which vied for fans’ attention and money.

“Is it different from 20 years ago,” LaCross pondered on the attendance, “no question. But there are different ways to watch games today.”

“It’s exciting to see the success of the programs, from the high school level all the way to what (coach Steve Gansey) is doing with the Mad Ants.”

Obviously, thousands of people throughout the area agree.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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