Dust Bowl: It used to be our playground

If you close your eyes and listen intently at the corner of Blake and North streets on the IUPUI campus, perhaps you can hear it.

Let the soft spring breeze carry you back six decades to a much different time linked to the present by one constant for aspiring Hoosier athletes.

Thump, thump, thump. The sound of a rubber basketball bouncing off the ground as players jockey for position and an opening in the never-ending quest of Indiana school kids to get to the hoop.

And the ground that ball bounces on — in this case, not pavement, but dirt — rivals Hinkle Fieldhouse as Indianapolis’ most sacred hoops space.

Welcome to the Dust Bowl, the Lockefield Gardens playground that nurtured a generation of Indiana’s greatest players, from Oscar Robertson to George McGinnis and hundreds more who lived the Hoosier game growing up.

‘A Championship Tribute’

Long since devoured by the university, the area is now a park, appropriately with three basketball courts. In tribute to the significance of a bygone era, it will be dedicated Wednesday in a public ceremony and symposium.

Titled “A Championship Tribute,” the dedication of the IUPUI Campus Recreation Outdoor Facility will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Activities will take place at the facility, at the northwest corner of Blake Street and West North Street, and at Hine Hall, formerly the University Place Conference Center, 850 W. Michigan St. The tribute is free and open to the public.

“The thing that makes it extra important to us is the link between the history of the Dust Bowl and the history of the IUPUI community,” said Malcolm Moran, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at IUPUI, an event sponsor. “It became clear that this is personal to us because it is a part of the history of our community.”

Guests of honor

Basketball legends Robertson, John Gipson and Bill Hampton, three members of the 1955 championship Crispus Attucks team, will be special guests of honor. The 1955 team was the nation’s first all-black team to win a state title and the first Indianapolis team to win the Indiana boy’s state title. Attucks High School also won the 1956 state championship.

It was on the hard dirt of the Dust Bowl — aptly named for the cloud formed in especially contested games — that these legends were nurtured.

“It was a gathering place,” Robertson told an Indianapolis newspaper years later. “No one had any money, so you were into sports. This is where people came to socialize.

“The older guys dominated the court in the evening, from probably 5:30 until dark. Your big chance was to get to play with these guys, to win and get some credibility.”

The Dust Bowl was the inner-city equivalent to the hoop nailed to the side of a barn in more rural parts of the state. In both, players dealt with one another as well as the packed soil and pebbles of the court, which was as challenging as any defender. A low dribble and constant ball movement were learned by necessity.

The IUPUI dedication and symposium is about much more than a basketball court.

“Our hope is for the discussion of the 1955 Crispus Attucks championship season to go beyond the well-documented achievements of the players,” Moran said. “We are eager to hear about their lives as young adults (and the) focal point of the state in a very different racial climate, as they experienced the first of consecutive state championship seasons.”

How different were those times? The Attucks team was given a police escort out of town to celebrate as public officials were fearful of repercussions.

“Here was a young man who had every reason to feel on top of the world, but in seeing the reaction to the championship, he was in tears,” said Moran, in referencing a passage in Robertson’s biography.

It was a defining moment for a community.

“I didn’t realize at the time all the things that were working against us,” said Robertson, who never ate in a restaurant until after the 1955 title. “When you’re young and naive, you just wanted to play and win. That was the ultimate thing in our minds. Not to win a championship, just to win the next game, then the next game after that.”

Slowly, though, doors began to open and walls of segregation began to fall, but it was painful.

Progress can be traced from many sources in many ways. But, perhaps nowhere is more fertile ground for the seeds of change than on the dirt now underneath an IUPUI park once called the Dust Bowl.

And that progress came, not with bold pronouncements or political acts, but with sound of a rubber ball bouncing off a dirt playground.

Thump, thump, thump.

If you go


The schedule for the event, which is free and open to the public.

3 to 3:30 pm: Dedication of IUPUI Campus Recreation Outdoor Facility and unveiling of Dust Bowl historical marker, at the facility (Blake and North streets)

3:35 to 4 pm: Reception in Hine Hall

4 to 5 pm: Symposium in Hine Hall Auditorium

Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.