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Remember the Titans: Tech’s rise good for IPS

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The name on the front of the jersey says Tech. The pride behind it belongs to all of central Indiana, especially those who grew up in the Indianapolis Public Schools system.

The Titans’ rise to the Class 4A boys basketball state championship final is much more than the story of a very good team fulfilling what many saw as its roundball potential. This is the symbolic renaissance of an urban school system that has hit bottom and is looking for a spark.

Sure, high school athletics — even basketball in a state where the sport is worshipped — are not the litmus test for the quality of a school system.

But the fall of IPS from the 1970s to today was complete and total, taking academics and extracurricular activities with it in a death spiral that saw most students with the means escape to the suburbs.

In a small symbolic way, Tech is halting that trend.

It may just be a game Saturday, as the Titans battle Lake Central for the Class 4A crown, but it also is the rekindling of a proud legacy.

From the late 1950s through the 1960s, IPS dominated Indiana prep basketball. Starting in 1955 and continuing through 1969, Indianapolis teams won five state titles.

Oscar Robertson and his Crispus Attucks teams started the string with the city’s first-ever title. The Tigers took three titles in five years. Then, George McGinnis and Washington finished the run with the two championships in 1965 and ’69.

In between, basketball in Indy was at its high point. Some of the best teams — such as Dick and Tom Van Arsdale’s 1961 Manual team — made it to the state title game but fell short. That was also the case with Attucks (1957), Tech (1966) and Shortridge (1968).

In all, Indianapolis sent nine teams to the state championship contest in that remarkable

15-year span.

From there, the dominance faded, accelerated by desegregation orders that bused many minority students from the center city and eventually led to the transformation of Attucks, Washington and others into smaller magnet or specialized schools.

Faltering athletics programs were a reflection of a larger dysfunctional school system. Failure rates dwarfed the success of a few students who somehow got to graduation. Violence was a constant presence. Role models were few. The “up” button appeared permanently broken.

Only Broad Ripple (1980) has broken through since. (Who remembers the 57-foot last-second shot by the late Stacey Toran to beat Marion in the semifinals?)

Instead, the township schools became the athletics powers in Marion County and the state, as Pike, Ben Davis, Lawrence North and North Central went to 13 state title games in the next 20 years.

The IPS schools were on the outside, forgotten athletically and often academically as well as the others schools flourished.

That is, until now.

Tech, the near-eastside school that has spurred a rebuilding effort around its sprawling campus, is back. The No. 2 Titans (26-2) have plowed through their competition, including Lawrence North and Pike, by an average of 17 points.

Coach Jason Delaney’s team has a trio of NCAA Division I college recruits, led by Trey Lyles, Tech’s 6-foot-10 Mr. Basketball candidate.

But there is something more going on here, something larger than even basketball in Indiana.

People are starting to believe. They are starting to believe that IPS is something more than simply a doorway to failure.

Lyles transferred from Decatur Central to Tech’s magnet program, where he has a 3.8 GPA. Others followed, and still more are taking notice.

You can see the palpable pride, not just in Tech supporters but those from throughout IPS.

It would be naïve to suggest that the success of a basketball team changes all of the problems that plague a metropolitan school district. Clearly, it does not. But, at the same time, it is sign.

Tech is one win away from an Indiana state title. A few years ago, that seemed preposterous. Not anymore.

And it sends a message as loud as the crowd that will cheer on the Titans on Saturday night.

If that is possible, what else good can happen at IPS?

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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