Dear basketball,

From the time we first saw you, our heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t just the way you looked — that perfectly round shape — but all that you brought along with you. The roar of the crowd, the sweat, the hardwood courts. The excitement, the heartbreak, the victory and the joy.

You have given us so many amazing moments. And yet, you have never asked for anything in return — except for us to love you. If there is such a thing as true love, this is it. Our eternal date: Indiana and basketball.

Thank you for never leaving us and always being there through the good times and the bad. Thank you for the incredible memories. Thank you for being ours.

Love you always and forever, Indiana

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Our love letter to basketball. (Photo: IndyStar photo illustration/Dana Benbow)

This is our love letter to basketball. As the entire NCAA men’s basketball tournament descends on Indiana, we asked others — from Tamika Catchings to IU’s Steve Green, from Gov. Eric Holcomb to Purdue’s Eric Hunter — to write their own love letters to basketball. There were no guidelines or requirements. All they were asked to do was write from their hearts.

Kelly Krauskopf: ‘My time to thank you’

Krauskopf made NBA history in December 2018, when she was hired by the Indiana Pacers as the assistant general manager, the first woman to hold that title in the role’s modern-day format. It was a rewarding, life-changing moment for Krauskopf, who was told right out of college she wasn’t right for a sports television job because women don’t know how to cover sports. She is now charged with creating a championship culture and paving the way for the Pacers’ first NBA title.

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Kelly Krauskopf, assistant general manager of the Indiana Pacers, poses for a picture at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (Photo: Jenna Watson/IndyStar)

Dear Basketball,

March is your time to shine. Your time to show the world how wonderful you are. And it is my time to thank you.

I never would have imagined as a young girl shooting hoops in my backyard, that you would give me a life of incredible opportunities and joy. I have loved you since the first time I picked up a ball.

From winning imaginary games with my first beloved red, white and blue basketball to a trip to the White House to celebrate a championship, and all the winding roads in between, you have always been there challenging me to be my best.

You have taught me grace and humility, self-confidence and leadership. Because of you, I have traveled all over the world and have teammates and colleagues who have become my family.

You have tested my resolve and shown me how to persevere. And finally, you have provided a platform to show what is possible for women in sports. I am forever grateful.

Kenny Beatty: ‘Life is the game’

Beatty is the father of Lawrence North senior basketball player Kayden Beatty and his older brother, Kamby Beatty, who also played basketball. Through the years, Kenny Beatty has coached the sport and, along the way, instilled many life lessons far beyond the court.

The hardwood paves the path to so much more than a potential state championship or a college opportunity. It gave me the chance to mentor young men and to build lifelong relationships. It allowed me to spend meaningful time as a dad and a coach — times I’ll forever cherish. Every practice, every trip, every game as a proud fan are some of my best memories. In the end, no matter how things play out, as I watch my son’s high school basketball career come to an end, my hope for him (and all those athletes) is this…Please realize that every minute of work and sweat spent was for a much larger reason than a trophy or a ball in a hoop. Those life-enduring friendships, work habits, mentality — that’s what this journey has fostered — that’s the love basketball gives.

Basketball is just the training ground. Life is the game.

— Kenny Beatty

Steve Green: ‘Basketball’s heartland’

Green was the first player to sign with legendary Indiana University coach Bob Knight in 1971. He was a 1971 Indiana High School All-Star, IU forward from 1971 to 1975 and played for the Indiana Pacers from 1976 to 1979.

For Hoosiers, basketball is more than just a game — it’s a way of life. From elementary school to high school and collegiate to Pacers home games, gyms across the state are sold out with avid fans throughout the winter, each and every year. Heck, what says “Indiana” more than hoops on the sides of barns or baskets at the edge of every driveway as far as the eye can see?

Basketball, specifically Indiana basketball at all levels, has been a pretty big deal for me throughout my life. It’s opened numerous doors both personally and professionally and its influence started from when I was a kid.

When I say I grew up in a basketball family, I mean I really grew up in a basketball family. My entire family played the game in some capacity – my father at Madison High School for legendary coach Ray Eddy (Eddy played with John Wooden at Purdue in the 1930s and would later become the head coach there for players like Terry Dischinger, who became a dentist after his professional basketball career. Coincidentally, I did the same). My mother was offered a contract to play for the All-American Redheads, a women’s professional basketball team (including offering to pay to dye her hair red so she fit the team image). And my brothers, R.T. and Bruce, both played Division I college basketball at Indiana State and Miami (Ohio).

As for me, basketball has provided some of my greatest experiences and life lessons, and has brought some of the most important people I know into my life. When I was 8 years old, I lied about my age to be old enough to go to Branch McCracken’s basketball camp in Angola and attended every year I could. That’s where I met my IU heroes, Tom and Dick Van Arsdale. It would be a little less than a decade later that coach Bob Knight signed me as his first recruit at Indiana University.

Throughout my career, I’ve been honored to connect with people like Coach Everett Dean, who coached Branch McCracken; Del Harris, my coach while I was with the Utah Stars of the ABA; Slick Leonard, whom I played for with the NBA Indiana Pacers (who himself was coached by Branch McCracken), and my current business partner at Arora Sleep, Brian Evans, one of my all-time favorite IU players who also played for coach Knight and was the 1996 Big Ten Player of the Year.

All in all, I wouldn’t be the person I am or have the profession that I do today without playing basketball through much of my life. And what’s great about this game is that this isn’t a unique story. Basketball has been just as important in shaping the lives of others across the state.

As they say, “In 49 states it’s basketball, but this is Indiana.” As we near this unprecedented NCAA Tournament, I am excited for the country to get a glimpse of what basketball truly means to us Hoosiers and to see how this is indeed basketball’s heartland.

Tamika Catchings: ‘Indefinable force’

Catchings played her entire 15-year WNBA career with the Indiana Fever. She was an 11-time WNBA All-Star, 12-time All-WNBA, Defensive Player of the Year five times, MVP, league champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist.

For some, you’re just a game. For me, you’re immensely more. You have helped shape my character, my drive and my goal-setting mentality. From my first interaction as a toddler to the stringy teenager and beyond, you’ve framed my personal and professional growth. You’ve shown me how to love in more ways than one, and through the love you’ve given, it’s also been given back to me. You’ve brought me a community both on and off the floor and have allowed me to be claimed and adopted by our beloved state once more. So many of the experiences from which I draw each and every day are thanks to you, but…you’re immensely more. Immensely more than an intangible, indefinable force. 

You’re palpable and ever-present. And, more importantly, when you’re gone, your absence is felt. Hard. Real hard.

I never realized just how much I took you for granted. How much our world took you for granted. Until you were gone…well on the big stage you were gone.

We missed staying up to catch the late night matchups. We missed the coaches drawing up late-game plays or hugging the players after a big win. We needed your energy and optimism and excitement last year, perhaps, more than any other, and you were gone. 

But, then you came back. The world reverted back to the blacktop. The sounds of the ball bouncing on the pavement, the giggles and laughter of another playing your game. Oh the sounds of where real basketball truly began. I love hearing the ball bounce on the court or go through the nets. And, now the late nights are back and we’re all coming back. United together. 

So thank you for all you are and all you represent to me and millions like me. Thank you for inspiring, for giving hope and happiness to so many who need it most. 

Thank you, basketball, for being immensely more.

Tamika Catchings

Cooper Sims: ‘I practice every day’ 

Cooper spends hour upon hour perfecting his game. If there’s a free moment, he’s out shooting hoops. He was recently named MVP of his Pendleton Heights Middle School seventh grade team.

Dear basketball,

I love you, even though I’m just 13, this game has done more for me than anything besides my parents. I’ve met lots of people, developed relationships, and learned how to win and lose. Basketball is something I’m committed to and make time for. I practice everyday and try to be the best player I can be. Through ups and downs, I will always turn to basketball. The game has done a lot for me already, even though I’m young, and I hope to one day give back.

Mayor Hogsett: ‘I know I’m not alone’

Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett grew up in Rushville idolizing a basketball-playing, next door neighbor named Jim Callane.  Fourteen years his junior, Hogsett said he looked up to Callane like an acorn to a mighty oak tree.

While the ongoing debate among basketball fans between Michael Jordan and LeBron James may never be settled, my personal GOAT (Greatest of All Time) was located a little bit closer to home: Jim Callane, my next door neighbor as I was growing up in my hometown of Rushville, Indiana.

Jim’s preternatural ability helped Rushville High School claim three consecutive IHSAA single-class regional basketball titles in the late 1950s and early 1960s — all under legendary Hall of Fame coach Les Ray. Fourteen years his junior, I looked up to Jim like an acorn to a mighty oak tree. I would never play like Jim, but it was through Jim that I would dream.

You see, in those days — and particularly in small, rural Indiana towns — our community life in the winter revolved around basketball. We were ecstatic when we won. And when we lost, the despair belonged to us all. Some call the 1950s and 1960s the “Golden Age” of Indiana high school basketball. For me, that rings true. It was during this time that I developed a love for the game that remains just as fervent after all these years.

These days, my fandom has expanded to include the Indiana Pacers and the Indiana Fever, whose games I attend regularly. I root for  my two alma maters, IU and Butler, while maintaining a loyalty to the Purdue Boilermakers that I inherited from my father.

I know I’m not alone. In its own way, basketball is special to all Hoosiers. It is implanted deep in the Indiana collective unconscious.

And it’s part of what makes 2021 such a source of great pride for the people of our city. This March, we will host the Men’s and Women’s Horizon League as well as the Men’s and Women’s Big Ten basketball championships. When you layer on top of that the entire “March Madness” NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, it simply confirms that Indianapolis is indeed the “Basketball Capital” of America.

To progress in one’s lifetime from idolization of my hometown team and its heroes to being part of Indianapolis serving as host city for the basketball world in March and April of 2021 — well, it is a dream come true.

And that dream took a lot of work. I want to thank all who have made this “once in a lifetime” opportunity possible. And, of course, thank you to my hero, Jim Callane, for providing me a path to the game that I love so much and hold so dear.

Eric Hunter: ‘Never once betrayed me’

An Indy native, Hunter played at Tindley and was voted City Player of the Year by the Indianapolis Boys Basketball City Coaches Association in 2018 as a senior. He is now a star guard playing basketball at Purdue.

If you love the game, it will love you back. I’ve been around basketball my whole life and have felt the joy and the heartbreak from it. But it has never once betrayed me. It will always be a huge part of my life.

Gov. Eric Holcomb: ‘A great equalizer’

Eric J. Holcomb is the 51st governor of Indiana. He says when he travels overseas as governor to recruit business, “hoops diplomacy” has broken down many a language barrier and strengthened international relationships in countries from Israel to India to Japan and places in between.

Basketball is part of Indiana’s DNA, our core identity and our globally identifiable trait. So it’s perfectly fitting that all of March Madness will happen on Hoosier hard courts and inside our great cathedrals to the game. Assembly Hall. Hinkle Fieldhouse. Mackey Arena. Bankers Life Fieldhouse and culminating in Lucas Oil Stadium, where so many past Final Fours have been hosted. You’d be hard pressed to find a better starting five basketball venues than those faves.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance and emotion of basketball in my home state. Go into any barbershop in Indiana and you’re likely to find yourself in a heated discussion about yesterday’s score or even one settled in the 50s.  

In fact, some of our most well-known Hoosiers are legendary and will forever go by one name. Oscar. Larry. Reggie. Royalty like Keady, Knight, Digger, Wooden.

Yes, basketball knows no time or boundary in the heart of the heartland. In fact, when I travel overseas as Governor to recruit more business, “hoops diplomacy” has broken down many a language barrier and strengthened international relationships in countries from Israel to India to Japan and all places in between.

But maybe most special about this sport is its fundamentals as a great equalizer; a common interest that creates friendships across race, class, geographic and educational differences. Whether on a school team, at a pick-up game or 3-on-3 tournament, or making a basket in all 92 Indiana counties — each experience instilled in me a number of traits: Practice (hard). Be on time. Support your teammates. Be coachable. Seek to improve.

For many Hoosiers, those traits carry on throughout our adulthoods and professions, and I am certainly no exception. 

Many of those same characteristics, learned on the court, have put Indiana in a position to host this pandemic-altered March Madness.  

The NCAA couldn’t have picked a more appropriate place to host this once in a lifetime March Madness and, rest assured, when that final buzzer sounds and nets are being cut down, I know every Hoosier teammate involved will have contributed to one of the most safe, healthy, competitive and fun tournaments that’s ever been seen.

It’s March in Indiana…which means it’s time to shoot the rock (not bricks), re-watch the greatest sports movie ever made – “Hoosiers” – and watch a No. 12 upset a 5!

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: [email protected].