WASHINGTON – Basketball is the closest thing in Indiana to a state religion.  Or, as Phillip M. Hoose wrote in his wonderful look at heartland America, Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana, “Indiana is basketball’s hometown.”
So it is not surprising candidates in next Tuesday’s Indiana primary would try to lay claim to the Hoosier state’s hoops tradition. Nonetheless, it has been a bit amusing to watch some out-of-staters fumble the ball.
Earlier this week, former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight returned to Indiana to campaign in Indianapolis with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.  Knight led the Hoosiers to three national championships and arguably could have been elected governor of the state around that time. But Knight is now regarded by many Hoosiers as every bit a bombastic, sexist, and polarizing a figure as Trump. Knight’s introduction of Trump consisted mostly of a nonsensical rant about longhaired teens and predictable complaints about the dearth of great leaders in America. By bringing in Knight, Trump has a speaker who is essentially preaching to the choir rather than expanding his base. But because Indiana is an open primary state, Knight could possibly help attract some voters who would usually stay home on primary election day.
Some may remember that Knight made a television commercial for former U.S. Senator and liberal Democrat Birch Bayh during Bayh’s 1980 re-election campaign. Knight is nothing, if not loyal, and Bayh had helped Knight escape from Puerto Rico when he got in trouble there for punching a police officer while coaching the American Pan Am basketball team in 1979. Although it aired during the height of Knight’s popularity, there is no evidence the spot worked as Bayh lost to Dan Quayle, who rode the coattails of Ronald Reagan’s landslide Indiana win.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz kicked off his week of desperation in Indiana by holding a press event Tuesday campaigning as the underdog at the famous Knightstown high school gym where much of the 1986 David v. Goliath basketball classic Hoosiers was shot. Cruz claims to be a film buff and has quoted from the movie before on the campaign trail. This time, however, he stumbled when he referred to the basketball hoop as a “ring,” unleashing a torrent of taunts on social media. Cruz has tried to make up for it by referencing his high school basketball coach.  In any event, it is doubtful the event invoking the Hoosier pastime is helping Cruz achieve his own personal hoop dreams any more than his choice of Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential running mate will.
Some candidates look comfortable with a basketball. Bernie Sanders has always had a soft spot for the sport, played on his high school team, and once even played pro Connie Hawkins one-on-one in New York. On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders toyed with NBC’s Chris Jansing on a West Lafayette basketball court.  If only his campaign was as adept at winning delegates as Sanders was hitting layups against Jansing.
There is nothing in Hillary Clinton’s history to suggest she should get out on the floor and start shooting hoops. But Hillary is a huge proponent of Title IX — authored by Birch Bayh — and of equality for women. A Clinton photo op with women players might be a good idea since girls basketball is as big in some parts of the state as boys basketball. The Notre Dame’s women’s basketball squad is a perennial top team nationally and sometimes draw as many fans as the men’s team.
The one candidate on Tuesday’s Indiana ballot who has a legitimate claim to Hoosier Hysteria is former Congressman Baron Hill, an unopposed candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.  Hill was a gifted high school athlete, All State in football and basketball at Seymour High School, where singer songwriter John Mellencamp was a Hill classmate and neighbor. Hill still holds the state record for the 100-yard dash, a record he will hold in perpetuity as it turns out since the race is no longer run.  Hill was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, the same year as Larry Bird, considered along with Oscar Robertson to be the two greatest home grown Hoosier ballers ever. Hill will occasionally mention his connection to the ‘Hick from French Lick’ in speeches. Bird himself used to attend  Orange County Democratic bean suppers in his hometown, but there is no reason to expect he will involve himself in the Indiana primary this year.
“We’re in Indiana,” Bernie Sanders told NBC’s Chris Jansing, “we have to play basketball!” But as popular as basketball is, it is unclear that a candidate putting himself in a basketball setting or with a legendary coach provides any real boost.  Time will tell if these contests on Tuesday turn out to be barnburners or old fashioned routs.

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.