In Amish Indiana, Tradition And Heritage Mix With Basketball
MONTGOMERY, Ind. (AP) — The old chestnut is that basketball is its own religion in Indiana, a church that welcomes Hoosiers into the temple on cold winter nights, celebrating raucous services in front of screaming parishioners.
But there’s a part of the state where the Holy Order of Hoops intersects with real, actual religion. Where some kids lace up an NBA star’s brand of sneakers while others come from homes where modern amenities, such as electricity, are considered a sin.
The game may feel ancient, created some 130 years ago by James Naismith, but the stories of the Amish and Mennonites are much older. They parted ways two centuries before the ball and peach basket.
Yet, here they are today in rural Southwestern Indiana, unified after all these years by their love of community and the sport, with tradition left to decide who can put on a jersey and who goes to work at the sawmill.
Sport and politics mixing have recently become culturally encouraged, but basketball and religion have been knit together for decades in the form of the “Buggy Bowl” rivalry game between Barr-Reeve and North Daviess high schools.
The game has been a good contest on the court, and there’s been plenty of mischief off it.
There is a longtime tradition that week. Every year in late January, the schools’ seniors have played pranks that range from the simple to the complex in the small towns of Montgomery and Elnora. Teenagers would sneak out of the house and steal horses and buggies from the Amish community and take them to their schools. Most were simply left around the parking lot, but some end up on the inside.
It used to be nothing for an Amish farmer to wake up and find his transportation missing. School officials once found two horses in the middle of a library. Another time, the kids got a fully-assembled buggy on the roof of the school.
It’s calmed down a bit in recent years.
These days, the kids ask permission to borrow the buggies. Most come from Amish family members happy to help because, after all, it’s Buggy Bowl week.
“It’s those kinds of memories that bigger schools may think, ‘Well, what’s the point?’,” Barr-Reeve senior Isaac Wagler said. “Or, ‘That’s stupid.’ Right? But it’s just fun, little things like that that make this a great opportunity for us to grow up around here.”
Cognizant and admirable. Yet not everyone gets to share in the experiences.
Last year, North Daviess athletics director Brent Dalrymple estimated that 40 percent of its school system’s boys drop out after the eighth grade due to religion. It’s not as extreme to the south, and this is a broader measure, but Barr-Reeve athletics director Aaron Ash said about one of every six students (16.7 percent) prepare to enter the workforce at 14 years old after graduating Amish school.
Some could be standout athletes while others could go on to college. But it’s always been this way.
It’s doubtful that Barr-Reeve is going to get much sympathy from opposing coaches and fans.
Over the last decade, playing in Class A – the smallest of Indiana’s four enrollment-based sports divisions – the Vikings’ boys basketball team boasts the state’s highest winning percentage at .856. They’ve advanced to the state finals in five of the last 17 years and captured the program’s first championship in 2015 (a documentary film on the season called “Kings of Indiana” was shown over the weekend in Washington, Vincennes and other southern Indiana cities.)
It’s a well-oiled machine. Even with a new coach in Josh Thompson, second-ranked Barr-Reeve owns a 20-2 record after a double-overtime win Feb. 16 against Princeton (a quality 3A opponent). The Vikings swept the Blue Chip Conference to claim their sixth straight title. They travel Friday to Bloomfield for the regular-season finale and then begin their path in the IHSAA tournament March 1.
Montgomery is surrounded by hardwood heroes.
It’s an hour northeast of Evansville, the hometown of Calbert Cheaney – the Big Ten Conference’s all-time leading scorer. Cheaney starred in the early 1990s at tradition-rich Indiana University in Bloomington, another hour up Interstate 69. Seven miles west of Montgomery is Washington, where Mr. Basketball winners Luke (2005), Tyler (’08), and Cody Zeller (’11) won state titles.
These days, part of Luke’s time is spent running an AAU program called DistinXion that conducts some practices at Antioch Christian Church, midway between Washington and Montgomery. Antioch is one of the first buildings you find driving to Montgomery off I-69. His parents, Steve and Sherri, give basketball lessons there five or six times a week.
Some of DistinXion’s first practices were held at a place locally known as “Donut Hill.” It’s technically the Simon J. Graber Sports Complex in Odon, 10 miles north of Montgomery. Luke Zeller has had some 140 interns over the years at DistinXion, and it’s a culture shock to those who grew up in bigger cities.
“They go to Simon J. Graber and literally drive around buggies to get there,” said Zeller, who played at Notre Dame and had a cup of coffee in the NBA. “They’ve never seen buggies, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, this is totally normal.’ We just completely downplay it because to us it really is normal.”
One of the Zeller family friends even brings out a buggy and lets some of the interns drive it.
Montgomery has a population of about 350. Barr-Reeve draws from neighboring towns and territories roughly the same size (or even smaller) and has an enrollment of just over 200. Of course, with a sizeable Amish population – the countywide figure is about 15 percent – there are numerous restaurants and bakeries, antique shops and flea markets.
The main tourist attraction is Gasthof Village, where things such as handmade cabinetry, quilted blankets and jewelry are for sale. There’s an inn where guests can stay and a restaurant with Amish food and desserts. It’s sort of like Cracker Barrel, except the hostesses and waitresses don aprons and bonnets.
On top of the buffet cart is a sign that reads, “Welcome. Take all you can eat and please eat all you can take.” A few comparisons about the sign as it seems to relate to the community: The people are hospitable, well-mannered and resourceful. And the food is spectacular. Fried chicken. Mashed potatoes. Corn. Rolls. Also, you can’t go there and not get a slice of one of their several homemade pies.
It’s all the stuff that gets labeled as “comfort food” for a reason.
“Everyone hypes up the Amish food and how much better it is than everything else,” Wagler said. “Growing up with that is cool because having it whenever you want is special, and then to see how people react when they get it. I have a friend who plays for Washington, Tyson Wright. . He goes crazy over it.”
And he’s just right down the road.
There’s also Amish Country Corner if you’re short on time and can’t go to a sit-down place like Gasthof or Knepp’s. It’s said to be just as good. You’d be hard-pressed to find much, if anything, in Amish Country Corner that lines the aisles at Walmart or other supermarkets. It carries Amish brands such as Walnut Creek deli meat and Troyer cheese.
Montgomery clearly embraces tradition and it’s proud of it.
Of all the billboards lining U.S. 50 in and out of Montgomery, a few highlight the family feel of the community. One features a teacher helping grade-school children with the caption, “It takes more to be a Viking.” Another is a sign that reads, “Welcome to Viking Country!” with a list of the 11 state finals appearances in boys’ and girls’ basketball, volleyball and baseball since 1998. There’s another billboard paying respect to all 21 of the school’s senior athletes in uniform.
“We all love the constant support we get,” said Quentin Yoder, a senior basketball player.
Barr-Reeve’s gym only holds 2,184 fans, but it’s a can of sardines on game nights, creating an electric atmosphere. The crowd feels like it’s right on top of the players and delivers as big a home-court advantage as there is in high school sports. Since the school is forecasting a 12 percent increase in enrollment over the next two years, it will begin construction in May to build a new gym (and classrooms) with a capacity of 3,000 and room for expansion. It’s supposed to be done for the 2020-21 school year.
The Viking faithful take their show on the road, too. For a small school that doesn’t have a football team, they’ve been known for showing up in droves at away games.
“It’s remarkable,” said Wagler, who also plays basketball. “We’ll go on the road, and I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way, but we’ll see that oftentimes we have more fans than the home team. It’s crazy to see that.”
There’s an expectation that you’re going to do things to the best of your ability and conduct yourself the right way. That’s the thing that separates here from other places, and it’s been here for a long time.
That level of support is part of what lured Thompson away from another traditional power – and a much larger school – in Vincennes Lincoln.
Thompson also knew how kids were raised in Montgomery and wanted his sophomore daughter, Jasye, to experience it. She was the starting libero on a Barr-Reeve volleyball team that played in front of sell-out crowds this past fall en route to a state title. Hughes, his predecessor, declined comment for this story beyond one reply via text: “There was a reason I stayed there 26 years.”
Thompson experienced a taste of it when he spent the first four years of his career at Loogootee under current Lincoln interim and Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coach Steve Brett. He said Barr-Reeve student-athletes are held to a higher standard than anywhere he’s seen.
“It’s very conservative and in a good way (with) the traditional values and heritage in the community. There’s an expectation that you’re going to do things to the best of your ability and conduct yourself the right way. That’s the thing that separates here from other places, and it’s been here for a long time,” Thompson said.
“You do your best, and they’ll pat you on the back, but it’s always expected.”
The crowds that pack gyms on Friday and Saturday nights fill the churches on Sunday mornings. Religion sits above all else for many in Montgomery, so it’s probably no coincidence that the town’s tallest building – St. Peter’s Church – displays a cross on top of a gold-painted dome that stands out from a half-mile.
Thompson said students are raised mostly by blue-collar parents who want them involved in church, be it Amish, Mennonite, Catholic or something else. Many kids have parents who were raised Amish and decided to leave the faith. But they also have relatives who stayed.
Brothers Jeff, Jayden and Kevin Graber were pulled out of Barr-Reeve early on to attend Fairview Amish School. So, too, was their cousin, Marlin Graber.
In Dubois County, though, if you ask about Jeff Graber, you get a confused look followed by, “Which one?'” There may be at least a dozen with that legal name who instead go by a family nickname.
For these Grabers, it’s “Mush.” So, in Montgomery, it’s not Kevin Graber; it’s Kevin Mush.
“We have a lot of nicknames out here – like Mush, Pencils, Bandies – because there’s so many Grabers and Waglers,” said Jayden, 24. “It all came from two generations back, so there’s a lot of Mush.”
It’s an Amish word, he explained.
Jayden said it means “have to.” As the tale goes, it started when his great-grandfather penned a letter to a girlfriend in northern Indiana. He would write things like, “You mush come visit.” From that point on, they’ve been referred to by that nickname.
“That’s how we are,” said Kevin, 18.
Excluding Jeff, who married last summer to remain in the Amish community, the other three are at a point in their lives where they’re allowed absolute freedom. It’s an experiment of sorts for them to decide whether they want to break off into the Mennonite, re-join the Amish faith or do something else.
It’s not a choice to be made lightly, so there’s no real deadline.
Here are the differences between the Amish and Mennonites today in Daviess, Martin and Dubois counties, as explained by Steven Nolt, a professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabeth College in Pennsylvania.
For some background, the Mennonites and Amish stem from the same 16th Century roots and have similar religious beliefs. The Amish began in 1693 in Switzerland and Alsace (now France) as a conservative movement within the larger Mennonite body. The issues back then weren’t technology or higher education, of course, but rather a stronger desire to have the church be more separate from “worldly” society.
“The Amish use horse-and-buggy transportation, although they may hire a non-Amish driver to take them on longer trips,” Holt said. “They stop their formal schooling with the eighth grade in their own Amish-run schools and speak a German dialect as their first language – though they also all know English. Men have beards and both men and women dress very distinctly, limit their technology ownership and use (though the details of what they use and don’t use can vary). They hold their Sunday morning worship services by gathering in the homes of members – they do not have church buildings – and believe in helping neighbors in need but do not have any formal mission or service programs.”
Generally, the Mennonites are more outward-focused than the Amish.
“They drive cars,” Holt said. “They complete high school and might attend college. Some attend private Christian high schools but most go to public schools. Few speak any German. Beards and mustaches are personal discretion, but they generally dress like mainstream Americans, though they might have a conservative bias against things like men’s earrings.
Some more conservative Mennonite women might wear a small head covering, though not as large or obvious as an Amish woman’s. Generally, there are no limits of technology ownership. But, again, some more conservative Mennonites would express concerns about television and Internet violence and so on; have church buildings, worship in English. They have formal mission and service programs and community ministry programs, be they after-school programs for kids or soup kitchen-type homeless shelters.”
Kevin Graber said it didn’t seem like there was much difference between Amish school and a place like Barr-Reeve. He said they are taught math, English and health.
No science, though.
“They said they have science here (at Barr-Reeve),” Kevin said. “All my cousins talk about it. That’s something we don’t got.”
Fairview had a basketball team that played other Amish schools.
“That was a highlight of the year,” said Marlin, 18. “Playing out on the outdoor courts. We’d play six or seven games a year. They’d come to our school or we’d go to theirs. That’s where we all learned how to play – there and Donut Hill.”
Barr-Reeve senior Keshon Wittmer said his father, Mark, and many relatives were Amish growing up before breaking off into the Mennonite sect. But a handful of others dropped out before high school.
Either way, their decisions are ultimately respected, and they’re united through basketball – whether it’s played in front of two spectators or 2,000.
Barr-Reeve’s rivalry games – consecutive weeks with Loogootee and North Daviess – were somewhat close calls for the Vikings. They beat Loogootee, 62-53, and then the Cougars, 49-42, a week later that was televised regionally on Fox Sports Indiana as part of “Basketball Day Indiana.”
Both were played despite hazardous road conditions due to snow. A lot of Wittmer’s family played at North Daviess, so he was praying the game – and a shot at bragging rights – wouldn’t be postponed.
“It’s always competitive,” he said. “I loved going over to my grandparents and talking trash afterward.”
The Mush would have loved to play in those settings.
Instead of school, they worked jobs in everything from construction to the family sawmill to the cabinetry business. They couldn’t play basketball or other sports for the high school team but have thoroughly enjoyed playing at Donut Hill.
They’ve been to Barr-Reeve games to see their cousins, like Chris Wittmer – who switched from Amish to Mennonite and played on the 2014 state runner-up team – as well as Keshon and Jenson Wittmer.
But three of the four had never shot on the goals at Kavanaugh Kourt inside Barr-Reeve’s gym.
The one who had is Jeff Graber, or Jeff Mush or as he came to be known in Montgomery, “Air Amish.”
Keshon Wittmer told me about Air Amish first. Depending on who you ask, Air Amish is as tall as 6-foot-8 and leaps out of the gym. In reality, he’s actually closer to 6-4 but used to show up in the wintertime to dominate the top local recreational basketball league, a draw for kids who can’t suit up for their local high school.
Tracking down Air Amish was difficult. Communication was brief and sporadic. I wanted to meet him in person and finally scheduled a time at the Barr-Reeve gym on a February evening.
Word got back to me after I got there. Air Amish said he had a supper date.
Closer to the real reason? He knew I had a photographer in tow, and the Amish frown upon its members having their pictures taken. I worried that might happen, but he instead sent two of his brothers and a cousin and said, “They’ll be able to help you out.”
So I spent the part of the evening with Jayden, Kevin and Marlin. They each brought a pair of Paul George Nike shoes and were about to lace them up to shoot around.
“Yeah, the church doesn’t want (Jeff) going out that much,” Jayden said. “It’s how they’ve always been. It’s tradition, I guess.
“This was a dream, though,” he added while looking out onto the court.
“(Jeff’s) dream, too,” said Kevin. “Well, all of our dreams.”
Replied Jayden: “We would’ve loved all of this.”
Brothers Jayden and Kevin and cousin Marlin Graber, or “Mush” in Dubois County, could’ve been key players at Indiana basketball powerhouse Barr-Reeve.
Kevin and Marlin would have been seniors at Barr-Reeve this year. Kevin is 6-4, built strong and can dunk. Marlin is shorter but can shoot the lights out from beyond the 3-point arc. Jayden is older but similar to Kevin in size and athleticism.
It was hard not to think how even more dominant schools like Barr-Reeve would be with players like them.
“There’s a lot of talent out there, too,” Kevin said. “In northern Indiana, Holmes County (Ohio), Shipshewana with the Pennsylvania Amish and the Lancaster. There’s a lot more, outside of us, that have talent out there.”
Again, these Grabers can do whatever they want for now. Some return to Amish, but most join the Mennonites.
Like many in the area, they’ve discovered a healthy outlet in Donut Hill.
The 27,000 square-foot building cost nearly $3 million to complete in 2002 and was founded as a non-profit by Glen Graber – who owns Graber Post Buildings – and his wife, Mary Jane. It has two full-size courts for basketball and volleyball, plus three adjacent softball fields for the summertime.
“We’re blessed to have a gym like that. It’s really nice,” Marlin said. “And everybody knows everybody.”
There were five divisions this winter in basketball, each with a handful of teams and sorted by level of competition. After recently winning their tournament, Jayden’s team earned a promotion to the “A” league, which is the highest. Kevin and Marlin had a team in the “B” league.
Air Amish always played in the A league, because of course he did.
Some of their friends decide to spend their period of freedom in Florida. The Mush stayed home, where basketball is king regardless of religious denomination.
“It’s a big deal around here,” Jayden said. “I play summer league, winter league. We all do, year-round. But really, we just go to play and have fun. We play in a lot of tourneys – a lot more softball. We may get into that more.”
It’s human nature to entertain hypothetical situations.
The Mush consider what could have been if they went to Barr-Reeve. Kevin can bounce thoughts off Jeff at the family sawmill. Perhaps Jayden will during a break from building a house or pole barn, or Marlin when he’s with his dad working at their cabinet shop.
Kevin goes back and forth with it.
“I really liked (Amish school),” he said. “But I also would’ve loved to come here (to Barr-Reeve). It’s real hard not to (think about it). But I like the Amish life. It’s real hard, though. You watch people who go to college and stuff, and you think, ‘Man, I wish I could’ve done that.’ But.”
Jayden would have loved the opportunity but feels like thinking about it a waste of time.
“You never heard of any Amish go past eighth grade to high school or anything. This is what we’ve always done,” he said.
Maybe for those reasons, Jayden will stay in the faith and Kevin will not.
But it doesn’t seem like it truly matters who’s Amish or Mennonite or Catholic or whatever other religion. This is a unique, mingling community that shares similar values and interests. Everyone lives nearby and meets for social gatherings and spends holidays together.
“It’s family, you know?” Kevin said.