Editor's Note: This story is part of The Partnership Project, a series of content written in an effort by The Daily News to follow the formal collaboration of Ball State University and Muncie Community Schools. Read more in this series here
State or bust.
This was the mindset of the 1987-88 Muncie Central boys' basketball team. After four straight first-round exits in the sectional round, the Bearcats had a mindset to go all the way to Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.
For Chandler Thompson and other seniors on the team, this was their last chance to show the state of Indiana how good the Bearcats were. Muncie Central was ranked in the top 10 of the state the previous few seasons, but they had no hardware to show for it.
“We didn't feel like any other team in the state was better than us,” Thompson said.
The Bearcats had not gotten out of their own sectional since 1982, where they came one win away from advancing to the state finals. Thompson noted how Marion, who had won the previous three state championships in a row — up to that point, only the second school in Indiana to achieve that in basketball — had lost most of their seniors due to graduation; however, Muncie Central had barely lost anyone.
“If we can get that first sectional win, we get the monkey off our back, and then we get a chance to roll,” Thompson said. “We just felt like it was just on us to play together. Win together and fight together.”
Coming into the 1987-88 season, Muncie Central had seven state championships to their name, but they hadn’t had any since 1979 when they took down conference rival Anderson in the state championship game. The Bearcats made it all the way to Market Square Arena and won their eighth state championship in school history. Thirty-five years after the team in purple raised the state championship trophy, players and fans look back on that team.
It was around the time of Muncie Central’s 1979 state championship triumph that Brian Cheatham and his dad started going to Muncie Central games. Cheatham’s parents both went to Muncie Central, and they soon got season tickets to Bearcat games.
“We just got hooked,” he said.
Watching these games, Cheatham looked up to players such as Ray McCallum and Jack Moore since they were shorter than average players in the game of basketball. Inspired by them, the 5-foot8 Cheatham started playing basketball shortly after.
He tried out for the middle school team in seventh grade; he was asked to be a manager for the team, and he accepted that opportunity. In high school, he managed the freshman team, leading to him becoming the manager of the varsity team.
“We had a lot of fun doing it,” Cheatham said
Cheatham said, around Muncie, there was always a “passionate” atmosphere surrounding basketball. Muncie Fieldhouse, where the Bearcats played their games, was always packed on Friday nights.
“When you're ranked up the top and people come, they want to see how good you are,” Cheatham said.
Often in the seats for Muncie Central games during that season while Cheatham was carrying out his managing duties was Kay Rankin.
Between Muncie Northside and Muncie Central, Rankin taught in Muncie for 41 years. A 1964 graduate of Muncie Central High School, she has gone to Muncie Central games since she was in elementary school. Her parents used to take her out of school early Friday afternoons, so she could go see sectional games at Muncie Fieldhouse.
During the 1987-88 season, Rankin taught at Northside High School; however, she still had season tickets for Muncie Central.
“We were with them all the way to state,” Rankin said.
Even before the season started, Thompson said, he felt like the team had “the whole city behind them.”
Thompson noted that during the season, there was “a lot of hype” surrounding the team and their potential, but he said they didn’t listen to the noise.
“We were grounded kids,” Thompson said. “We knew what our goal was. And regardless of what everyone else felt, we knew what we needed to accomplish, and we needed to go out there and do it with them [or] without them.”
During her time as a teacher in Muncie Central, Rankin was also the coach of the cheerleading squad. She helped the cheerleaders decorate the high school, celebrating the Bearcat basketball team and other sports.
“They also decorated the player's lockers, and then they would make decorations to take to the players’ homes,” Rankin said.
Thompson said the team was all friends outside of practices; even if they had their own cliques, they all considered themselves friends and family.
“I think that as a team, we all wanted to do well,” Thompson said.
There was a guiding motto their coach, Bill Harrell, would say to the players during the season; “You can’t be beat if you won’t be beat.” Cheatham said that motto was on a sign the team brought with them to every game that season.
Cheatham doesn’t remember who or where they came from, but during the course of the season, each of the players got to pick a nickname. Thompson was “Showtime,” Sam Long was “Slow Moving” and Billy Vance was “Smoke.” Cheatham was “Half-Court” because at the end of every practice, he would shoot half-court shots. While practicing for the state championship in Market Square Arena, Cheatham attempted a shot from the top of the arena.
The conference Muncie Central was in, the North Central Conference, was considered the best basketball conference in the state, Cheatham said. Alongside Muncie Central, there were other strong programs such as Marion, Anderson and Richmond. When Muncie Central and Richmond played that season, Richmond was ranked No. 1, while the Bearcats were ranked No. 2.
Thompson said that even though Muncie Central lost the game in overtime, Richmond didn’t beat Muncie Central. On the almost hour-long bus drive back to Muncie, there was no talking or joking around; they were upset they lost.
“We took losing seriously,” Thompson said.
That would be the only loss the Bearcats would suffer the entire season.
Thompson said there were many games that challenged the team over the course of the season and made them “battle-tested”; he pointed to the Richmond game, as well as games against Anderson and Ben Davis, as important games.
He felt like the Bearcats “got by” with a win against Ben Davis due to a travel being called on what would be a game-winning shot in the last game of the regular season.
After getting past both Muncie Burris and Muncie Northside in the first two rounds of sectionals, Muncie Central met Muncie Southside in the sectional championship. The previous year, Southside ended Central’s season in an overtime contest in sectionals.
“They always gave us trouble in the sectionals every year,” Cheatham said.
After losing that sectional championship game, Thompson stayed around and watched how everyone else felt; he said it felt “crushing,” and he didn’t want to experience that feeling again.
After another overtime contest, Central pulled away from Southside and captured the win and the sectional championship with a 66-61 victory. Muncie Central later beat New Castle and Greenfield Central to win regionals and earn a chance to play at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
After beating Bloomington South in the morning game, Muncie Central faced off against Ben Davis once again.
“We wanted revenge against Ben Davis,” Thompson said. “It was going to be a tough challenge for us.”
The Bearcats got their revenge, winning 74-69 and punching their ticket for the state finals. In the morning game, they faced Bedford North Lawrence, led by their star player Damon Bailey. However, Muncie Central had to overcome some adversity; Cedric VanLeer, who Thompson referred to as the Bearcats’ second-best player, was out. But Muncie Central was prepared.
“We had guys that knew their roles,” Thompson said. “We had a couple of bench players that came in and defended Bailey very well.”
Central won 60-53 and advanced to the state championship game against Concord, an undefeated squad led by 6-foot-10 senior and future NBA All-Star Shawn Kemp.
“We had never really played anybody that was tall like Shawn Kemp,” Cheatham said.
Cheatham said Thompson played right with him during the game, crediting his long arms and how he could jump “incredibly high.” Thompson also blocked one of Kemp’s shots during the game.
Thompson had a steal which led to a dunk; Rankin remembers after the dunk happened, fans were astounded by it.
“We said to each other, ‘Did he just do what we think he did?’” Rankin said.
Led by Sam Long’s 29 points and Thompson’s 21 points and 3 blocks, Central outlasted Concord 76-53 to win the eighth state basketball championship in school history.
“It's just the best feeling you can have,” Cheatham said. “When you're the best of 300 and some high school teams, you just can't believe it.”
After 35 years, the friendship and the connection with the other members of the state championship team has not waned.
“We all talk to each other throughout the year,” Thompson said. “Most of us still hang out and talk to each other to this day, 35 years later.”