arts

Down, but not out

'Medora' tells story of Indiana high school basketball team working to break losing streak



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The documentary "Medora" is about basketball team from Medora, Ind., who is the worst in the state. The documentary is playing at IU Cinema Nov. 21 to 24. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

A locker room full of high school basketball players sat on the benches, heads hanging. Sweat dripped from their foreheads as their coach yelled at them after the end of a lost game.

“Zero,” Justin Gilbert said. “Zero points. You didn’t score once in the fourth quarter.”
Gilbert was the head coach of the Medora, Ind., high school basketball team in 2011, which had a multiple-year losing streak.

That year was his first year coaching, and he hoped to turn the team around.

“Eight minutes,” he said. “And you didn’t score once.”

Medora is about 40 miles southeast of Bloomington. The population is slightly more than 500 people, and only a few small businesses line the streets. The high school serves as the main economic and communal hub of this poverty-stricken, quiet Midwest town.

Before 2009, many had never heard of Medora, until New York Times reporter John Branch discovered the town and its failing basketball team.

After Branch’s article was published, two friends, Davy Lothbart and Andrew Cohn, stumbled upon it and were taken by the perfect metaphor of both the failing town and the failing basketball team.

“It was a film we were born to make,” said Cohn, director of the documentary “Medora,” based on the Medora Hornets high school basketball team during their 2010-11 season.

Once Cohn and Lothbart came up with the idea of their documentary, they began work in 2010.

“We moved down to Medora and got to know the kids on and off the court and really tried to piece together what happened to this town,” Cohn said.

The documentary premiered at the IU Cinema Thursday evening to a full house and is set to tour 21 cities. It has already won more than 10 film festival awards.

“We didn’t think that anyone was going to see it,” said Rusty Rogers, the center for the team.

However, the film has been getting a lot of attention and has supporters like Stanley Tucci and David Letterman.

After filming, Cohn and Lothbart needed money to fund their editing process. They decided to set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for their project with a goal of $18,000, but ended up raising about $65,000, Cohn said.

The directors are also selling Medora merchandise that goes back to the school system to help fund its athletic programs and provide technological tools for the students.

“We hope this film makes it harder for the school to shut down,” Cohn said.

* * *

Fifty years ago, Medora was known as a budding-town with jobs and a growing population. Population hit its peak in 1990 with 805 people, according to Indiana’s census data.

Since then, about 300 people moved away as businesses and factories shuttered, Cohn said.

According to the New York Times article, an automotive plastics factory that employed several hundred closed in 1988. Fewer than five years later, the brick-making plant shut down and the town lost even more jobs.

“When an industry leaves a town the size of Medora, it’s hard,” Cohn said. “People just start to leave. The people that are there have been there for generations. People leave because they have to, not because they want to.”

Despite the closings, Medora High School seems to keep the town on the map.
“For a lot of these small towns, the few that are left, the schools are a central part of the town’s identity and economy,” Cohn said.

However, the school’s enrollment record has also been dropping as families move.
“The last time I was there, less than a year ago, the school itself had an enrollment of 75,” said Riley Morris, a sophomore IU student who grew up in Medora.
 
Each time the school loses students, funding drops and it is forced to make more cutbacks, Morris said.

The town identity is reflected on Medora’s high school basketball team, which had a losing streak of 0-22 before filming and, according to the New York Times article, had a group of players facing hardship in their personal lives.

* * *

Of the 19 boys on the 2009 team, only five lived with both their mother and father. The rest were spread out between grandparents, foster parents or with other friends.

Rogers moved in with his friend Zach Fish’s family after his mother went to rehab for alcohol addiction. After she left, he dropped out of school and got a job at Hardee’s.
After Fish’s mother took him in, he could go back to school.

About 10 percent of the students in the high school experienced drug problems as well, according to the New York Times article. Many of the players smoked cigarettes, and the town itself was known as a “meth-head” town.

“Medora has a reputation of being a drug town,” Morris said. “I think that may be
another reason so many people leave.”

Not only did the school suffer from lower funding in 2011, but the opportunities for higher education were slimmer in Medora, Cohn said.

“They tried to get me to transfer to another school, but I didn’t want to and my parents didn’t want to drive to another town everyday,” Morris said. “The hardest part was a lack of opportunities. There weren’t many extracurricular options or classes and a lot of people told me I was going to fail.”

Morris is the first person in his family to attend college and struggled to complete college applications because there was little instruction from high school counselors. Whenever Morris returns to Medora, he gives a presentation at the high school about the college admissions process to high school sophomores and juniors.

* * *

After losing 13 games in the Hornets’ 2010-11 season, they picked up a 63-57 win against Columbus Christian in Columbus, Ind., in the final game of the documentary.
Columbus missed its final shot, and Medora came out victorious.

“Medora wins,” the announcer said. “Medora wins!”

In the past two seasons, the Hornets haven’t increased its number of wins, but the boys still strive to achieve larger goals.

Rogers is a coach for middle school basketball players in Medora and is planning to attend college. Logan Farmer, another member of the 2010-2011 team, is a sophomore at Vincennes University.

The basketball team may not be any better, and the economy may still be struggling, but there is hope.

“We hope that people think of the value of small towns,” he said. “We don’t pretend to have any of the answers to the larger questions.”

Follow reporter Alison Graham on Twitter @AlisonGraham218.

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