STARKVILLE — In Indiana, basketball is more than just a game.
Thirteen of the 14 largest high school gyms in America are housed in the Hoosier State.
At the college level, Indiana and Purdue have combined for five national championships and 10 Final Fours, while Butler and Indiana State also have Final Four appearances to their names.
Legendary coaches Bob Knight and Gene Keady have helped immortalize the state’s storied basketball tradition. Hollywood, too, aided in its aura courtesy of the 1986 film “Hoosiers,” starring Gene Hackman.
But beyond its identity as a basketball-crazed haven, Indiana is the place Mississippi State women’s basketball assistant coaches Scepter Brownlee and Keith Freeman call home.
“It’s personal,” Brownlee told The Dispatch. “In Indiana, basketball is a way of life.”
Raised in Westfield, Indiana — just north of Indianapolis — Freeman never intended on a career in college basketball.
Having changed his major from education to business during his freshman year at Huntington University in northeast Indiana after a bulletin board project dissuaded him from teaching, a job in the corporate world felt appealing. But after landing an assistant coaching gig with the women’s basketball team under then-coach Brad Miller — who also served as one of Freeman’s professors — he was quickly thrust into the profession that has carried him to six schools at varying levels over the past 37 years.
Following Freeman’s inaugural season working with the Foresters as a student assistant, Miller vacated his post as head women’s basketball coach. Freeman was offered the job.
At 19 years old and with three years of undergraduate studies remaining, he was called into president Gene Habecker’s office to discuss his new role.
“I remember (Habecker) calling me into his office and telling me, ‘I’m going to give you a chance. Don’t blow it or make me look bad,'” Freeman recalled through a laugh.
Following a two-year spell coaching the women’s team at Huntington in which he won the school’s first ever National Christian College Championship, Freeman took over the men’s program between 1985-1989. Concluding his undergraduate studies in May 1986, he graduated cum laude with a degree in business administration and added an MBA from Ball State a year later.
After the 1989 season, Freeman moved from Huntington to the now-defunct St. Joseph’s College, where he guided the Pumas to the Division II Elite Eight during the 1991-92 season.
Continuing his rapid rise through the coaching ranks, he was offered the head women’s job at Valparaiso after compiling an 85-28 record at the helm in Rensselaer.
Working opposite longtime Crusaders men’s basketball coach Homer Drew — the father of Baylor head coach Scott Drew and Grand Canyon head coach Bryce Drew — Freeman spent 18 years at the helm at Valparaiso.
Resigning at the end of the 2011-12 season before a six-year run as an assistant coach at Wright State, he finished his time at Valparaiso as the winningest women’s basketball coach in school history.
“To come in and understand that you’re the caretaker for programs that have some pretty significant history, have had some success, is a fairly intimidating thing,” Valparaiso Athletic Director Mark LaBarbera, who took his current post in 2004, told The Dispatch. “The kind of person (Freeman) is, he did make it easier. Our ability to have conversations and talk about the program and the institution was very helpful as we tried to strategize and keep things at that level.”
110 miles southeast of Valparaiso sits Fort Wayne. The second largest city in the state, it’s the place in which Brownlee’s basketball journey began.
Upon his arrival, Concordia Lutheran High School’s basketball history was one short on titles and long on dry spells. The Cadets earned their first conference title in 1964 but wouldn’t earn their second until 1989. The third would follow 10 years later, beginning a run of three conference championships in five seasons.
Playing under longtime coach Ron Holmes, among others, during his high school career, Brownlee played a key role in Concordia Lutheran’s run to its 1999 conference title.
A former Marine who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, Holmes was tough to his core. The Purple Heart emblazoned on his license plate served as a staunch reminder of his past life and offered a look at the discipline he asked of his squad.
“I was like ‘Yo, I didn’t sign up for this,'” Brownlee’s high school teammate Lewis Clark quipped of Holmes’ intensity. “But he was a good coach, and I know Scepter definitely learned a lot from him, adding onto the stuff he already had.”
A fundamentally sound, do-it-all guard, Brownlee averaged 12 points and nine assists as a senior alongside Curry, who went on to star at Butler during the early 2000s. Brownlee was also named to the famed Indiana All-Star game and served as an alternate for the Wendy’s Classic.
“I loved growing up in Indiana because (basketball) was supported,” Brownlee said. “You played in front of 4,000 fans every Friday night that you played. …The next morning it was going to be either you won or you lost in the paper, so you better do what you were supposed to do.”
Following his standout high school career, Brownlee bounced from Glen Oaks Community College (Michigan) where he averaged 15 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals as a sophomore, to finishing out his eligibility at the University of San Francisco.
“He was a competitor, and I always knew that he would go on to be a great coach,” Eric Vaughn, Brownlee’s former youth pastor and basketball trainer, told The Dispatch. “I’m not surprised at all that he went that direction. He was that kind of guy in school.”
In the 16 years since his graduation from San Francisco, Brownlee hasn’t coached closer to Indiana than Cape Girardeau, Missouri — a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Fort Wayne.
As for Freeman, he spent the better part of four decades in Indiana before departing, taking an assistant coaching role at Wright State.
Joining new Mississippi State coach Nikki McCray-Penson’s staff during her second season at Old Dominion, Brownlee and Freeman both played key roles in the Monarchs’ overhaul from a program stuck in the purgatory of losing seasons to its current status as a contender in Conference USA.
But now entering their first year at Mississippi State under McCray-Penson, Brownlee and Freeman have moved even farther from their home state than their previous stops. And while Starkville sits roughly 590 miles from Westfield and 688 miles from Fort Wayne, both Brownlee and Freeman carry with them the competitive drive and basketball influences of the Hoosier State.
“Indiana will always hold a special place in my heart because I got my start there and made so many strong connections in coaching,” Freeman said.
“You drive through neighborhoods, and there are no houses that are not going to have a basketball goal up on the barn, are going to have one in the driveway, are going to have one in the backyard,” Brownlee added. “It’s just something you grow up and do.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.