South Bend Washington, high school basketball deserved better than Thursday's 'fan' brawl

South Bend Washington boys' basketball coach Ryan Varga believes plenty of good can come from the bad that unfolded Thursday at halftime of a boys' basketball game on South Bend's west side.
South Bend Washington boys' basketball coach Ryan Varga believes plenty of good can come from the bad that unfolded Thursday at halftime of a boys' basketball game on South Bend's west side.

Seriously, South Bend?

High school basketball in this town — in this state — is sacred. So are high school gymnasiums, where no matter what’s happening outside those four walls on a given winter’s night, you can grab a box of popcorn, grab a spot on a wooden bleacher (ouch!) and settle in for 32 minutes.

Of a game. 

Of good kids doing good stuff. Making jumpers. Driving for layups. Grabbing rebounds. Competing until the final buzzer, often against their buddies. Doesn’t matter if it’s North (Clay), South (Riley), East (Adams) or West (Washington). Go to a gym around town and leave your problems behind for a few hours.

More:Brawl in stands forces postponement of South Bend Washington-Riley boys basketball game

Then Thursday night happened, when there was no final buzzer out at the Great Western Forum. Out on the West Side of South Bend. Out at Washington High School.

On a night that saw the head coach (Matt Painter) of the nation’s top-ranked college basketball team (Purdue) in attendance to scout potentially future Boilermakers. In a game that meant a whole lot to Washington players set to celebrate their Senior Night. During as successful a season as the Panthers (14-3 overall) have had in nearly a decade.

Instead of a game, we get dopes playing games that don’t involve a ball and a basket. We get video of “fans” and we use that word loosely for this one — deciding that halftime was the time to throw hands. To feel strong. To seemingly settle a score that didn’t involve a board. We have other spectators running wildly around the gym floor. We have reports of every police officer in town being summoned to the scene. Another report of an ambulance responding.

Right around the time of the third quarter, when sweat should’ve been mopped from one baseline after a block or a charge or a Panther or a Wildcat scrambling for a loose ball, they were reportedly wiping up ... blood.

What are we doing here? 

High school basketball isn’t about what happens on the corner, so don’t take it on to the court. That’s just common sense.

Video of the incident swept across the state before sunrise Friday — how the Riley and Washington game was suspended because of a “brawl.” No matter if it was gang-related or revenge-related, doesn’t really matter. It was stupid-related. As they say, you can’t fix stupid.

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Classify it what you want — a brawl, a fight, a disagreement, or just a bunch of clowns doing clown stuff. Whatever it was/is, it’s not good. Not for this city, and certainly not for a school that has worked long and hard and spilled plenty of sweat and tears to scrub an image of, that’s just "Washington being Washington."

That’s simply not true.

Spend five minutes with any Washington High School player in any sport. Spend five minutes with any Washington High School coach, in any sport. Inevitably, the conversation turns to a bigger picture. A harder picture. A view that administrators and coaches and players at Washington have worked to shake, a stigma of “Washington being Washington.”

How they’re better than what they’re portrayed. And they are. Heck, football coach Todd Stammich often is moved to near tears when addressing that stigma. Washington may not win as often as other teams around town, around the area. Good luck finding a group of athletes and coaches who care as much. Panther Pride isn’t just a snappy slogan.

The Washington girls’ basketball team is on a journey toward a second state championship. Maybe an undefeated season. The boys’ basketball team is rolling. That’s Washington being Washington.

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Two weeks ago Friday, a sellout crowd of 4,500 fans sat shoulder to shoulder over at Penn High School to watch two of the area’s top boys’ basketball teams play. Marian fans got hot; Penn fans got hot. Marian fans got heated; Penn fans got heated. For four quarters, it was energy and entertaining and we’ve got spirit yes, we do, how about you?

At halftime, and in the end, there were no fights. No fists. No calls for extra cops. Just basketball. Just a January Friday night in Northern Indiana, the way it’s supposed to be.

Penn's Dylan Derda (33) blocks the shot attempt by Marian’s Dareon Thornton (2) in the fourth quarter Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, at Penn High School. Penn won 66-52.
Penn's Dylan Derda (33) blocks the shot attempt by Marian’s Dareon Thornton (2) in the fourth quarter Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, at Penn High School. Penn won 66-52.

That’s not to say that, hey, look, Penn is better because nothing happening. It's to say that it can be done. Differences can be set aside. Games can go on. It's not hard, people.

Leave whatever issues you have with others for whatever reason outside of the gym. Have beef with someone? Squash it for a few hours out of respect for the kids. For the game. Can’t do that? Then don’t come.

Imagine being a varsity player from Riley or Washington. You’re in the locker room. You’re preparing to play the second half. You know Painter, and likely other college coaches, might still be in the stands. Then, you’re told that there is no second half, through no fault of their own. Wait, what?

They did nothing wrong, but for a few hours, for a few days, they pay the price. Maybe next time, with reports of no arrests or serious injury, just clear the gym and let the kids do what they’re supposed to do. Let them play the final two quarters. Let the Washington seniors have their night. Gym’s empty, sure, but at least the game goes on. At least the other guys, whoever they are, don’t win.

Washington head coach Ryan Varga, also the school’s dean of students, took to social media just after midnight Friday morning to voice his feelings, and he has strong feelings.

“We didn’t allow kids to be kids!” Varga wrote. “We didn’t allow seniors to have their moment! However, this had nothing to do with Riley High School or Washington High School … Nothing to do with both administrations or police controlling the environment.”

On a night that could separate a city, Varga believes the opposite can be true. Will it?

“This is where we stand (a part) of the change and not the problem,” he wrote. “We will overcome!”

The game was officially “postponed” meaning officials from both schools, officials with the South Bend Community School Corporation, will figure out when and where and how to finish it. Maybe they don’t get to a second half. Maybe they do and play in an empty gym where a winner and a loser are determined.

Still, everyone lost Thursday night. For all the wrong reasons.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Brawl in stands marred South Bend Washington-Riley basketball game