GREENE COUNTY, Ind. — The scene before you is vintage Hoosiers. You’re in the parking lot of the Eastern Greene elementary and middle schools, where the varsity basketball team once played all its games in the gym. You can look out at the rolling hills of rural southern Indiana and just across two-lane Indiana 54, spot a fine-looking home with a pond.
Steve and Joni Nonte live there. Their daughter Anna was once a cheerleader for Eastern Greene and her boyfriend was one of the basketball stars; a smallish, hard-nose guard wearing No. 12. The high school sweethearts are long married now, have three sons, live far away.
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The name of Anna husband’s name is Dusty May. He’ll be the one coaching Florida Atlantic in the Final Four Saturday night, the latest turn in one of the darndest coaching journeys March has seen in a while.
“This is a small community so we all know each other,” Jamie Hudson is saying. He’s the current Eastern Greene varsity coach. “Dusty was my high school teammate, I played with him since fifth grade. A lot of his family is still here, especially on his wife’s side. We support one of our own.”
Yes, here in the heart of Florida Atlantic Owls country, they’re making big plans for the Final Four Saturday night. True, the FAU campus is 1,100 miles away, and the farmlands of rural Indiana seem light years from oceanside at Boca Raton. But just look at all the "Go Owls" signs and the blue and red decorations on the school walls. The official school colors of the Eastern Greene Thunderbirds are red and black, but that’s been changed this week.
Look at the flashing sign out by the highway. One minute it’s informing passersby of an elementary musical coming up. Next... "Good luck Dusty! We are so proud of you."
Look at the sign in the hallway announcing the watch party for the gym Saturday night. Doors open at 5 p.m., several screens showing the Florida Atlantic-San Diego State game at 6:09 p.m. And for 8:30 p.m.: "Celebrate an FAU victory!"
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Look at the announcement that Scott Carmichael, the president of the school board and a video guy, will be in the gym Tuesday night filming anyone who wants to stop by and send best wishes to May. Look at the schedule for dress-up days this week in school: Don’t sleep on FAU pajama day, then FAU beach day, then retro day with Eastern Greene gear since ”Coach May is an EG Alum.” Finally, FAU red and blue day.
Look at the former high school gym — capacity 1,266 — which was routinely packed back in the 1990s when May was a guard. The high school team plays in a relatively new and large place now, which seats 3,000, which is a hundred seats more than the Florida Atlantic arena. Well, this is Indiana.
The Eastern Greene folks have displayed old newspaper clippings and yearbooks from back then for any interested visitors this week. You can read how the Thunderbirds won the country invitational and took a 19-2 record into the sectional tournament, but lost to the big school mood-killers from Bedford North Lawrence. There’s a photo of a young Dusty May on a middle school team from years ago. Cheerleaders, too. Just a row down from him, Anna Nonte.
Family means a lot here. Roots mean a lot. Basketball means a lot. Those are mixing this week in a heartfelt crescendo they hope carries all the way to Houston.
“There is a buzz in the community like we haven’t seen in a long time,” Nathan Martindale is saying. He’s the middle school athletic director and helping organize the watch party with high school AD Aaron Buskirk. “It’s just one of those things when you have someone from a small school, a small rural area that goes and makes a lot of noise. It’s just really exciting for us to be able to back him and support him.”
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May’s unconventional road to the Final Four — from somewhere out in the country to student manager under Bob Knight at Indiana to a coaching career and now an epic underdog story in the Final Four — is a hot topic at the moment. “All I ever wanted to do was be a high school basketball coach in Indiana,” he said the other day. “This all kind of just happened.”
It is a saga born in the farmlands.
First, there was Dusty May, the rural kid. Let Hudson describe that.
“We don’t really have a town here. We put up tobacco together. We put up hay together. That’s what you did back then to make a little money.
“Open gyms during our era were brutal. Practices were brutal. We didn’t want to lose because there was a consequence for losing and that was a lot of running. We had our battles but he was my teammate, I was going to go to war for him and I knew he would go to war for me. That’s why I loved playing with him.
“I’m very proud of his success. I told him that the other day in a text. I don’t try to bother him too much. I know he’s getting a lot of emails and texts. He always responds back. That just shows you the kind of character he has with the relationships he has from here.”
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Then there was Dusty May, the high school team leader. Mark Barnhizer can describe that. He was then Eastern Greene’s coach, and has since moved on to bigger schools. If the last name rings a bell, his son Brooks was a key player this winter in Northwestern’s surprisingly strong season.
“He was probably the hardest-working kid that I know has come out of that school,” Barnhizer said of May. “There was no doubt from the start that Dusty was going to do something. Not just something, but something. I just didn’t know what it was going to be. I knew he was going to coach and I knew he was going to be a great coach. I just didn’t know at what level. His relentless drive set him apart from just about any other kids that I’ve coached.”
“I’m not talking just about basketball. He ran cross-country for me, too. And I’ll tell you he didn’t love cross-country but when you’d get in the big meets, he’d run and then throw up at the end. That’s the kind of kid he was. He would do the same kind of things he’s doing now. He would overcome anything that was in front of him or behind or anything else.
“He basically for four years ran our team. He knew exactly what the coach wanted done and he made sure not only he, but the other kids would do it, too. I remember even in middle school he did the same thing. He didn’t do it in a way that, oh, Dusty May thinks he’s above everybody else. He did it the way leaders do it, Because of that, every kid in our school followed him.”
Next, Dusty May, the freshman guard who didn’t play much at Oakland City University, an hour from home. Then-Oakland City coach Mike Sandifar:
“Dusty came to see me and said he was thinking about transferring. I think in his mind he wanted to play. I said `if that’s what you think you need to do, that’s OK, but you need to really think about it.’ He said to me, ‘it’s not what you think. At break I’m going to go to IU and talk to Coach Knight to see if I can be a student manager. Because if I can’t play, I’d like to go where I could really study under Coach Knight.
“He was a nice shooter, handled the ball well. I thought down the road he would help us. If he would have started, he probably would have stayed, which would have been a mistake considering all he’s done. He made the absolutely right decision. He was wise, even as a freshman. I don’t think he envisioned this, but he wanted to coach. He wasn’t selfish, he wasn’t rude, he wasn’t `if I don’t play, I’m leaving.’ He just said, `If I can’t play here, being a student manager would I think help me in what I want to do.’”
Something else Barnhizer said: “There’s a lot of guys that are a little bit like Dusty but didn’t make the right moves. Dusty made all the right moves.”
May lived just off Indiana 45, the road that goes into Bloomington. Legend has it he had an in with Knight because he mowed the Indiana team doctor’s grass. If so, it was the most valuable lawn work he’ll ever do. His college days with the Hoosiers launched him on this coaching path that has led to Saturday night.
It’ll be bright, noisy, crowded and chaotic Saturday night in Houston. Nothing like back home where it all began. There'll be more than 70,000 in NRG Stadium. That's more than double every man, woman and child in Greene County.
How to describe Dusty May’s homeland? A story from Sandifar:
“I actually interviewed for a job there once. I got there and I thought I had the wrong place. I was supposed to be there at 6, I was there about quarter till. About 10 after, a tractor comes up, some guy gets off. I’m thinking it’s a maintenance man. I go out and told him what I was doing. He said, `yeah, I’m on the school board, come on in.”'
Sandifar didn’t get the job.
This from Barnhizer:
"Basketball is first, second and third out there. He grew up in a small community but he grew up in a place that loved it probably as much as anywhere in this state loves basketball.”
Also, many of the folks tend to stay close to home.
Barnhizer: “There was a custodian at that school that said to me one day, `Hey coach. I went into the big city this weekend, it’s the first time I ever went in there.' “I said, 'you went to Indianapolis?’ No, Bloomington. That’s 12 miles from Eastern Greene, the guy’s 50 years old and had never been to Bloomington.”
But basketball can take them places. Hudson mentioned how three players from his 1990s teams went into coaching. The basketball world now knows one of them, and that combination of love for the game and unshakable loyalty among those who call here home should be on full display in the gym Saturday. Concessions will be open. The school mascot will be throwing out FAU shirts and towels.
“As an Eastern Greene community that loves basketball we’re expecting a pretty large crowd,” Martindale said.
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One possible issue: Should the Owls team win yet again, what to do about the championship game? Monday is a school night and tipoff is well after 9 p.m. “We’re thinking about it,” Martindale said. “We’re hoping that’s a problem we have to deal with.”
This Dusty May knows for sure: Come Saturday night, they’re all in for Florida Atlantic back home. The Owls might not be America’s team, but they’re certainly Greene County’s team.
“I think Dusty never forgets where he came from,” Hudson said, How could he, with so many roots that run so deep? One of the toughest losses for Hudson’s Eastern Greene team this season was 49-48 to Shakamak, on two free throws with 4.3 seconds left. The Shakamak player who made them was J.T May, Dusty May’s nephew.
Basketball is the tie that binds so tightly around here. Especially Saturday night.