Ken Roberts remembers a time when basketball in Waxahachie wasn’t too different than Indiana, the self-proclaimed basketball capital of America.
Indian fans would pack J.W. Williams gym on both sides for home games, leaving visitors with little room to sit, much less breathe.
“When there was a home game, the visitors in our district knew they better get there early because they were going to have about half the visitors side to sit on because Waxahachie would pack the home side and half the visitors side,” Roberts said. “And you couldn’t hear yourself think in that place. It was crazy.”
The voice of KBEC 1390 and longtime broadcaster of the Runnin’ Indians was a student at Waxahachie High School during the 1970s, a time when basketball hardly took the back seat to any other sport.
Waxahachie made its sixth appearance in the UIL State Basketball Tournament in 1976 before rattling off four consecutive appearances from 1980 to 1983.
“It was a mad house,” Roberts recalls. “It really was and it was fun to watch. No matter where we played in the playoffs, we would take an unbelievable number of people to the games.”
Waxahachie capped off its run with a state title in 1983, the second in school history.
Basketball was more than alive in Ellis County. It was thriving, Roberts said. It was the go-to event of the week as fans rushed to games to see the Runnin’ Indians compete for a spot in the state tournament, a place that was practically a second home to Waxahachie.
“Right now, we’re expecting to try to make the playoffs next year,” boys varsity head coach Damien Mobley said.
32 years have passed since their state title run.
The foundation that once stood as the pinnacle of sports in the area slowly began to lose its footing after the ‘80s. And after football rose to prominence with a state championship in 1993, basketball was seemingly benched in the community.
“It just had gotten in such bad shape that folks just finally started to bail out on it,” Roberts said.
Things only declined in the 2000s and Mobley’s hiring was the first sign of hope for the future, Roberts said.
Leading up to Mobley’s hiring, Waxahachie was a combined 7-47 overall and 3-25 in district games since the 2011-2012 season.
The Runnin’ Indians went 3-25 the year before Mobley was brought in from James Madison High School to coach the team.
And although his job is to coach the boys varsity team, he’s also trying to re-establish the basketball culture that once existed so long ago.
“It seems as if there’s a little bit more interest towards basketball is starting to grow a little bit more than maybe the first year I was here,” Mobley said. “I think it might be a little buzz about Waxahachie can actually be a competitive environment or community when it comes to basketball in UIL. It’s a little bit more popular.”
Waxahachie hasn’t had a winning season since 2010-2011. Although the Indians have showed improvement under Mobley, the team is 17-36 after two years and if its something Leslie Priebe, girls varsity basketball head coach knows, winning generally translates to interest.
“I’ve coached when there are 10 people in the stands and when there are 10,000 people in the stands and it’s all because of winning,” Priebe said.
The girls varsity team won the state championship in 2006 and made tournament appearances in the late 1990s.
Priebe said a winning program definitely contributed to having more fans in attendance, but it hasn’t been easy given the lack of resources Waxahachie is providing for its basketball community.
“When I first got here they used to have a Pee-Wee league and they don’t have that anymore,” she said. “Not having that has definitely affected the participation and number of players. They charge for facility usage and they didn’t do that back then when we had multiple teams in the summer league, which hurts the basketball programs now.”
Both Priebe and Mobly are trying to work around the lack of resources by hosting basketball camps and opening up gyms at local schools for kids to use.
Mobley is currently overseeing his summer basketball camps that are being held at Waxahachie High School’s freshman campus.
This year, he’s working with about 60 kids, which is slightly more than last year he said.
“If you don’t have a gym for the kids to play, then it really isn’t catching on,” Mobley said. “But now with me having summer basketball camps, having summer open gyms, allowing the community to come in and work in the gym and play, the ball is starting to roll a little bit more.”
Participation, however, might not be the only thing affected by the lack of resources in the area.
Mobley said the hardest challenge he’s encountered since joining Waxahachie is the lack of mental fortitude amongst his players.
Most of the players at Waxahachie are equally as talented as the players he coached at James Madison, a 3A high school located in Dallas, he said. The difference lies in their attitude where players at James Madison expected to win each game, players in towns like Waxahachie did not.
“It seems more challenging for the small town athletes to really figure or think that they’re on the same stage as your urban, suburbs, and big city guys,” Mobley said. “So that was more of a challenge to make these guys believe.”
The difference in mentality could be attributed to the lack of interest from the community and declining resources available to aspiring players.
But if Mobley can establish the success similar to what Priebe achieved, perhaps Waxahachie will restore the basketball culture that’s been waiting to tip-off since the glory days.
“Waxahachie has a great basketball history,” Roberts said. “And it’s just trying to get back to that type of feeling in the community because it’s been lost because it’s gotten so bad.”
Daily Light sports editor Geoff Gorman contributed to this article.