KNIGHTSTOWN, Ind. — Jerry Cain’s never tasted a beer in his life, not even a sip. And definitely not a shot of bourbon or a martini or one of those pastel-colored fruit drinks. He is a retired math teacher who lives in the countryside of Knightstown, Indiana, where goats butt horns in the backyard and an endless stream of cats parades on the sidewalk, perches on windowsills and sprawls out on the porch.
The only real clue, at first, as to who lives in this house is a tiny basketball, the size of a golf ball, that sits just inside the front door on the entryway table. But through the kitchen into the living room, there they are.
Game programs, thousands of them crammed into filing cabinet drawers, stuffed in manila folders stacked on a wooden chest.
This is Cain’s beer. His addiction. Indiana high school basketball.
The state’s basketball cathedrals: Indiana is home to the largest high school gyms in the U.S.
“A gymnasium is my bar,” said Cain, 79, from his home this week. “When I go to a game, 80% of the time I don’t know a soul, I don’t really care who wins. But I can sit there for an hour and a half and I don’t have one problem in the world because I’m watching a basketball game. So I say, ‘The basketball game’s my bar.’”
Cain’s been to a whole lot of these bars.
Since 1941, when his mom first carried him into a tiny gym in Hancock County to watch his older brothers play, Cain has been to 517 gyms and more than 10,000 games.
He’s seen buzzer beaters and blowouts. He’s watched schools consolidate and beloved, old gyms shut down. He’s seen players he considers the best of all time, Oscar Robertson and Jackie Young. He’s watched 5,000 people go into a frenzy at a 1969 championship sectional game at Hinkle Fieldhouse, storming the concession stand and stealing candy bars and popcorn.
“I don’t worry about the coaches. I don’t worry about the referees. You can be lousy, good, I could care less,” Cain says. “I want to watch 10 kids out there on the floor. I don’t give a darn about the rest of them.”
“You know, I haven’t counted how many games I’ve actually gone to, I just know that the last 40 years I think I’ve averaged at least 170 games a year,” he said. “And I really would guess 175, but I’m just going by 170.”
Conservatively then, that’s 6,800 games in 40 years. Add the previous 39 years and he’s positive he’s been to more than 10,000.
The coronavirus pandemic didn’t hinder Cain much. He made it to more than 150 games in 2020. In some instances, he had to buy the tickets online early or knew someone at a school who got him in.
The most games he’s ever seen in one day is 10.
Janice Cain is standing in the kitchen as Cain tells his stories, with a look on her face that isn’t easy to read. Jerry Cain says he and his wife have never really gotten into an argument about this basketball addiction of his.
“It’s all right,” Janice says.
“No. It’s more like I torment her and she says, ‘Don’t you have a basketball game to go to or something?’” he said. “Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do, three of them.”
Cain has concocted a simple ritual for game days. A front row bleacher seat, a walk at halftime and no visits to the concession stand.
“I’ve had people ask me why not. I say, ‘Well, if I eat a hot dog and a coke and a box of popcorn every time I went to a game what do you suppose I’d weigh?’” he said. “I might weigh 400.”
When it comes to conversations at games, he’s OK chatting a bit, but one time there was a guy who sat next to him who never stopped talking. That drove Cain crazy.
“I want to watch the games,” he said. “There is not going to be much gabbing.”
That includes toward the refs. In his younger days, Cain would say a thing or two about what he thought were unfair fouls or missed travels.
But he hasn’t yelled at a ref since 1971. It was a game when a couple of Darlington’s high scorers each got two fouls called on them minutes into the game.
“The game’s over,” he said. “They can’t play like they could or should so I just yelled at them. I thought they were making some awful calls early in the game.”
Cain found out in February he is battling leukemia. His doctor, Cain said, has told him he’s not sure how much time he has left.
“I’d kind of like to know,” he said. “It’s guesswork. We all know that, so I would like for him to tell me I got a year, I got six months, I got three years or whatever. I just want to face the facts.”
How much more time does he have to watch high school basketball. Everyone who knows him hopes it’s many, many years.
“If there is a ball, whistle and two teams, he wants to see it,” Huppert said. “He’s all that is good with high school sports.”