Cruz, Trump appeal to Indiana's die-hard basketball fans

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Posted: Apr 27, 2016 8:26 PM
Cruz, Trump appeal to Indiana's die-hard basketball fans

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are courting Indiana voters by appealing to the state's love of basketball.

But what should have been a slam dunk for Cruz quickly turned into a foul Tuesday night when he referred to the hoop as a "basketball ring" while recreating a scene from the film "Hoosiers." And Trump is trying to remind Hoosiers of the real-life basketball heyday of the 1970s and 1980s by campaigning Wednesday with former Indiana coach Bob Knight.

Cruz's comment was ridiculed on social media, drawing comparisons to Democrat John Kerry's famous faux pas, when in 2004 he referred to the Green Bay Packers home field in football crazed-Wisconsin as "Lambert Field," instead of Lambeau.

Trump's association with Knight, who brought three national titles to Indiana, also bears some risk. Much like Trump, Knight is known for the unpredictable spout and occasional brashness, and has drawn controversy with boorish behavior that includes accusations of physical and verbal abuse.

"What a winner that is. That's a great man," Trump said after introducing Knight at a rally on Wednesday. "I love the attitude."

Knight's once-broad popularity in the state diminished with his refusal to reconcile with Indiana University in the years since he was fired in 2000 following 29 seasons as the Hoosiers' coach. He has rebuffed invitations for a return to campus and skipped an Assembly Hall ceremony in January honoring his most famous team — the 1975-76 national championship team that is the last Division I men's team to complete a perfect season.

People in Indiana either love Knight or hate him, said undecided Republican voter Russ Hammer, who attended the Cruz rally.

"I'm not sure Trump's doing the right thing there," Hammer said, standing on the floor of the gym made famous in "Hoosiers."

Still, Trump's embrace of the coach is a shrewd political move that is likely to resonate with many of the state's blue-collar basketball fans, said Carey Findley, a Walmart worker who attended the Trump rally despite his own "mixed feelings" about Knight.

"He's a folk hero to people in this state. It's like having God endorse you," Findley said.

All of the plays catering to Indiana's love of basketball come as both Cruz and Trump see the state as crucial to their pursuit of the GOP nomination.

Cruz is looking for an Indiana victory on Tuesday to block Trump from scoring a majority of delegates before the convention this summer. Trump, coming off a sweep on Tuesday in five Northeastern states, hopes another victory will make it nearly impossible for Cruz to play on.

And they both know the allure of basketball to the state's voters.

"We had a floodlight, and me and seven or eight buddies would play every single night until 2 or 3 in the morning," said the 52-year-old Hammer. "We'd shovel snow off to play."

This is the state where Larry Bird grew into a legend. Basketball hoops dot the landscape across the state, from suburban backyards around the biggest city Indianapolis to out of the way places like Knightstown where Cruz stopped on Tuesday.

In an allusion to one of the most famous scenes in "Hoosiers," Cruz had one of his aides drop a tape measure from the top of one of the baskets to show it's the same 10 feet as all the others. Actor Gene Hackman, who plays the coach of a small-town Indiana team, does that to calm down his team before they play in the state championship.

Cruz acknowledged his gaffe while speaking to reporters Wednesday in Indianapolis, saying "I stumbled while speaking." He joked that his campaign team wanted him to run laps for making the mistake.

"The point of that observation is the power brokers in Washington want this race to be over and the media over and over again is repeating Donald Trump's spin that the race is over," he said.

As he recreated the scene Tuesday night, his supporters, who sat on wooden bleachers, and watched from the basketball court floor, roared their approval.

"There is nothing that Hoosiers cannot do," Cruz said.

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Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko contributed to this report.

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