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Basketball Legend's Campaign Gets an Assist From His Fame

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By Chris Cillizza and Jim Vandehei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 24, 2006

MADISON, Ind., Sept. 23 -- From beauty shops to bars, Baron Hill says, he is besieged by people wanting to talk basketball.

Hill is not a coach. He is a Democratic candidate for Congress.

But that is not how he is known best in these parts, where a basketball goal stands in nearly every driveway. Hill is still the guy who was an all-star guard for Seymour High School -- 35 years ago.

Trying to unseat Rep. Michael E. Sodrel (R), he does not hesitate to invoke his basketball credentials to prove his down-home bona fides. Hill still holds the school record for most points scored (1,419) and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 alongside a "hick from French Lick" named Larry Bird.

Hill, who still exudes an athletic air, sat for an interview in a coffee shop in Madison (population 12,000), whose Main Street could have been the set for "Pleasantville." Of basketball, he said, "When it comes up, I take advantage of it."

But Hill's heroics on the court have not always rebounded in his favor politically. In earlier races, he said, sports rivalries often cost him votes -- in precincts where fans with long memories could not bring themselves to support a Seymour star.

The Indiana 9th is a vivid reminder that control of the House will not turn solely on national debates over interrogation rules or the future of Iraq. Often, elections turn on voters' intuitive reactions about who better represents the values of a district.

Hill learned that lesson the hard way. After serving three terms in Congress, he lost to Sodrel by 1,400 votes in 2004 -- a defeat he is "still trying to figure out." One reason for the loss, he says, is that national Republicans were able to portray him as a liberal whose views were out of step with average voters.

Hill said he got the message: "I have to sharpen my image as it relates to values, even though I have my basketball credentials."

Those credentials are gold in a state whose basketball-as-civic-religion tradition was immortalized in the 1986 film "Hoosiers." (The movie is said to have been based on a 1950s high school in the 9th District.)

On Friday, Hill said, 20 people in Floyd County stopped him to chat about the latest Indiana basketball news.

In a district that includes Bloomington and its famed Indiana Hoosiers basketball team, it is no surprise that Hill is regularly recognized as the lithe point guard who carved up opposing defenses.


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