Movie Revives Memories for Milan

Associated Press

Bobby Plump still meets people who say the story of tiny Milan High School and its 1954 Indiana basketball championship is too "Hollywood" to be true.

"People say they had to make that up," says Plump, whose shot with three seconds left gave Milan, enrollment 161, a victory over Muncie Central, a school of 2,000 which already had won four of its record seven state championships.

Not since 1914 had a school as small as Milan won the tourney, and none has since.

That 15-foot jump shot on March 20, 1954 made Plump a Hoosier basketball legend before Larry Bird or Oscar Robertson. In the 1954 semifinals, Robertson was a sophomore on the Indianapolis Attucks team that lost, 65-52, to Milan.

Milan's improbable story was the impetus for the movie "Hoosiers," about the fictitious Indiana town of Hickory and its state championship team.

"Hoosiers" co-producer and scriptwriter Angelo Pizzo has said the story of Milan "seemed to be the classic Hoosier folktale."

Indeed, it was and still is.

Indiana is one of only three states with a single-class high school tournament. Each team has a chance to win it all, and large and small work toward the Final Four through sectional, regional and semistate games.

The only other states with a similar arrangement are Delaware and Kentucky.

Such a tournament "remains unique, and that's something," says Ray Craft, a member of the 1954 Milan team and now assistant commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association.

"Some schools don't like to be told, 'We're not good enough to play with the big boys,"' Craft said. "In this system, the underdog always has a chance."

But not since Milan has a tiny underdog gone all the way, although several small schools have reached the semifinals.

The sentimental favorite in 1979 was Argos, enrollment 271, which lost in the semifinals to Anderson, a large three-time champion. Other recent underdogs whose hopes burst in the semifinals were Shenandoah, enrollment 550, which lost to Vincennes in 1981; and Southridge, enrollment 519, which lost to five-time champion Marion in 1985 and '86.

This year's Final Four is March 28. Lafayette Catholic, with an enrollment of 231, was the smallest of the 16 schools going into this weekend's semistates.

"Hoosiers" parallels Milan up to a point. Milan's coach wasn't the down-and-out character who got a second shot at coaching as did Hickory's Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman.

Milan Coach Marvin Wood was 26 at the time. He later left Milan and remained a successful Indiana high school coach, although he never again won the state championship. He was elected to the Indiana High School Hall of Fame in 1971. Plump, an insurance agent, was inducted in in 1981.

And there was no town drunk, turned assistant coach, at Milan like the Hickory character played by Dennis Hopper, who was nominated for an Academy Award.

"That would not have happened in Indiana," Plump said.

There is no Hickory, by the way, in Indiana.

Plump says the 1954 team evolved from a number of factors, not the least of which was former coach Herman "Snort" Grinstead.

Grinstead was dismissed in 1952 "because he ordered uniforms for the next season and we didn't have any money in our athletic budget to pay for them," Plump said.

But before his exit, Grinstead had made one major move that Plump says contributed to the 1953 and '54 teams. When Milan was beaten 82-40 by Osgood, Grinstead threw seven upperclassmen off the team.

That gave Plump, Craft and other sophomores a chance at the varsity and the experience.

Then came Wood, who Plump says was ahead of his time. Wood instituted man-to-man defense and a controlled offense, called the "four corners" or "cat-and-mouse." Before that Milan had been a run-and-gun team.

In 1953, Milan went to the state semifinals before losing 56-37 to South Bend Central.

The next year, Milan was 28-2.

Then came the championship game, which Plump says "was the worst game we played."

With the score 30-30, Wood called time out and set up the historic play, which Plump says was portrayed well in the movie.

Wood sent four players to the left side of the court. Plump waited until five seconds remained on the clock, then started his move. He drove toward the basket, stopped and shot. The ball never touched the rim.

"I knew the ball was going in," Plump said. "I knew it when it left my hand."

The next day, a newspaper ran a picture of the ball swishing the nets with the one-word headline above it: "Plump."

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