The Road To Indy: A Trip To Milan

MILAN, Indiana --- This is farm country where the corn grows taller than Joakim Noah's ponytail in the summer. Summer is all about corn but in the cold months when the fields are fallow this small town in Ripley County is all about the Milan Indians and basketball. Oh, they play other sports. They almost won the state baseball championship back in 1999 and Chris Swisher won the state cross country championship in 2001 but those are pleasant diversions. Basketball is what matters here.

Milan (pronounced My-lun), Indiana. Population 2,000, a place where everybody knows everybody. You can leave the car unlocked and if you forget to lock your house, you've got a 99.99 percent chance everything will be right where you left it when you get back. Even though Milan High School has a modern new building with a large gymnasium and there's a JayC supermarket on State Road 101, things really haven't changed all that much in 52 years. It's still a small Midwestern town dominated by farm life, small businesses and church.

The population was a little over 1,100 back on March 20, 1954. That's when Milan's place in history was permanently secured by 10 skinny farm boys and a young charismatic basketball coach. On that night at the Hinkle Field House on the Butler University campus in Indianapolis, before a crowd of more than 15,000, the Milan Indians dared to do the impossible. In Indiana's all-inclusive state tournament 748 schools had been eliminated and only tiny Milan stood in the way of a third state championship in four years by powerful Muncie Central.

You know the story. You've seen the movie. Bobby Plump hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer and little Milan beat Muncie Central 32-30 becoming the smallest school to ever win the Indiana state championship.

The 1986 movie "Hoosiers" stays true to the Hollywood theme of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story but just because Hollywood took a few liberties isn't necessarily a bad thing. Because of the movie, the little team that could has been forever and internationally immortalized. The folks who regularly pile out of tour busses into Milan Antiques and Museum learn the real story from Roselyn McKittrick, the town's historian. She's written a book about the history of Milan and she's the one who preserves the legend of the Milan state championship by turning half her antique store in what used to be the main business drag of Milan into a shrine that attracts a never-ending stream of visitors who want to step back in history to one of sports' most magical moments.

She doesn't do it for the money although she welcomes donations and the souvenir hunters who buy the T-shirts, polos and ball caps that keep the museum operating. She doesn't do it for personal fame, either. She just loves that team, particularly because each of those former players grew into a fine citizen and representative of all that's good in Milan. Her association with the former players is what she sees as her just reward.

"They've all grown up to be coaches, businessmen, teachers … successful every one of them and each one someone who has made Milan, Indiana proud," she said.

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In the movie, Gene Hackman plays the part of Coach Norman Dale, a my way or the highway tough guy who transforms this team of farm boys into champions, running half the team off before the season even began. Hackman plays a former college coach who makes the most of a last chance to resurrect his coaching career by taking the Indians from total obscurity to the championship game against powerful South Bend Central. In the movie, Milan wins when Jimmy Chitwood knocks down the game-winning shot. There's a hint of romance with a teacher that is Jimmy Chitwood's advisor and protector.

The real coach was young Marvin Wood, a young guy who stayed in Milan just three years before moving on to take coaching jobs that paid more money in larger towns. He was married and had two kids.

"He was only about 25 or 26 years old," said McKittrick. "He was a brilliant coach but he was here only three years. We always knew it was always going to be a matter of time before a big school came and took him away from us."

In reality, the Indians weren't a bunch of nobodies that suddenly streaked across the Indiana high school basketball scene. They had made it to the Final Four the year before, losing to South Bend Central, the eventual state champ, in the semifinals. In their championship season of 1954, the Indians went 28-2, beating Indianapolis power Crispus Attucks and its star sophomore Oscar Robertson in the semifinals. In the finals, Ray Craft was the leading scorer and Bobby Plump got the call to take the final shot against Muncie Central.

In the movie, the play that sets up the game-winning shot is called "the picket fence" and Chitwood tells Norman Dale that he wants the ball to take the final shot. In reality, Milan went into a stall in the fourth quarter --- an early day version of the four corners offense that Dean Smith made famous. In the fourth quarter with Milan trailing, 28-26, Plump stood all alone with the basketball, dribbling and hardly taking a step for a full 4:15. When Milan broke the stall, Plump missed a shot that Muncie Central rebounded only to turn the ball over immediately on a bad pass. Craft tied the game at 28-28 with a 15-foot jump shot. After a Muncie miss, Plump was fouled. He hit two free throws with 1:42 remaining in the game to give Milan the lead.

Muncie Central tied the game at 30-30 with 48 seconds left. Milan got the ball across midcourt and then held the ball until a time out was called with 18 seconds remaining. During the time out Wood set up a play for Plump, calling for the other four Milan players to clear out to the left side so Plump could go one-on-one. Plump actually forgot what he was supposed to do and when he got the inbounds pass he immediately passed it back to Craft. Craft passed the ball back to Plump who took three dribbles faked left, then pulled up for the game-winner just right of the foul line.

"I remember that shot going in," said Miss Virgie Race, who listened to the game on the radio that night. She was 22 then, married with had two small children to take care of so she couldn't go to Indianapolis for the state championship game. She spent that evening agonizing over every missed shot or opportunity by her beloved Indians. When the game ended, her husband was sleeping so she called a neighbor and the two of them drove the two and a half miles into town to join the town-folk who weren't in Indianapolis in an all-night celebration.

"There was a celebration that was going on all over the town," she recalled, sitting in a booth at The Reservation Café where a team photo that is autographed by Plump sits prominently over the fireplace in the center of the restaurant. "It lasted until at least four in the morning. We went from place to place. They said it was impossible what our team had done but we all believed. What made it so good for Milan was we knew all these boys since they were little ones. It was a special night I'll never forget."

At the Railroad Inn and Tavern, there is a prominent display of the 1954 team in the entrance way, but nothing can compare with the museum that Roselyn McKitrrick runs a few doors down on what used to be the town's business center. Each player is immortalized with photos, jerseys, letterman's jackets and other memorabilia. There are photos of the parade when the team came back, copies of old newspapers, books, ticket stubs, and plenty of autographed basketballs, caps and shirts.

She keeps a map of the United States near the entrance and visitors are urged to stick a colored pin in their home town. The visitors have come from every state and more foreign countries than she can recall.

"People want to come and spend some time here," she said. "This is a part of history that will never be repeated. I think people understand how special it was for our team to win that championship."

In recent years, Indiana abandoned its all-inclusive state tournament. It used to be that every school in the state played for one state title but now there are several different classifications. The change was made to give small schools a chance to earn a championship. Milan was the last small school to ever win the championship.

"It's not the same since they changed things around," said McKittrick. "It does give the small schools a chance to win a state championship but there was something special about what happened here in 1954. We were the best of 750 schools … now they've had a lot of consolidation and there are only 400 schools and with the classifications … well, it's just not the same. The one thing that consolidation and changing up the tournament did was it made it so that what little old Milan did that night will never be repeated in Indiana."

Milan's win has been immortalized by the movie and a number of books. Sports Illustrated even went so far as to call the Milan Indians of 1954 one of the 20 greatest teams of any sport in the 20th century. It was the modern day David slays Goliath story that remained Indiana legend until Hollywood came to town and Milan went global. Well, Hollywood didn't exactly come to town, either. The Milan gym in the movie is actually in Knightsville, home of the Hickory Huskers. In reality, Milan shared a gym with Versailles High School, a fact that only makes the story even more intriguing.

"I think everybody loves it when the ultimate underdog has its day," said John Ward, a retired high school principal who was a high school junior back in 1954. "The movie isn't completely accurate but it does tell a great story about a very real team that became a part of history. The real story is just as good as the one in the movie."

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Ward's nephew is Duke Werner, the trainer for Florida's basketball team. Duke is from neighboring South Ripley High School in Versailles where his band teacher was Gary Holdsworth.

"There are a lot of Gator fans here this week," said Holdsworth outside The Reservation Café. "You know him as Duke … we all know him as David … his dad is Duke. But those are good people, Kate and Duke Werner, and they have a boy that everybody in these parts just thinks the world of."

Holdsworth and family were down in Clearwater at their condominium at the beach back in the fall just before Florida's basketball season began. On their way back to Indiana, they stopped by Gainesville to visit David "Duke" Werner and they got a tour of the Florida practice facilities. Gary also remembers meeting one special Gator during that visit.

"I met Joakim Noah and he was the nicest young man you could imagine," Holdsworth said. "He was so friendly and so thoughtful. I can see why everybody loves him so much. I thought he was a very impressive young man."

The Holdsworths will be there Saturday when the Gators take on George Mason in the first semifinal of the Final Four at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, which is about 80 miles from Milan. John Ward will be there, too, and like the Holdsworths he will be cheering for the University of Florida even though a lot of people are trying to call George Mason college basketball's version of Milan.

"George Mason's a good story," said Ward, "but Florida's a great story, too, and David's the trainer at Florida. I think that's why most folks around here will be pulling for Florida."

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Joselyn McKittrick won't be at the semifinal game. She's got a tour bus slated to make its way down state road 101 to Milan sometime Saturday afternoon. She will watch the game on television and she openly admits she's a Gator this weekend, but preserving Milan's place in history is her life's work.

"I guess you could say I've found my purpose in keeping this story alive," she said. "Judging by the number of people who come by here --- and this isn't the easiest place to get to --- I guess there are a lot of people still out there who think what happened back in 1954 is still a great story and it's still important.

"I think the story of this team makes everyone feel that even when the odds are against you, you always have a chance if you keep on fighting and you believe in yourself."

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