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Back in 1954, Milan High, a tinysoutheastern Indiana school with 161 students, survived a 751-team tourney to meet the Muncie Central Bearcats in the state basketball finals. Such an improbable matchup between a backwater school and a powerful giant could happen in only a few states, such as Indiana; nearly all other states place schools in divisions according to enrollment size. And, as you might expect, some Goliath from Indianapolis, Marion, or Muncie has invariably claimed the Hoosier basketball title every year--every year, that is, except 1954, when a youngster named Bobby Plump zinged a last-second jump shot that made Milan a household name in Indiana.

Milan's team was led by four boysfrom Pierceville, population 45. The quartet--Bobby Plump, Glenn Butte, Gene White, and Robert Schroder-- were tough farm kids, unintimidated by physical contact. All were short, even by 1950s standards: the tallest was White, at 511. The boys were dirt poor but proud. Plump, for example, came from a home that lacked electricity, telephones, and plumbing. They were also painfully shy everywhere but on the basketball court. Because there was nothing else to do in Pierceville but work and shoot buckets, the boys learned to hang hook shots about the time they learned to wield a pitchfork. When the time came, they teamed up with fiesty Ray Craft of Milan to give Milan High the best squad it ever had or ever would have.

Hoosiers, the feel-good moviethat's spread Hoosier hysteria around the country, is the brainchild of two Indiana natives and inveterate basketball fans, David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo. The movie, they say, was inspired by the famous Milan-Central game, although the script departs widely from the real Milan story.

In the movie, Hickory's coach,Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman), is a middle-aged man given a chance to redeem himself for punching a player years earlier. Milan's coach, Marvin Wood, on the other hand, was a quiet man, a relative babe of 24 who had inherited the team from a volatile but successful Milan character named Snort Grinstead. Wood instituted a slow, ball-control game at Milan called "cat and mouse'--an affront to fans long used to Grinstead's run-and-shoot offense.

After coaching Milan all the waythrough the tournament field, Coach Wood angered fans of his underdog Indians by freezing the ball late in the final game as the Muncie Central Bearcats led by two points, 28-26. Plump actually stood near center court with the ball tucked safely away like a football and held the ball for four minutes and 13 seconds while 15,000 fans grumbled and squirmed. But Wood's gamble paid off. When the score was tied at 30, the coach called a time-out. The ball went inbounds to Plump, who exchanged passes with Craft and then dribbled down the lane while the crowd counted down the remaining seconds. Seeing an opening, Plump went high in the air and lofted the ball over the fingertips of Muncie's James Barnes. The ball seemed to take forever to reach the basket, but when it did, the ending was made for Hollywood-- Milan 32, Muncie 30.

Wood--now the women's basketballcoach at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana--says he devised the ball-holding strategy by accident in an earlier game. "We played a local team that was big and strong on a large floor in a small gym building,' Wood recalls. "We didn't want anyone to get hurt, so I said, "Hold the ball.'' The scheme worked so well that Wood called the play again in the championship game to rest his winded team.

Coach Wood--who held down anight watchman's job to supplement the $4,000 he was paid to both coach and teach--had more than just a handful of boys turn out for the team, as Coach Dale does in Hoosiers. On the contrary, Wood's problem was finding a tactful way to cut some of the untalented players who swarmed into the gym his first day of practice. Of 73 boys in the school, 58 showed up for tryouts.

Despite the discrepancies, membersof the real Milan team have enjoyed the movie based upon their heroics, as well as the recent national attention lavished upon them. Plump calls Hoosiers "an enjoyable movie.' He's seen it four times already, and he won't deny he may go again. "I think I know all of the roles in the movie,' he says. "You have a good feeling during it--especially when you leave the theater.'

But he streeses that key elements inHoosiers--such as the drunken scene with Shooter (played by Dennis Hopper), the romance between Coach Dale and Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey), and the reluctance of the team's star to play--are all figments of a Hollywood imagination. "The final 18 seconds were the only thing factual in the movie about the Milan-Central game, and Angelo Pizzo told me he tried to make that [scene] as true as possible,' Plump says. "From the time the ball was in bounds after the final time-out, the movie was accurate.'

The movie has brought back memoriesfor Plump, now an Indianapolis insurance executive, yet much of that night 33 years ago remains a blank. He simply cannot remember what he was thinking during those crucial final seconds. "I don't know,' he says, adding, tongue-in-cheek, "I guess we were a bunch of dummies out there that didn't have any thoughts.' Later, he theorizes that the Milan players were too busy concentrating on their jobs to worry.

Roger Schroder, a Milan playerwho spent much of the afternoon on the bench, had a good view of the four Indian players flooding one side of the court to give Plump a chance to go one-on-one against Barnes of Muncie. "What I saw happen was just what was planned during the time-out,' Schroder says. "I looked at the clock, and it went from three down to two [and one]. It was all over and the impossible had occurred.' Milan had won.

As a result of that win, nine of tenpoor boys from Milan received college scholarships. Plump admits he never could have dreamed of attending Butler University, an expensive private school, had he starred on a lesser team.

The Milan players insist the moviehasn't changed their lives, but they also say they can't wait for the team's annual reunion in late spring to tease Ray Craft, the only Milan player to have a bit part in Hoosiers. (He welcomes the Hickory team to the site of the final game.) "We will talk about Craft's delivery of lines,' Gene White says. "We'll help him improve his acting for his next movie.'

Photo: Although the movie departs from the realstory, the heroics of the Hickory High team in Hoosiers rekindle memories of Milan's triumphant victory in 1954.

Photo: Gene Hackman's portrayal of a fierycoach who once punched a player makes great cinema but bears little resemblance to Milan's reserved coach, Marvin Wood.

Photo: Bobby Plump celebrates the basketballshot heard from Milan, Indiana, to Hollywood by cutting down the net.

Photo: Hackman gives last-minute instructions tohis team before the title game. The strategy and drama of Hoosiers' closing scenes match the real game's final moments.

Photo: (Above) The Milan Indians of 1954 andtheir coach, Marvin Wood. In the title game, Wood had Bob Plump (left, no. 25, in an earlier game) hold the ball for more than 4 minutes before uncorking the jump shot that won the state championship.
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Title Annotation:Milan High School basketball team, "Hoosiers" movie
Author:Nuwer, Hank
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1987
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