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Jordan Morey, Special to | March 18, 2021

The NCAA tournament is back at Hinkle Fieldhouse, forever a part of Hoosier history

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More than 60 years have passed, but a basketball goal still hangs on the side of the beat-up building in the grassy alleyway behind the old Schroder’s Store in Pierceville, Indiana.

Hoops could be found fastened just about anywhere in the basketball-crazed state in 1954, but the one in rural Pierceville, located just 3.6 miles west of the tiny town of Milan, still remains one of the most famous.

The makeshift court is a small part of the David-and-Goliath story about Milan, which has now become one of the most famous in sports history.

“Every time I talk about it, I should really start with ‘Once upon a time,’ because it’s almost like a fairy tale, but it actually happened,” Roger Schroder said.

Schroder, 85, was a senior on the 1954 Milan High School basketball team of legend. His parents are the ones that owned the Pierceville business, which was a grocery store, service station and post office all wrapped in one. At the time, Pierceville had approximately 45 residents.

The storybook tale goes that Milan (enrollment 161) won the single-class Indiana High School Boys Basketball Tournament against Muncie Central High School (enrollment 1,662) in front of 14,000 fans at Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 20, 1954.

The final play saw senior Bobby Plump hold onto the ball for 4 minutes, 13 seconds before dribbling and knocking down a jump shot with three seconds remaining to win the game, 32-30, for the Indians. After the win, more than 40,000 people caravanned to Milan to congratulate a group that would become world famous.

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Later dubbed the “Milan Miracle,” the story of the Indians was again immortalized by the 1986 film “Hoosiers,” which was based on the Indians’ story. Members of the '54 team know one of the sites for the tournament well. Hinkle Fieldhouse, as it is now known, hosted the high school boys basketball championship games from 1928 to 1971. The Fieldhouse was the largest in the country from 1928 until 1950, as it could hold 15,000 fans.

Butler Athletics Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse

In 1940, the second year of the NCAA tournament, Indiana beat Duquesne in the Eastern Regional Finals at Butler Fieldhouse on the way to its first national championship. This week, 81 years later, the NCAA tournament will return to the building that Milan helped make famous.

While the game has changed since their time on the court, the Milan men know just how impactful the sport could be for those teams competing in the NCAA tournament this year. High school boys basketball has a massive following in Indiana, although its peak was before school districts started consolidating and the Indiana High School Athletic Association changed the tournament to a multi-class format in 1997.

“It was the only way that a small town in Indiana could have any kind of recognition,” Plump said. “Towns were farming communities. It ended up being that if you won a sectional in the state of Indiana, everyone in the state knew about it. Just like with the NCAA, where everyone does their brackets, everyone in the state of Indiana did the brackets for the state tournament. In the '50s, they would have a TV program listing the drawings, and it was one of the best-watched programs.”

At its peak, in 1990, the state finals had more than 40,000 fans in attendance. That year saw a boost due to the popularity of Bedford North Lawrence phenom Damon Bailey, who still holds the state scoring record with 3,134 points.

Currently, Indiana boasts 14 of the 16 largest high school gyms in the nation. Seymour’s Lloyd E. Scott Gymnasium, which is 51 miles west of Milan, is the biggest, with a capacity of 8,228.

The Milan players, now all in their 80s, said they all watch a significant amount of college basketball, and that it’s special to them the tournament will be in Indiana.

“Years ago, the man who invented basketball (Dr. James Naismith) made a statement in a speech here. He said he invented the sport in Massachusetts, but it really belongs to Indiana,” former Milan forward Gene White, 85, said. “I think that’s a meaning that caught on in Indiana.”

Plump and fellow teammate Ray Craft, 84, who led the Indians with 14 points in the game against Muncie Central in '54, both played for former coach Tony Hinkle at Butler after graduating high school. Rollin Cutter, 82, a sophomore on Milan's state championship team, also went on to play at Butler for four years.

“It’s a special place for me,” Plump said of the Fieldhouse. “The players from these schools that are coming in are going to find that the floor at Butler will be very, very friendly to them. It’s the same floor that was laid down in 1928 when they opened the fieldhouse.”

Craft didn’t just play on the Fieldhouse floor in high school and college -- he also acted there. He had a minor role in “Hoosiers” during the state final scene, which was filmed in Hinkle.

All of the team members said the biggest difference between the movie and real-life event was that Milan coach Marvin Wood was widely respected in the community, unlike Gene Hackman’s character in the film. Wood, a Butler alum, had also taken Milan to the Final Four in 1953 prior to winning the title. Basketball is much bigger than the sport itself -- and the players from Milan know that. They have met every year since they won the state title to celebrate the life-changing tournament run that happened 67 years ago.

“Coach Wood told Plump and a couple of the other guys that this was a very, very special thing,” Schroder said. “He said we might not realize it, but that we want to stay together. He organized the first reunion, which I think was at his house. To begin with, we did it at Easter because guys would go back to Milan to visit their families. We also originally had it during the week of the finals of the high school tournament. As the years have gone past, we have taken turns hosting.”

Schroder said plans for this year’s reunion are underway, and that a trip to visit Coach Wood’s wife, Mary Lou, 92, in Mishawaka, Indiana is going to be arranged.

Plump said he sometimes thinks about how their lives would’ve been different had they not won that state title all those years ago. Growing up, his mother died when he was 3 years old, leaving his father to raise six kids on his own.

“We never had running water at my house ever,” Plump said. “We never had electricity until I was 13, and never had TV until '54. We had a radio, but had a windmill that would charge it, and we would have to swap out the batteries. Most of us were like that. There was only one of us that could’ve possibly paid for a college education.”

Plump estimated that nine of the 10 players on Milan’s roster went on to attend college, and that more students from the school started pursuing higher education after seeing what the players had accomplished.

These days, there’s a museum dedicated to the team called the Milan 1954 Museum. The museum, which houses hundreds of different items associated with the team, recently sent out invitations to all the teams in the NCAA tournament to stop by once their run comes to an end.

Craft, Plump, Schroder and White all said that they will be rooting for underdog teams, in addition to supporting programs representing Indiana, and that they expect a few upsets to happen once the tournament kicks off on Thursday, when Hoosier Hysteria meets March Madness.

“I just think (visitors) need to realize how the people of Indiana view basketball: high school, college and pro,” Craft said. “I don’t know that they will get the same feel with the pandemic, because there may be limitations on attendance, but basketball is just so deep-rooted in Indiana. If they go out in the neighborhoods, they will see different basketball goals everywhere.”

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