Saturday, February 21, 2004

THE STUFF DREAMS ARE MADE OF


50 years ago, a basketball team gave a small Indiana town a 'miracle.'......
In some ways, nothing has changed since then.
In others, everything has.

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Milan: The legacy of '54
Milan 1954 remembered
The stuff dreams are made of

Fact and fiction
Championship game box score
Where are they now?
Making a Milan pilgrimage, and digging deeper into the Milan story
Video: End of the 1954 championship game
Photo gallery: Milan: Past and present
"And David put his hand in the bag and took out a stone and flung it, and it struck the Philistine in the head, and he fell to the ground. Amen."

"The Reverend" in the locker room scene before the 1954 Indiana state high school championship, from the movie Hoosiers.

MILAN, Ind. - It's out there somewhere. West of Cincinnati, in Indiana, in farm country.

Unless you look at a map, you don't know exactly where. Oh, maybe you see the sign off U.S. 50 if you're driving to Rising Sun to play golf or gamble.

"Milan: 15."

It's a mythical place, really. Bigger than the town and the boys who made it famous, better than the fried chicken (very good, by the way) at the Railroad Inn and better even than the movie, Hoosiers, that will make it live forever.

"We - you, me, everybody - is an underdog," explains 1954 Milan player Glenn Butte, who cuts right to the heart of it. "How many of us are the top dog, best in our field? Not many. Everybody is Milan. That's why everybody loves this story. They can relate to it."

Milan was the hero in the bygone day of single-class basketball, the little guy who beat big-city Muncie Central for a storybook state championship 50 years ago. Milan 1954 is Camelot.

And like Camelot, it is a most congenial spot.

But it isn't easy living in Camelot. You have a lot to live up to. You have to embrace it.

You have to believe.

• • • 

Roselyn McKittrick is alone in her antique shop, except for one visitor and a dream.

"Everybody loves this story," she says, her eyes welling up. "But where are they?"

By "they" she means people to finance the dream, the dream of establishing the Milan 1954 Experience. It's more than a museum; it's a community's legacy. Roger Schroder's basketball shorts, the rim from Rollin Cutter's boyhood home, Bill Jordan's and Kenny Wendelman's '54 letter jackets. Each has a story.

In McKittrick's dream, there would be a soda fountain like there was in Milan in '54, and there would be '50s music and a theater to watch Hoosiers or the '54 title game, take your pick. You'd get to hear and see oral and video histories recalling a time when people in small towns dreamed big.

Milan 1954 Inc. has purchased the old State Bank of Milan building to house the Milan 1954 Experience someday. It's vacant now, like so many of the other storefronts on Main Street. It's vacant now, like so many young Milan minds, who tune out because what happened 50 years ago defines where they live - and seems to define who they should be.

• • • 

Even the residents call Milan a bedroom community of Cincinnati. But there is still a country feel in and around Milan.

"I took five of my chickens up to my nephew's this morning," says Esther Edmondson, who has stopped in to visit with McKittrick.

"My nephew is opening up his fryer tonight," Edmonson says. "They told everybody, 'If you bring your chickens, you can have them fried.' "

They're still raising and cooking their own fowl in parts of Milan. Gone, however, is the town square, which the high school kids used to cruise. Gone is the drugstore, the soda fountain, the theater, the gas station, the dress shops, the furniture store. Gone is the 215-room hotel and spa that Cincinnatians used to visit; gone is the five-doctor health clinic.

• • • 

A mile west of Milan, the road opens again to the horizon. The sky is the color of ice. Wind howls through leafless trees; a dog yelps. Snow covers the ties between the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that runs east and west as far as the eye can see. There isn't a backboard and a rim to be seen in Pierceville. Not easily, anyway.

Not on the old yellow house that had the first one, back when it was Bobby Plump's house and he was in the sixth grade. Not on the barn next to the store operated by Roger Schroder's parents, not across the road at Glenn Butte's old place, not at what used to be Gene White's family feed store.

This is where so much of it happened. Plump, Shroder and Butte lived within a couple of hundred yards of one another, White just a little farther away.

It is dusk. The light is fading. A soft, thin snow begins to flurry. The gray, cement buildings are only silhouettes now.

Now is when the boys would have flipped the switch to turn on the lights Schroder had rigged.

Elbows smacking into ribs, the scrape of farm boots, ball swishing net, ball clanging iron, ball thump-thump-thumping on hard-packed dirt.

Occasionally, a flock of sparrows would fly by and make a high shreeening sound like a crowd in a small gym. The train thundered by, its whistle the imagined game horn. The engineer waved.

"I was in the fifth or sixth grade when I first heard a state championship game on the radio over at Bob's house. Madison High School, just 40 miles down the road, won state," remembers Butte, sophomore center on the '54 squad. "Bob was the first one with a basketball and a goal, and his dad made him a homemade backboard out of wood and hung it up on the smokehouse. I'd never shot a basketball before the fifth grade. I didn't see my first varsity game until I was in the seventh grade. None of us played organized basketball until the eighth grade - and then we played six or eight games. That was our junior high career. All of our honing of our skills was done right there in the Pierceville Alley."

By the time the boys hooked up in the sixth grade with the Milan boys - Bob Engel, Ronnie Truitt, Ken Wendelman, Ray Craft, Rollin Cutter - the pairing of the two groups was formidable. On lunch breaks, they beat the seventh-graders, the eighth-graders and some even say the high school team, although that seems like a bit of a stretch.

Butte, 65, played in the alumni game at Milan High two Saturdays ago. Despite not playing ball in 20 years, he still has a leanness. One can easily imagine the rest: fluid, sinewy, a soft touch around the hoop.

"I wanted to be a part of it," Butte says of the alumni game. "It's a chance to show the other guys who are here today that, 'Hey, we're all in this together.' "

• • • 

Mike Parks has been principal of Milan High for seven years, so he knows it wasn't that long ago that two vans pulled up to the school with license plates from the far west.

"Tell us that story again," said the coach of a high school basketball team from either Utah or Washington. Parks can't remember which.

What matters is that these basketball players and their coaches were in search of Mecca. They were a small school, good enough they believed to win a state championship. They wanted to experience the place where the miracle happened.

Parks is from around Gary, Ind., but he makes a point when talking to people to say he's from "around Muncie." That'll almost always get a conversation started in Milan. But he noticed that among the high school students, it usually inspired only a grimace.

"I saw a tremendous animosity associated with anything that dealt with '54," Parks said. "Milan had a long losing streak here in the early '90s."

One of the first things Parks did upon arriving in Milan was to look for the '54 state trophy. He couldn't find it.

"It was there among the old trophies in the lobby, but it wasn't even the biggest one," he says. "There was nothing calling any attention to it."

So he enlisted the industrial arts teacher to have his students build a display. They found some old barn siding to incorporate an aged theme, and Parks wanted a piece of the original gym floor to serve as a backdrop to the trophy.

"I went up to see Roselyn McKittrick at the antique shop because I'd heard she'd had a bunch of it, and she said, 'Well, you've got the center circle up at the high school someplace!' And I said, 'We do?' A custodian said it might be up in the camera box (at the top of the bleachers). We took it to the industrial arts class and they made the backdrop out of it."

Parks' next move was to have all of the other old trophies removed. The space created was for current winners, those in the four-year cycle of freshman to senior.

"We were winning football games; we had won some championships. I was just trying to remind the kids: 'We have a winning tradition here and we've had a great history. You're a part of it.' "

• • • 

It is one thing to enjoy watching the Andy Griffith Show. It's quite another to try to live out your teen years in Mayberry.

The Milan Indians basketball team went 0-20 in the 1990-91 season and 5-74 in the four seasons from 1991-94.

How'd those kids like that Milan '54 story then?

"It was rough," says former Milan player Brian Cornett, a '90 graduate. "It was rough enough in '86, when the movie Hoosiers came out. I was a sophomore. We weren't very good that year. You knew what you were being compared to. ... As the years go by, you understand it better. It's the glue that holds it all together."

In low times, that giant black-and-gold banner that says "State Champions - 1954" up on the wall of the gym is worse than a cloud; it's an anvil.

Ryan Langferman, a '97 Milan graduate and multisport athlete and now a Milan teacher and offensive coordinator for the football team, says that when he played, "No matter what you did, it wasn't enough - it never measured up to '54."

"You take it for granted until you're wearing a Milan T-shirt outside Ripley County, and somebody says, 'Hey, Milan!' Seeing the '54 players here today, that makes a difference. It makes it come alive."

His teammate on the '97 team, Matt Volz, had to laugh when he flipped on the TV after Saturday's alumni game.

"Hoosiers was on," he says.

Did he watch it?

"Of course," he says. "I always watch it."

• • • 

Randy Combs, 40, remembers the day 13 years ago when he was driving from Indianapolis to Cincinnati on I-74 and saw the sign for "Sunman-Milan." His freshman coach at Vincennes High School, where he had played for the 1981 state championship, was then the coach at Milan. At the time, Combs was an assistant coach at Greenfield Central. Milan was in its 0-20 season.

"That poor son of a gun," Combs remembers saying.

Now, Combs is the coach at Milan. He has turned around the program. Now he wouldn't think about going anywhere else.

"When we first got here," Randy says, " 'Give me five years, and then we'll move on.' Well, five years has come and gone. We've been here 10 years now."

There is just something about Milan, says Lisa Combs, Randy's wife. It's a great place to live. And Randy can tell you: It's a great place to win. And it's all because of '54.

• • • 

Bobby Plump still looks like he could fake a young Jimmy Barnes and hit that 15-footer again to win it all.

Even at 67, he still has some moves. He plays in an over-50 league. He played in the alumni game. Fake left, dribble right, launch, just right of the free throw line. Clanggg. You don't realize it until you see it later on the black-and-white film of the '54 game: That was it! That was "The Shot!" The one that knocked off Muncie Central 32-30 with three seconds left in the championship game.

In the alumni game, Plump's team is down a point at 87-86 going into the final 1:22. At least one visitor wonders if Plump's "Black" team will make sure he gets the final shot.

It doesn't, choosing to go with the younger hand. The Black team really wanted to win this game.

As for you, Plump, you had your shot, pal.

"I thought about getting the last shot," says Plump, laughing. "But I wasn't gonna tell 'em to call time out and give me the ball."

Somebody asks Plump to name his favorite scene in Hoosiers.

He begins to answer and just then, the movie score begins to play on the public-address system. Plump has heard it so many times, it is merely background music.

"I love the scene," he says, "when Gene Hackman comes out of the locker room before the first game, tugs at the knot in his tie and says out loud to himself, 'Welcome to Indiana basketball.' "

• • • 

"Dear Lord, Please keep us safe. ... Give us the strength and guidance to play to the best of our potential. You guys were out there. You saw the crowd. You know what kind of game it's going to be. ... Seniors, and everybody here, it's one more game gone. One more game we can't get back. Let's make sure when we walk out of this locker room, we don't regret anything we do. ... And No. 1, have fun. When we don't have fun, we lose. ... Lord, may we pray. ... Amen."

- Milan senior co-captain Rex Parker, leading a pregame prayer

Milan is playing big-school South Dearborn High. Both teams are 10-5. Milan had some guys banged up early this season, otherwise its record would be better. Tonight is a good measuring stick for South Dearborn, composed of some of the schools that were on Milan's '54 schedule and no longer exist.

South Dearborn is one of the biggest 3A schools, almost a 4A, much bigger than Milan, which entered the 2A class this year but is the smallest 2A school in the state. Six or seven years ago, South Dearborn vs. Milan was a good measuring stick for Milan's young program under Combs. Now, South Dearborn vs. Milan is a good measuring stick for South Dearborn.

Milan's seven seniors know they are good - maybe Sweet 16 good, maybe more. They made it there when they were freshmen, made it to regionals last year. They've been playing together since they were in the second grade, been playing inside the big gym since the third grade - a direct result of one of Combs' first acts upon taking over the program 10 years go. Combs wanted basketball to again be the thing to do in Milan on Saturday mornings in the wintertime. It is that, now.

• • • 

"Everything we do, we do the same way: '4-5' guy, get the ball out of bounds ...'1' guy, push it ahead ...'2' man, don't trail the play too much ... Run our stuff. RUN OUR STUFF! ... We're quicker, we're better ballhandlers, we're better basketball players! MOVE TO THE OPENING, SEE THE FLOOR, HIT THE GUYS THAT ARE OPEN, ATTACK IT! ... LET'S GO OUT AND ESTABLISH WHO IS THE BETTER TEAM!"

- Milan coach Combs in his talk to the team before the South Dearborn game.

South Dearborn, a physical team, hangs with Milan until late in the second quarter when Matt Swisher - off crisp passing and screens set by his teammates who saw that he was hot and kept feeding him the ball - hits three straight 3-pointers before half. Milan is never again threatened.

Milan '04 has an even better bunch of shooters than the '54 squad, although the '54 squad had some higher-grade Division I talent. That doesn't make this year's squad any less fun to watch.

And on this night, Milan has its best crowd of the season, about 1,400 in its 1,800-seat gym, which fills up and then some on opening night of sectionals.

The stars are aligned. Milan is very good. So is today's foe, Muncie Central, a 4A school, the team Milan beat 50 years ago for the state title.

Milan athletic director Marty Layden said that when he first talked to Muncie officials several years ago about reprising the Milan-Muncie game on the 50th anniversary of 1954, the then-Muncie AD said: "No, we don't want to do that. It's a low point in our history."

Then, when the new Muncie AD, Tom Jarvis, came along, he told Layden, "We'd be stupid not to do it."

Layden smiles at the retelling.

"I don't know how we'll do," Combs says. "But I know this: We'll get after it."

• • • 

Where are they?

Where are they?

Maybe someday Milan will get its big new business to prop up the tax base and provide local jobs and bring Milan out of 1954. Maybe some big sugar daddy will come to the aid of the Milan 1954 Co. and finance the museum here.

But for now, you see it and you know: The basketball community and the family community are doing just fine, even if the economy isn't.

Forces far bigger than Milan are at work here.

Where the people of Milan can make a difference - which is building upon the miracle of 1954 - they are. You can see it in the eyes of the kids playing ball on Saturday morning, in the eyes of the parents who stay to watch, in the eyes of the varsity players who referee the kids' games. You can see it in the eyes of Randy and Lisa Combs, and in the eyes of the patrons at Milan Antiques who tell their stories and believe in remembering a miracle, and creating a new one.

You can see it in the eyes of Ray Craft and Glenn Butte and Bobby Plump. And yes, you can even see it while watching the grainy, black-and-white film from 1954 that shows "The Shot" going in.

Again.

And again.

And again ...




MILAN: THE LEGACY OF '54
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