With our plucky Butler Bulldogs back in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game, people can’t help going back and looking for Hoosiers comparisons–and they’ve found yet another in the Milan Indians, the real-life inspiration for the classic film. Milan–the little southeastern Indiana school that beat big, bad Muncie Central in the 1954 state championship game–actually went to the Indiana Final Four in 1953, as well.
Here’s the story–taken from my book, Bobby Plump: Last of the Small Town Heroes:
The Final Four teams were set for the 50th running of the Indiana high school basketball finals. Milan (24-4) would face South Bend Central (22-5). Terre Haute Gerstmeyer (24-4) would take on South Bend Richmond (24-4). All of the teams were loaded with talent. South Bend Central had Jack Quiggle, later a star at Michigan State. Gerstmeyer featured the twin attack of Arley and Harley Andrews and their uncle, Harold Andrews. Richmond built its team around a football player named Lamar Lundy. Lundy was later a star for the Purdue Boilermakers before beginning his NFL career as part of the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome defensive line with Merlin Olson, Roosevelt Greer, and Deacon Jones.
The town of Milan staged a huge pep rally to send the boys off to Indianapolis. They didn’t send them off alone, either. Thousands of Milan fans accompanied them, their cars decorated with signs and streamers. But Coach (Marvin) Wood was careful not to let the fans’ overconfidence spill over onto the team. He checked his Indians into the Pennsylvania Hotel and kept the fans away while he attended the Coaches’ Banquet. The boys ate at the Apex Grill at Pennsylvania and 16th Street–steaks for all of the boys. (Milan center) Gene White claim it was perhaps the first steak dinner he’d ever had, it was certainly the biggest.
As careful as Marvin Wood had been to keep the fans at bay, he kicked himself later for not being a little more careful with the Indians themselves. His team was loose. Maybe too loose.
After dinner, one of the Indians broke out squirt guns. The squirt gun battle quickly degenerated into an all-out water fight, with glasses of water the heavy artillery of choice. The casualties: team manager Fred Busching chipped a tooth and had to be taken to an Indianapolis dentist. Another boy cut his foot on broken glass.
And the wounded kept piling up. The next morning, another Indian player closed his hand in a trunk lid. In pre-game warm-ups, Bobby (Plump) collided with a teammate, leaving both a little woozy.
These events did nothing to instill confidence in Coach Wood. “And I th0ught I let the boys down. Here we were at the Final Four, and I let the boys get out of control. I should have stayed with them and made sure they were focused on the game.”
But here they were. South Bend Central was a big school with an extremely talented team. The Indians were going to have to play the game of their lives to win this one.
It was not to be. After the Indians controlled the tip. Bobby was fouled and made a free throw to give Milan a 1-0 lead. It was to be their only lead of the game. The Indians were ice cold, hitting just five of 21 shots in the first half. The second half wasn’t much better. Bobby had a game-high 19 points, but South Bend Central had balance, poise, and a great game plan. At the final buzzer, the scoreboard read South Bend Central 56, Milan 37.
Central would go on to win the state championship that night. While the boys from Milan watched, South Bend Central edged Terre Haute Gerstmeyer 42-41 in one of the hardest-fought, most memorable games in tournament history.
The next year, 1954, was the year the Hoosiers story we all know happened. Bobby Plump drove and popped a last-second shot , and little David had slain Goliath. Bobby Plump went on to star on the court at Butler University. For years, he was Butler’s all-time scoring leader with 1,439 points.
Now Butler’s once again on the verge of a national championship. Will Hoosiers history repeat itself? Go Bulldogs.
PS: There were lots of differences between Hoosiers and the story of the 1954 Milan Indians. But Bobby Plump told me that those 18 seconds at the end of the game “were just about exactly right.”