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Blast from the past: Lopez on real-life Hoosiers

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Courtesy of Chronicle Archives: (from April 1, 2006)

MILAN, Ind. – You can’t see the Final Four from here, but you can feel it.

The impossible becoming possible surrounds you, from the Lions Club welcome sign on Indiana 101 decorated with a “State Champs 1954″ placard, to the shadow cast on this basketball hamlet by the old water tower bearing the same words.

State Champs 1954.

It gets cold in Milan, a remote, wind-blown place 75 miles southeast of Indianapolis. But the greatest story always told warms you. The town’s population still hovers at around 2,000, most jobs are across the Ohio River, and farming isn’t what it used to be.

In the words of Milan’s most famous son, Bobby Plump, “There’s not much to hold people there anymore. It’s just not as vibrant as it was in the ’50s.”

1954 always there

But there will always be 1954. There will always be what one team, one season and one 15-foot shot by Plump meant to basketball, to Indiana and to any long-shot dreamer with a DVD player and a copy of the movie “Hoosiers”.

Now 52 years later, the George Mason Patriots are in Indiana trying to make the impossible possible again.

After arriving in Indianapolis, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga contacted Plump to ask if he could speak to Larranaga’s team.

Plump wanted to go, to see the looks on the young faces and simply stand there among the great underdogs, offering living proof that it can and it has happened.

Milan’s unimaginable basketball victory happened just a few blocks from the RCA Dome, site of today’s national semifinal games.

There likely never again will be anything quite like the Milan (pronounced MY-lun) Indians’ remarkable trip to that all-classification Indiana state basketball championship, a story that was recounted in the 1986 movie, “Hoosiers”.

A tiny school ruling Indiana basketball isn’t even possible anymore.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Indiana high school athletics council did away with the all-classification tournament. Today, the Indiana state tournament is divided into classifications, as in Texas.

David vs. Goliath

But in 1954, the Indiana high school championship tournament included 751 teams, including Milan, with a student population of 161, and powerful Muncie Central, with nearly 2,500 students and state titles in two of the previous three years.

No school from the smallest classification had ever won the championship. But on March 20, 1954, more than 15,000 fans jammed Butler Fieldhouse (now Hinkle Fieldhouse) and witnessed the impossible come to life.

No one understands the romance surrounding the story of the 11th-seeded Patriots of the Colonial Athletic Association more than Plump, who hit the game-winning shot with three seconds remaining.

“What I see in that team and their coach, it looks familiar,” Plump, 69, said. ” There are similarities, but they are at a much higher level, of course.”

Plump, a successful Indianapolis investment and insurance broker, remains an active and outgoing personality. He still plays basketball once a week in an over-50 league. But Plump suffers from vertigo, which is what forced him to cancel his scheduled visit with George Mason players Friday.

Still, we know the message: “”A””nd David put his hand in the bag and took out a stone ” … ” and slung it. And it struck the Philistine on the head. And he fell to the ground. Amen.””

That was a line uttered in the “Hoosiers” movie. There was dramatic license taken in the movie, but Plump said that even as teenagers in 1954, Milan players understood they represented more than just one school.

Fateful coincidence?

Plump also recognizes the perhaps fateful coincidence that the NCAA ‘s greatest Final Four underdog has come here, to Indiana, where for 52 years Plump has reflected the image of the ultimate underdogs.

“I think the stars and planets are aligned for them,” Plump said of the Patriots. “I’ll be pulling for them. What I would tell them is, you have to have talent to get to the Final Four. Your coach is a good coach and you play as a team.

“And if good things happen to you, be thankful. If that does occur, you’re going to be remembered. Your names will be historic. Use it to have a positive influence on other people’s lives.”

When the Milan Indians left town for Indianapolis in March 1952, most of the town’s 1,100 residents followed in a caravan.

They will come

When the team returned to Milan after the 32-30 victory over Muncie Central, more than 30,000 people lined the streets for a parade and celebration.

That’s what stories like Milan’s and George Mason’s can do. People come from everywhere not even knowing names or numbers. They need a map to find the place. They get lost, but keep driving, wanting to be a part of it and see it with their own eyes.

Thousands visit Milan every year. They come and stare at the picture of the 1954 team that hangs above the fireplace at the Reservation Café. They walk into the new Milan High gymnasium and marvel at the scoreboard from the old gym hanging in the lobby, illuminated with the score: Visitors 32, Home 30.

At the Railroad Inn, there is a display honoring the 1954 champs. There are pictures of the young faces who wore the Milan colors at the Main Street barber shop. And at Roselyn McKittrick’s Antiques and Museum shop, each player is honored with photos, jerseys, letter jackets, autographed basketballs and news clippings.

McKittrick was going to attend today’s national semifinal games, but is going to have to miss them. A tour bus is scheduled to arrive in Milan this afternoon, basketball fans sure to pile out with that familiar look of awe and wonder on their faces.

The Patriots have come to sacred basketball ground and they are not walking alone. Every David who ever lived walks with them. You can feel it.

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