Team plans to wear 'Hickory' uniforms for several games this season, but not everyone is pleased with nostalgia
POSTED: Jul 23, 2015 8:23 PM ET
The red-and-gold uniforms, modeled by George Hill, were a huge hit, owing to the popularity of the movie's underdog plot.
Authenticity is a buzzword in the sports memorabilia industry, so maybe it is a little harder to get nostalgic about a Cinderella story once removed. Then again, this is a story driven by Hollywood, and as the man said in that old John Wayne movie, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
The Indiana Pacers generated all sorts of warm-and-fuzzies this week when they announced that their players will wear alternate "Hickory" uniforms in several 2015-16 games, a promotion tied to the 30th anniversary of the motion picture "Hoosiers."
The red-and-gold uniforms, as modeled by Pacers point guard George Hill, were an immediate hit, owing to the popularity of the movie's underdog plot and a cast that included Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey.
The throwback tale released in 1986 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer actually was a fictionalized version of the 1954 Milan "Miracle," in which a team from tiny Milan, Ind. (pronounced MY-len with a population then of 1,125), upset bigger, heavily favored rivals in punching up through the one-class system to Indiana's state championship. In the movie, Hackman played the Huskers' coach; in real life, Marvin Wood was the Indians' coach. In the movie, Hopper's and Hershey's characters helped propel the narrative; in real life, they didn't exist (no assistant coach, no girlfriend).
Deploying a certain level of inauthenticity, then and now, in tapping feel-good emotions and presumably in opening fans' wallets this season for replica jerseys from the NBA Pride Collection, was a little too much for one native of Indiana. Sports columnist David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, who grew up in North Judson, Ind. (pop. 1,764), felt the nostalgia was getting misdirected.
Why honor a fictional "Hickory High" when the real thing -- Milan High replica uniforms -- would have worked as well or better, Haugh wondered.
"[The] fact that art imitated life so well in the movie's case doesn't justify the Pacers trying to make life imitate art in return just to make more merchandising dollars," he wrote. "Professional sports ruin so many things in the name of money. This just makes the list longer.
"If the Pacers wanted to pay tribute to the rich heritage of Indiana high school basketball -- the root of why the state is rabid over the sport -- then they should have honored the team that inspired the movie, not the team in it. Instead it would be a miracle if half the people who will buy Hickory jerseys even know tiny Milan in southeastern Indiana from the city in Italy. An entire state just got dumber. Thanks, Pacers."
Haugh, a native son, understandably might be protective of Milan's claim to fame. But Todd Taylor, the Pacers' chief sales and marketing officer, told ESPN.com that the idea was to tie together the whole state's basketball roots. "By using Hickory, which really represents the whole state, it doesn't force us to focus on just one team or one area," Taylor said.
Besides, the promotion and the uniforms were well-received inside and outside the state. No less an authority on what the game means in those parts than Pacers president (and French Lick's own) Larry Bird said: "Our team will be honored to wear the Hickory uniforms because of the attention it will bring to the storied history of Indiana basketball."
Well, we can go one better. The man who had the most to do with making it all possible -- the player on whom the clutch "Jimmy Chitwood" character was based -- doesn't have any problem with Milan being remembered by the celluloid stand-in of "Hickory."
"I just think it's great," Bobby Plump, 78, told NBA.com in a phone interview Wednesday. "It's wonderful that somebody thought about honoring the movie 'Hoosiers' and the Milan story. It would never have dawned on me to do that, but I'm certainly very proud."
The Milan "Miracle" made Plump a state and local legend for the first three decades of his adult life. "Hoosiers" pushed his notoriety to a new level.
"What the movie did was take this thing worldwide," he said. "People in Indiana obviously knew about the story -- they lived it. I probably was giving anywhere from 15 to 20 speeches a year to high schools, not only in Indiana but in other states."
I can tell you, it's nice to be remembered.
– Bobby Plump, portrayed as "Jimmy Chitwood"
Plump, Indiana's "Mr. Basketball" in 1954, went on to play at Butler, then professionally in the National Industrial Basketball League for the Phillips 66ers for several seasons. Later, he built a career in life insurance and financial consulting, working his speaking engagements into that schedule.
Then demand -- and his fee -- went up. "Not only to athletic events," Plump said, "but to corporations that used the movie as an inspirational thing."
Back home -- "You have to want to go to Milan to get there," Plump said -- a museum dedicated to the state title team went from a corner section in the local antique store, to taking over a barber shop "after the barber died," to being part of a $350,000 renovation of what had been the town's state bank building. Visitors have come from every state and 27 other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Australia and New Zealand.
"We just love the movie," said Roselyn McKittrick, curator of Milan '54, "and it's brought us a lot of fame. And they're the most wonderful group of men you'd ever want to meet."
Plump's family operates a restaurant -- "Plump's Last Shot" -- in the north Indianapolis section known as Broad Ripple. He recalled a visit there by the coach and members of the Spanish national team competing in the 2002 World Championship tournament, when one of the players thanked him -- as in, "Chitwood" -- for making the climactic winning shot and hooking him on the game of basketball.
Plump said that, of the 10 players and two alternates on his Milan team, only one is deceased: Ron Truitt. Truitt got a scholarship to play at the University of Houston and was one of six Indians who went into coaching. Eventually, he became the principal of a middle school before passing away in 1988 of colon cancer. The school now bears his name: Truitt Middle School.
The surviving teammates had held annual reunions since 1955 and, in fact, just had their latest at a casino in Shelbyville, Ind. Plump said he learned that the player guarding him on his famous final shot, Jimmy Barnes of Muncie High, passed away two weeks ago.
The notion that he or the others might feel slighted by the non-existent Hickory Huskers getting credit for what the Milan Indians actually accomplished never has crossed their minds, Plump said.
"Heavens no. How could you be disappointed when there's a movie loosely based on what happened in your real life?" he said. "Whether they named it Milan or whether they didn't, what an honor! And then to make as great a movie as they did."
The movie's place among the most popular, and realistic, sports films in Hollywood history was partly due to writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh insisting on actual basketball players from the state to portray the Milan team. Only Maris Valainis, who played Chitwood/Plump, wasn't a baller; he played golf (and had just four lines in the flick, including "I'll make it.").
Plump said that the Pacers honored him and his teammates at a halftime ceremony "several years ago." With the uniform promotion underway, he said he wouldn't be surprised if the NBA team does something similar this season.
Shirts with "Hickory" across the front are just fine, he said. In fact, had the Pacers settled on "Milan" instead, Plump would have had a request for them.
"I'd want to put a caveat that they use 'Crispus Attucks,' " he said. "Maybe they could alternate Milan and Crispus Attucks."
Indianapolis' Crispus Attucks High was a team -- featuring Hall of Famer Oscar Robertston -- that Milan beat on the way to its title and the team Robertson led to championships in 1955 and 1956, making it the first all-black school in the nation to win any state championship. It was honored at this year's Indianapolis 500 race.
"But I just think it's a great deal they are using the uniforms from 'Hoosiers,' " Plump said. "Hopefully it will increase interest not only in the Pacers but the NBA and follow on through."
It was time for Plump to go -- he had about five other phone messages to return, most from media outlets eager to talk about the uniforms promotion -- but he was in no hurry.
"Why would I get tired of it?" he said. "Those were some great days. I can tell you, it's nice to be remembered."
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