Story of 'forgotten Hoosiers' one tailor-made for Hollywood treatment
Surviving players from 1955 Indiana state title game working to get story told on a silver screen-sized scale
The big round anniversaries have come and gone. Fifty years. Sixty years. The next one is three years away, by which time the number of players involved in Indiana’s famous 1955 Crispus Attucks state high school championship may have dwindled even more.
Those who are left are pushing 80 now, give or take a year. And they are feeling no small sense of urgency to see to it that the legacy of the milestone game between Oscar Robertson’s Crispus Attucks team from Indianapolis and Dick Barnett’s Roosevelt High from Gary, Ind., is preserved.
“We call it ‘the forgotten “Hoosiers,”’ said Barnett, a veteran of 14 NBA seasons best remembered as a member of the New York Knicks’ championship teams in 1970 and ‘73. “Even though people know about Milan in 1954, because of the issues of race then that [Crispus Attucks-Gary Roosevelt state championship game] has just been obliterated and wiped out from the memory of what was happening at that time. There was no true celebration in Indianapolis. Very few things happened in Gary.”
Milan was the small-town school renamed “Hickory High” and immortalized in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers”. The “Milan Miracle” was the quintessential Hollywood underdog/David vs. Goliath stuff spun from Milan knocking off Muncie Central on Bobby Plump’s game-winning basket. As “Jimmy Chitwood” in the movie, of course.
“Hoosiers” is famous, part of basketball culture in this country. But if there ever was an underdog story deserving of similar treatment, a “Hoosiers II” but with a significant twist, it’s the tale of Crispus Attucks’ teams in 1955 and ‘56.
In 1955, coach Ray Crowe helped Robertson and his teammates become the first all-black team in the nation to win an open state championship. The Tigers also were the first Indianapolis school to win that state’s tournament.
In recent years the Crispus Attucks team has been feted with tributes from the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and elsewhere in the state. TNT’s “Inside the NBA” did an extended segment on the historic achievement in 2013, too.
But what Barnett, Robertson and Chuck Hughes are seeking is bigger than that, with the sort of star power and legs that has enabled “Hoosiers” to endure the way “Field of Dreams” and “Bull Durham” have in baseball, the way “Slap Shot” still entertains with hockey.
‘A positive story that needs to be told’
Frankly, it’s a bit head-scratching that a movie hasn’t already been made.
“We’re talking about a different America and different circumstances, and that’s what the picture would engage,” said Barnett, who earned a doctorate from Fordham University. He is retired now after years of teaching sports management at St. John’s.
Hughes is Barnett’s lifelong friend and executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Gary. He runs the annual Lakeshore Classic tournament – a pet project of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, a native of nearby East Chicago, Ind. – featuring schools from Indiana and Illinois, and he played at Southern Illinois with Barnett’s legendary Knicks teammate, Walt Frazier.
It was Hughes’ tournament honoring the Crispus Attucks-Roosevelt game in 2013 that revived some interest. Every surviving participant in the title game from both teams attended the tribute that had its own impact on civil rights in America, years before a march on Washington or legislation in the 1960s.
Hughes says he has pitched a movie project to the NBA, spoken to individual NBA teams and talked with Charlies Rosenzweig, the NBA’s senior vice president, entertainment & player marketing. There are film treatments, even a potential script, but the project needs traction if it’s going to go from dream to reality.
“This is a positive story that needs to be told,” said Hughes, who attended 2017 All-Star weekend in New Orleans with Barnett and Robertson. “This is our rationale: First of all, the story is compelling within itself. Nobody knows the story. The other thing is — this is why we approached Charlie Rosenzweig — you’ve got two marquee former NBA players. Oscar is one of the greatest players, right? And Dick Barnett was a member of the only championship teams the Knicks ever had.
“And then you’ll learn more about the history of schools.”
A game ahead of its time
It really is all about the schools.
Roosevelt High in Gary was the result of geography and demographics, drawn from the black neighborhood in which it was located. Crispus Attucks was engineered, a school created to house and educate black students — and remove them from the otherwise-white high schools of Indianapolis.
So when their basketball teams squared off in the 1955 final tournament game, history was going to be made one way or another with an all-black team of champions.
“I guess we sort of sneaked up on them to get that accomplished,” Robertson, 78, said in a recent phone interview. “It was a game that was ahead of its time.”
Its time? Robertson described an America familiar to most people mostly through books, documentaries and other films. Riding in the back of buses. Being refused service at restaurants and theaters. Getting told by parents to avoid certain parts of town. Sticking to sports.
Said Barnett: “I don’t know if [the Crispus Attucks-Roosevelt game] ever was on the minds of people in the basketball world in the first place. This was a product of the semi-apartheid America that we were facing at that time in the 1950s.”
With Barnett’s school, Robertston’s — named after the first person killed in the Boston massacre in 1770, considered the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War — were two of three all-black high schools in Indiana (Evansville Lincoln was the third). Just as their students were segregated, so were their teachers and administrators — which had the effect of populating their faculty with elite teachers holding masters and doctorate degrees.
“It was a great school for me,” Robertson said. “Teachers who had doctorates but couldn’t teach in the white schools, they were superior to other teams in the school system. And just think about going to a school of 2,000 students where you’d have maybe 100 blacks — the pressure that you’d feel from white teachers at that time was unbelievable.”
Crowe, the basketball coach at Crispus Attucks, dialed the standards even higher. He posted players’ grades publicly and required at least a C-plus average. They were on curfew during the school week. And they were taught sportsmanship and restraint that, considering what they faced, had to be difficult to maintain at times.
“We were probably the ‘nicest’ team in the history of basketball in Indiana at that time,” Robertson recalled. “With Ray Crowe, you couldn’t say anything to a referee or another player at all. He wouldn’t let you play if you did. It was important that we behaved like everybody else, but we had to be better. Playing in some of those basketball games, it was obvious to me that some of the referees were against us. So you had to play superior basketball in every respect.”
Title games sparks societal change
From 1950-57, Crowe’s teams went 179-20, though he never was named the state’s Coach of the Year. They had lost to Milan in its “miracle” season in 1954 but there was no stopping Crispus Attucks the following year.
It lost only one game all season and won games by an average of 22 points, reaching the championship game on March 19, 1955 with a 30-1 record. Led by Robertson’s 30 points, in front of nearly 15,000 people at Butler Fieldhouse, the Tigers jumped in front early and won big, 97-74.
That’s about where “Hickory High” ended. But Crispus Attucks’ story wasn’t close to done.
The traditional championship celebration called for a parade through downtown Indianapolis, centered on the city’s Monument Circle. This time, with players piling onto a fire truck, they were given a lap around the circle, then diverted to Indiana Avenue, toward the hub of Indy’s black life at that time, for a bonfire. Civic leaders allegedly were nervous about revelry by the team’s black fans in the middle of town.
“My feeling was, people wanted to move on and not acknowledge what was transpiring historically,” Barnett said. “You can talk about inevitability, but in terms of animus and racial relations in society, that has been a struggle all the way.”
Robertson, though, recalls with pride that during the championship game, the radio broadcaster began referring to his team as “Indianapolis Attucks,” rallying behind the idea of that city’s first state champion. Per tradition, cheerleaders from the white schools that both teams beat in the semifinals joined those from Robertson’s and Barnett’s schools for that night’s title game.
After Crowe and Robertson led the Tigers to an unbeaten championship season in 1956, and as Crispus Attucks reached the title game again in 1959, Indianapolis coaches started to lobby for black athletes enrolling at schools nearest their homes. Soon all the predominantly white high schools were integrated, though white students first attended Crispus Attucks in 1971. Colleges began aggressively recruiting black players (Robertson was the first to play at the University of Cincinnati).
“The integration came because of sports,” Robertson said. “It didn’t come from a sense that they wanted to give a kid who lived a block from Shortridge, a block from Tech a chance to go to those schools.
“I don’t think we were sophisticated to know what was going on. But our teachers knew. They knew what it would take to really prospect and be successful. I feel like I can never repay them for what they did for me and the other students at Crispus Attucks.”
‘It changed basketball in America’
Ted Green, a journalist and documentary filmmaker in Indianapolis (tedgreenfilms.com), told the Crispus Attucks story in 2016 in “Attucks: The School that Opened a City.” But the story that Barnett, Robertson and Hughes want to put in multiplexes across America would target a broader audience. Not just another “Hoosiers”, but as a project combining elements of that film, “Glory Road” — the tale of Texas Western’s all-black NCAA team in 1966 — and “Selma.”
“It changed basketball in America,” Hughes said. “That’s why we’re not interested in just doing a sports movie. There’s a story here, and basketball just happens to be the tool. In today’s society, somebody needs to see how relevant this could be for a lot of people.”
Hollywood, as witnessed at this year’s Academy Awards, is more open to civil rights themes and black stories in general these days. It’s hard to think of a good reason why a Crispus Attucks movie or television series about its basketball and educational experience has not been made.
Given the number of budding entertainment moguls in the ranks of today’s NBA players, as well as recent retirees like Kobe Bryant, Baron Davis and Elton Brand, the potential to tell this tale seems ripe.
“This is what sports can do for a city, a state or a country,” Robertson said. “It can break down a lot of prejudices when they see you play.”
Said Barnett: “The whole issue of race has been passing the baton to others. That’s why it’s so critical that we look at the ‘forgotten Hoosiers’ with the movie we’re trying to produce. So people see how what we faced 60 years ago has impacted the NBA and where we are today. Most of the players, coaches and owners do not know about it — America does not really know about it.
“They know about ‘Hoosiers.’ We want to tell the whole story of what was happening in America beyond that.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.