Plump's Shot Has Echoed Throughout Small Towns
You know all about the David-and-Goliath angle. You know all about the game-winning shot a few seconds ahead of the final buzzer, the most dramatic in the history of the tournament. You know all about the classic movie it inspired, Hoosiers.
What you might not know about Milan's victory over mighty Muncie Central for the state championship, on March 20, 1954, is the most important thing of all. It's the real legacy that grew from that historic game at Butler Fieldhouse, the one that had the greatest impact on a small town and altered the most lives, for generations to follow.
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Plump's immortal shot from about 16 feet, just to the right of the foul line, didn't just win an improbable state championship for the school of barely more than 160 students in the town of barely more than 1,000 people. It lifted the self-image of a student body. Kids who previously wouldn't have even considered venturing out into the world to take on the challenges of college against kids from bigger cities suddenly realized they could compete with anyone. If their classmates could take on a state powerhouse for the greatest prize they had ever seen and win, of all things why couldn't they?
And so 17 kids out of the senior class of 30 went on to further their education, either at a four-year college or at nursing school. That might not sound like many, but it was for a small school in a small Midwestern town in the mid-Fifties, one 40 miles from the nearest metropolis and 80 miles from the state capitol. It was four times the typical number of Milan kids who went off to college. Back then, kids tended to stay home and work on the family farm or find employment with a local business. College was for the more sophisticated kids from the cities.
Until Plump's jumper nestled in the net.
"It was kind of like the people in Milan had a little spring in their step," said Plump, the only one of six kids in his family to go to college. "It was like, 'You know if this happened, why couldn't we do this?'"
It's impossible to measure the impact of all those kids furthering their education, but it had to be a positive thing for them and their future generations. Long after the cheers of the manic fans among the sellout crowd at Butler Fieldhouse died down, that's the legacy that still echoes throughout the most lives.
Plump turned down Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State to take a scholarship from Butler, where he became the school's all-time leading scorer. Of the 10 players who dressed for that championship game, nine went to college and six of them became teachers and/or coaches. Another eight in the class continued their education, leaving just 13 to find work somewhere. No doubt other students in younger grades were influenced as well.
Perhaps it wasn't just the basketball team's achievement that did it, though. Perhaps the reaction of fans had something to do with it, too. Milan's title not only inspired banner headlines in newspapers throughout the state, it brought unprecedented revelry from people in small towns who related to the achievement.
After leaving Butler Fieldhouse, the players were led on a lap around the Circle – the wrong way – by police officer Pat Stark, something that contrary to the belief of many was not a tournament tradition. The players stayed overnight at their hotel in Indianapolis that night, then attended a Catholic service the following morning as Stark's guest. When they made their way home in the five cars loaned by Milan's only auto dealership, Volz Motors, a caravan at least 13 miles along awaited them along the highway, cheering them onward. They were routed through Shelbyville, where the local police turned on their sirens. They drove through Greenwood, too. By the time they reached Penntown, 11 miles from home, people were walking on the roads toward Milan, making it difficult for the team to pass through. The state police estimated about 40,000 people congregated there; license plates were spotted from Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana.
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The lesson was twofold: you didn't have to come from a big school or big city to accomplish great things, and achievement could bring great rewards.
The Milan players left another legacy, too. They had grown up amid humble surroundings, born into homes without running water and electricity. "Most of the homes had four rooms and a path," Ray Craft said, meaning a path to an outhouse. Gene White, another senior on the championship team, recalls first-grade teachers having to show their students how to use a flush toilet.
They grew up in homes without television, and played basketball on goals attached to barns, smokehouses and poles. Plump even shot at a peach basket, Naismith-style, in neighbor Roger Schroder's barn. They went to Cincinnati, 40 miles away, for major shopping expeditions. The 80-mile trip to Indianapolis, undertaken only for such major events as the State Fair or the state tournament, was a day-long adventure.
So it's little wonder the townsfolk, and even the neighboring townsfolk, were excited by the basketball team's accomplishment. The greater wonder is that the players themselves seemed to keep a level head. Sure, adults loaned them cars and bought them meals, but none of them seemed to suffer from expanding egos. They moved on with their lives, and didn't look back.
Even today, they take it in stride. They have a reunion every year, and some are still invited to make appearances. Plump continues to be asked to make appearances and speeches, and does so gracefully, telling and re-telling the stories as if it's the first time. But they don't go back and watch video of their championship game, nor do they watch Hoosiers, the fictionalized movie of their championship that is regarded as a classic sports movie.
"I don't watch it anymore," Craft says.
"I haven't watched it in years," White says.
"We know the outcome," Plump says.
They know the impact, too. It lives on today.
Look for Mark Montieth's conversation with three members of Milan's state championship team on "Dropping In with Mark Montieth," to air on March 31 at 9 PM on WFYI.
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