During Governor Craig’s term, the General Assembly spent quite a bit of money on school consolidation, phasing out smaller schools and busing students to larger, centralized facilities. Speaking of small schools, in 1954, Milan High School won the Indiana high school basketball tournament. Indiana had fallen in love with basketball since Nicholas McCay brought the game from James Naismith to Crawfordsville and played that first game against Lafayette in 1894. “In a dark and lonely winter, the gym was a warm, noisy and well lit place. For Indiana, basketball was a godsend.”
Milan and the one-class basketball tournament
Indiana’s one-class basketball tournament started in 1911. A number of things fueled its success: the lack of other forms of entertainment, the introduction of vehicular travel and good roads, Indiana’s multitude of small rural schools, lack of professional teams, and the low barriers to entry — schools didn’t need a big team, rural kids could enjoy the sport even if all they had was a ball and a makeshift hoop.
The early tournament had a dominant team in the twenties known as the Franklin Wonder Five, winning it all in 1920, 1921, and 1922. The boys on that team had been playing together since they were kids and compiled a 104-10 record in their four years in high school. (Most of the team followed their coach to Franklin College and was dominant on the collegiate level as well.) John Wooden would call their lead scorer, Fuzzy Vandivier, the greatest high school player he had ever seen.
High school basketball would be responsible for some major building projects around the state. In 1928, Butler would propose a 10,000 seat arena — pretty ambitious given that the institution only had a few thousand students. The head of the IHSAA would ask them to expand that number to 15,000 and promised to conduct the high school tournament championship at Butler (later Hinkle) Fieldhouse for at least 10 years. In fact, the championship would take place at Indiana’s Basketball Cathedral until 1971. There was also an arms race among local high schools to construct larger and larger facilities, due to the unassailable logic that — if you had the biggest arena in the area — the tournament games would take place on your home court. Indiana has 14 of the largest 15 gyms (15 of 16 if you count the defunct Anderson Wigwam). North Central Conference schools (or former NCC schools) figure prominently on that list: New Castle, Anderson, Marion, Muncie, Lafayette, Richmond.
During the 1952-53 season, the small school of MIlan had an unusual pool of talent, owing to its junior high program. The team defied the normal pattern of advancing a couple of rounds only to fall to a large, urban school in the regionals. Instead, it won the regionals and semi-state competition, advancing to the final four. They would get blown out by South Bend in the semi-final game, but most of their starting lineup was going to return for the 1953-54 season. So, expectations were high. During the regular season, Milan lost on the road to the much bigger school of Franklin and a surprise loss to Aurora which also had a very good team, but otherwise, Milan more or less cruised. In the sectionals, Milan crushed Cross Plains, Versailles, and Osgood. In the regionals, they beat host Rushville handily and then avenged their loss to Aurora, beating that team 46-38. The first semi-state game found Milan in the unfamiliar position of being the bigger school, playing (and beating) Montezuma who had won its first regional to advance to the semi-state. The second semi-state game was a trickier proposition, playing a Crispus Attucks team with future hall-of-famer, Oscar Robertson. Milan built a lead, then played a lot of keep away, winning by 65-52.
In the state game, they played Terre Haute Gerstmeyer Tech which had also been in the final four the previous year, winning by a score of 60-48. The final game was against powerhouse Muncie Central. It was a defensive battle, the game tied at 26-26 going into the 4th quarter. Early on, Muncie Central put in a pair of free throws taking their first lead since early in the game. Bobby Plump was having a bad shooting night, having gone 2 for 10 from the field. He dribbled to “up over mid-court, pulled the ball up against his stomach, and stood still. Muncie waited, and if you think you gotta have motion to generate excitement, you should have been there. Plump held the ball amidst more noise than you’ll hear in the wildest fast breaking game for four minutes and 14 seconds, and then called time.” After play resumed, Plump shot the ball with 2:55 on the clock. He missed, and Muncie Central got the rebound. However, a bad pass gave the ball back to Milan and they scored, tying the game at 28-28 with 2:12. Plump gave Milan a 30-28 lead with a pair of free throws. Then Gene Flowers tied it again at 30-30 with 48 seconds left. It was then that Bobby Plump and Milan made history, Plump hitting the game winning shot with 3 seconds left and giving Indiana it’s own David versus Goliath legend.
The one-class tournament would continue until 1997. During that time, the Marion Giants — featuring Jay Edwards and Lyndon Jones — matched the Franklin Wonder Five with three consecutive state titles of their own in 1985, 1986, and 1987 (beating my Richmond Red Devils in the ‘85 and ‘87 efforts.) In 1997, the IHSAA decided to move to a class-based system, ending the crown jewel of Indiana sports. (I had the fortune of being in the room at the State House when Bobby Plump testified to a Senate committee in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get the General Assembly to somehow step in to preserve the one-class basketball tournament.) Bloomington North was the last one-class basketball champion, beating Delta by a score of 75-54. After 81 years of frustration, my Red Devils won a championship just under the wire — beating Lafayette Jefferson in overtime to win the 1991-92 season.