As I was driving cross country with my daughter Dana two years ago, we arrived in Indianapolis to see Lucas Oil Stadium on the first night it was open for an event, a couple of high school football games. I have spent much of my life in stadiums and arenas of every stripe, but honestly, this was the largest, most architecturally impressive stadium I've ever seen -- even more so for a domed stadium.
My hotel room this week in Indianapolis, where I'm covering the Final Four, faces directly toward Lucas Oil Stadium, an awe-inspiring sight. I haven't researched anything from the architects, but to me, it seems like something of an homage to legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University. Yes, I made the pilgrimmage Thursday morning to the site of the final scene from the movie "Hoosiers," chronicling the 1954 Milan high school team that won the Indiana state basketball title in a monumental upset of Muncie Central.
The Jimmy Chitwood character who hits the winning shot in the movie was based upon Milan's Bobby Plump, who went on to star at Butler University and play many more games in the Fieldhouse, where the final games of the Indiana state high school championships are staged. I walked into the place yesterday morning and couldn't help but notice the white-haired, pot-bellied guy conducting a video interview for the Indianapolis Star-Tribune. I knew instantly it was Plump.
Hinkle Fieldhouse truly looks like an oversized barn, the kind that has a cantilevered roof in the middle supported by rows of windows running the length of the Fieldhouse. At either end, massive windows allow plenty of sunlight into the arena. You could fit about six Hinkle Fieldhouses -- three on either side of the 50-yard line -- into Lucas Oil Stadium. But the basics of that roof design with the massive windows on either end have been incorporated into the design of Lucas Oil Stadium.
As big as Hinkle must have seemed to the kids from Milan, it's now intimate and quaint by comparison to Lucas Oil Stadium. Hinkle seated 15,000 back in 1954, but capacity has been reduced to just over 10,000 to accommodate chairback seats in some areas and give it a more intimate feel. If you think of it as a barn, the court runs from side-to-side with the main stands sloping down from the big windows on either end. The balconies at the end of the court are so close, you could almost touch the backboards.
Plump has said one of his teammates commented, "You could put a lot of hay in here," when they saw it for the first time. When I saw it for the first time, it made me think Stony Brook might do well to model the renovation of Stony Brook Arena after Hinkle's setup if it ever gets the go-ahead to use the $20 million it was granted for capital improvements. The atmosphere at Hinkle is truly "throwback."
It was a pleasure to sit on the sideline and listen as Plump told the story of the 1954 Milan team and explained the differences between the facts and what appeared in "Hoosiers" to the reporter from the Indy Star. At the end of the interview, Plump was asked to recreate his winning shot from the right edge of the key at the foul line.
He wanted a warmup, so, while the camerawoman set up her gear, Plump took a shot that went through cleanly. Not bad for a 73-year-old man. Naturally, when the video was turned on, Plump began missing. When he finally hit the shot again, Plump said, "It took six shots." I smiled to think the old athlete was counting his attempts, but I felt like telling him, "You made the first one."
When he saw me waiting after the interview, Plump was happy to oblige my request for his time, but first another aging senior gentleman came up and told him he had witnessed the 1954 game. Then, a father who looked to be in his early 40s walked over with his tall teenaged son and introduced themselves to the Indiana legend. Plump ate up the attention.
My column today comparing the current Butler team in the Final Four to Hinkle's Milan team contained only snippets of our interview. I wasn't there to go over details of "Hoosiers" with Plump because I basically wanted to get a feel from him for the time he came from and how it might explain why basketball is woven into Indiana's fabric. I wanted to hear what it was like to play against Oscar Robertson when he was in high school at Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis. Milan beat them in the quarterfinals in 1954.
"Oscar dominated absolutely even as a sophomore," Plump said. "I kid him, I say, 'I know you were a sophomore, but I had 28 and you had 22. You've got to respect me.' We're pretty good friends. How we beat them, 65-52, I don't know. We did it with the 'Four Corners' offense Dean Smith invented at North Carolina, but we just borrowed it in '53 and '54. We beat Gerstmeyer [a Terre Haute high school], 60-48, using the Four Corners offense. The only time it backfired was against Muncie Central in the final game.
"I used to see Oscar at state tournament games and basketball events for Indiana. We had a mutual friend who put us together. When they selected the top 50 players [in Indiana] in the past century, Oscar was one of them, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them along with John Wooden, Larry Bird, George McGinnis. But we had been friends for years."
In those days, as teams advanced through the sectionals, regionals, semi-state and finally state finals, Indiana's high school version of the Final Four, teams would play doubleheaders. For instance, in the semi-state, Milan played an even smaller school, Montezuma, in the morning, and Crispus Attucks played another opponent in the morning game on a Saturday. Then, Milan and Crispus Attucks met in the semi-state final that night for the right to advance to the next week's state finals.
One of the most interesting aspects of Milan's experience was that they came from a rural county that had no African-American residents. But they played Crispus Attucks, a predominantly black school, and Muncie Central also had black athletes. This took place the same year as the famous Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision on school desegragation, which helped launch the Civil Rights Movement.
Plump, it turns out, is an enormous admirer of Ray Crowe, the legendary African-American coach at Crispus Attucks from 1950-57. Recalling that era, Plump said, "Of course, they didn't let black schools nor the Catholics in until 1943. They weren't part of the IHSAA until then. Attucks, before Ray Crowe got there, had never won a game in the Sectional. His first year with Willie Gardner, he went to the Final Four. In his seven years of coaching, they won 170 games and lost 20. They were the first team from Indianapolis in 1955 to win a state tournament, the first all-black team to win a tournament in the nation and the first team in 1956 to go undefeated and win a championship [in Indiana]. Ray Crowe and I became pretty good friends."
In "Hoosiers," the movie strays far afield from the facts for dramatic purposes except for the hisorically accurate final 18 seconds of the championship game, leading to Plump's winning shot. What the movie did capture, Plump agrees, was the passion for basketball in the state of Indiana.
"We've had a tournament since 1911, and we had no professional teams in Indiana," Plump said. "High school basketball was the focal point that small communities could be identified throughout the state. Everybody knew if you won a sectional. You didn't have to win the state. Or if you upset a favorite, this whole state knew about it. Where you draw the brackets now in the NCAA, we were doing that as families in the Indiana state tournament to see who in our family could come out the best on it. In the '50s, they had hour TV shows for the drawings.
"You get a town of 500 or 1,000, and all of a sudden, they're in the Indiana state news. We thought that was the world back then. A lot of schools delayed consolidation so they wouldn't lose their basketball team. In '54 when we won, they estimated 90 percent of the adult population listened to or watched that game. This place [Hinkle Fieldhouse] seated 15,000, and tickets were $3.50. There were two games in the morning, and the winners played that night every Saturday. For $3.50, you got to see all three games. They were scalping tickets in 1954 for $50. The movie captured that and the passion."
Plump is equally proud of his connection to Butler University, where he played under Tony Hinkle, the coach and athletic director for whom the fieldhouse was named in 1966. When people say Butler is more of a recognized power on the national stage this season than Milan was in Indiana high school ball in 1954, Plump corrects them. Milan made Indiana's Final Four in 1953 and lost only two games all season in 1954 and won by significant margins on its way to the title. Nine of the 10 players on Milan's team went on to play college ball.
Plump set single-game and career scoring records at Butler along with a slew of other marks. He said Matt Howard on the current team broke the last of his Butler records, the career mark for free throws made, in the Syracuse game in the West Regional. It stood for 52 years. "If somebody was going to break it, I couldn't have asked for a better guy," Plump said, "and 52 years is long enough."
No one wants to see Butler win the national title more than Bobby Plump. But he's upset that some oddsmakers have listed the Bulldogs as a 1-point favorite over Michigan State. Plump much prefers the underdog role.
"I want them to be underdogs so they can win," Hinkle said over the sound of bouncing basketballs on the Hinkle court, where a group of young kids had begun shooting baskets. "They've been underdogs all the way through, and they've won. You think, 'Butler -- 4,500 full-time students. What can they do?' But when you get on the floor, you find out these guys can play, and it shakes them up a little bit. Nobody thought they could beat Syracuse except them.
"Here's my take on Butler: A good team with talent will beat exceptional players on another team if they don't have the same concept as the good team with talent. Butler's got more talent than they're given credit for. They're pretty tough on defense. When you can hold opponents below 60 points in a tournament like this, that frustrates them when you're accustomed to scoring 80 points."
You've got to believe, and Plump is convinced the Bulldogs know they can do it.