Museum dedicated to 1954 Milan ‘miracle’ team

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MILAN, Ind. (April 2, 2015)-- To reach Milan, Indiana, basketball fans drive approximately 90 minutes southeast of Indianapolis down I-74 then to go southbound on State Road 101 between cornfields ready for their Hollywood close up. Once you spot a modest sign on the outskirts of town that proudly proclaims the most recent All-State high school heroes and one team that came from somewhere close to nowhere to win it all decades ago, you're close to where the memory of the legend lives.

The Milan '54 Hoosiers Museum is downtown in what used to be the bank when back in the day the Ripley County community hosted seven or eight trains a day at its depot, bringing visitors from Cincinnati and beyond.

There's not much left to downtown Milan save the rusted water tower rising above a junkyard, painted black, announcing proudly that today's visitors are in the home of the "STATE CHAMPS 1954."

Glen Butte was one of those farmboys who went out to win it, "for all those small schools out there," according to movie lore.

"It's great to be remembered," he said, wearing a Milan varsity jacket for effect in front of a CBS4 camera in the museum's backroom movie theatre. "I'm sitting here today sixty years ago. We still have nine out of our ten who are still alive and able to enjoy this and we do enjoy it. It's nice to be remembered."

Several members of the '54 state champs will attend an autograph session at Lucas Oil Stadium from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Friday as part of NCAA Final Four festivities.

Butte was a sophomore on that team, riding the bench the night of the big game.

"I'll tell you what, it was a front row seat and when that ball went through, I jumped high."

Butte watched as Bobby Plump, now a retired insurance agent who owns "Plump's Last Shot" in Broad Ripple, drove on a defender from Indiana high school basketball powerhouse Muncie Central and put up a jumper from the right of the top of the key, sealing Milan's 32-30 victory.

"We knew who we wanted," said Butte, remembering the time out called by Coach Marvin White before the last second shot. "Bobby wasn't having his best game. We knew who we wanted to take the last shot."

Children and teenagers in Milan, granddaughters and grandnephews of those heroes of '54, still practice that shot today on the court of a high school gym that wasn't built until after the Milan Miracle began to fade from memory.

"Crossover. Cross back and just a 15-footer right at the elbow," said Sam Leyden whose great uncle Ray Craft played on that team and went on to serve with the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Ironically, it was the IHSAA that decades later did away with the one-size-fits-all state tournament that invited all comers regardless of size to fight to become king of the basketball mountain. "It kind of makes me believe that anything can happen on any given day and to know that this town is based off the tradition of Indiana high school basketball and what we did back in 1954, it's kind of a great feeling to know that you're a part of the tradition as a Milan basketball player."

Note that Leyden said, "We," when describing a triumph achieved years before his own parents were born.

Linda Bauerly and Linda Combs were just kids themselves when brothers and dads carried the Milan banner to what was then called Butler Field House in Indianapolis for the championship game more than six decades ago.

"I was very proud of my big brother and I realized as time went on what they had done," said Bauerly, sister of player Gene White. "I knew it was a big deal but I didn't realize until I left the community and went out in the world and they said, 'Where are you from?' I go, 'A little town in Indiana called Milan.' 'Milan? Didn't they win a basketball game?'"

They sure did, according to Combs, whose father Marcus Combs was an assistant coach.

"I just thought of it as winning a really good big game for the team," she said.

The Milan '54 Miracle was a well known Indiana basketball secret until a pair of IU grads, screenwriter Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh, teamed up to create the 1986 Hollywood sports classic, "Hoosiers," based on the exploits of the small town Davids up against the big city Goliaths.

"What I really liked about the movie was that portrayed how important basketball was to southern Indiana, to all the small schools in Indiana, also the small schools in the Midwest," said Butte who recalled that what was really important to him was winning one of the first varsity letters ever handed out by Milan High School to a kid from the farming community of Pierceville down the road. "We didn't have any idea what we had accomplished on that particular night when we won. I'm sitting here sixty years from the time we one in 1954 and I still don't think we really realize what influence we had on basketball in Indiana. I know with the movie 'Hoosiers' coming out, and we were the inspiration for that movie, I think that is the reason why you're here today and I'm here today, otherwise without the movie 'Hoosiers' we would not be getting together."

Still photographs and artifacts and references to the movie are scattered throughout the museum alongside jerseys and tennis shoes and basketballs and headlines and telegrams of congratulations.

There's a hospital bed, "Shooter's Bed," museum founder Roselyn McKittrick calls it, for the character played by Dennis Hopper in the movie.

McKittrick spent years combing through garage sales and collecting antiques and sifting through basements and offices and filing cabinets looking for bits and pieces of the '54 team's history.

A handwritten 1954 Indiana high school bracket covers one wall. It was copied at the time by a pair of Purdue University studentsn and covers an entire wall, charting the successes and failures of 750 schools that reached for the crown and the one school to eventually wear it that spring.

McKittrick has assembled a display to rival any in the state capitol where 70,000 basketball fans are expected to attend this weekend's NCAA Final Four inside an enclosed football stadium that'll be watched by a nationwide audience.

In the backroom furnished with one-piece schoolhouse desks, a washed out copy of the State Finals game played on a video screen.

Signed basketballs and framed pictures of "Hoosiers" Coach Gene Hackman and championship game action lined the walls as Glen Butte contemplated what it all meant to himself and his teammates and the generations of Milan players who followed their footsteps onto the court, recalling what their basketball ancestors accomplished a long time ago.

"Sometimes I might think it was like an albatross around their neck because it's been brought up to them," he said,  "but the last ten years or so it has been great to be back and be part of Milan High School."

Butte was in the stands the night we visited Milan as his nephew Travis took the floor for the Indians toward the end of what had been a disappointing season.

"It's always been around my family, everyone talked about it, going to family reunions," said Travis, a senior closing out his career with a home game. "My uncle was on the '54 team so he saw it. I've heard all the stories. I heard everything. All the stories. You still hear stories now about new things you didn't know about."

"Going out and saying you're a Milan basketball player means a lot," said Leyden, also a senior appearing one last time before the hometown crowd. "I know it means a lot to my relatives that I'm a Milan basketball player and both of our families were born and raised and went to school here in Milan and to be able to put the jersey on every night really sums up what I think our family values are and what our town values are."

There isn't a train depot to welcome arriving visitors downtown anymore. The grand hotel where the guests stayed burned down during World War I. The old high school where Glen Butte and his friends practiced and won is long gone.

But the 1954 championship banner, and its companion piece honoring the 1953 state runners-up, hang high over the gym floor where the Milan basketball tradition continues, and kids still make "The Shot" like their grandfathers and dads and aunts did long before them.

"The movie 'Hoosiers' has really continued to portray what Indiana basketball's about," said Glen Butte. "This basketball movie was not only for Indiana but it was for all those small schools in the Midwest."

The Milan '54 Hoosier Museum is located at 201 West Carr Street in Milan. For more information call (812) 654-2722 or click here.

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