By Cliff Brunt
More than 50 years ago, two young men who someday would rank among Indiana’s greatest basketball legends crossed paths at Butler Fieldhouse.
On one side was senior Bobby Plump of the small-town Milan Indians. On the other stood sophomore sensation Oscar Robertson of powerhouse Indianapolis Crispus Attucks. It was 1954 and a trip to the state semifinals awaited the winner.
Attucks led early, but Milan pulled ahead and played keepaway in the second half to win 65-52. As Plump recalls, he scored 28 points. Robertson, who became one of the NBA’s all-time greats, scored 22.
“I keep telling Oscar he has to respect me,” Plump said with a laugh during an interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t refer to the fact that I was a senior and he was a sophomore.”
Added Plump: “I think he was the best player I ever saw.”
Two games later, Plump hit the shot of his life in the closing seconds of the state final against another big-school power, Muncie Central. With time winding down, Plump drove from near the midcourt circle, then cut to his right and pulled up from about 15 feet. The shot was good, Milan won 32-30, and a David-vs.-Goliath story that has survived generations emerged.
The story, and that final shot, inspired the 1986 movie, “Hoosiers.” Smooth-shooting Jimmy Chitwood from the film? That’s Plump.
“Everybody in Indiana was familiar with what happened in 1954 because they kind of lived through that thing, or they heard tales passed down,” said Plump, now 73. “It used to be I’d meet people and they’d say, ‘I saw that game.’ Now people say ’My grandfather told me about that game.”’
As for Robertson, the loss to Milan marked the last time he lost a state tournament game. The next year, he led the first all-black team in the nation to a state championship. He followed it up by leading Attucks to the first unbeaten state championship season in state history in 1956.
Plump and Robertson, perhaps more than any other two players in state history, inspired Indiana boys — black and white, city and country — to dream of playing in the state tournament. In honor of the 100th state tournament, which will conclude on Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse, The Associated Press compiled an Indiana All-Century team. The 26 players — a set of twins has been included as a single entry — were chosen with input from a panel of experts who have been involved with basketball in the state for at least 20 years.
Larry Bird, an all-century pick who averaged 30.6 points and 20.6 rebounds per game as a senior at Springs Valley in 1974, said the memories of pursuing a state title live long after the dribbling stops.
“If you go around the state, most guys played basketball on some level,” he said. “When I see a lot of my friends who played in high school but didn’t get to play in college, that’s all they talk about. They remember the coaches, they remember the cheerleaders, they remember the scores of games, and that’s their life.”
The members of the team, in alphabetical order, are:
Steve Alford, New Castle; Damon Bailey, Bedford North Lawrence; Kent Benson, New Castle; Larry Bird, Springs Valley; Hallie Bryant, Indianapolis Crispus Attucks; Mike Conley, Lawrence North; Bill Garrett, Shelbyville; Terry Dischinger, Terre Haute Garfield; Eric Gordon, Indianapolis North Central; Billy Keller, Indianapolis Washington; Clyde Lovellette, Terre Haute Garfield; George McGinnis, Indianapolis Washington; Rick Mount, Lebanon; Greg Oden, Lawrence North; Bobby Plump, Milan; Zach Randolph, Marion; Jimmy Rayl, Kokomo; Oscar Robertson, Indianapolis Crispus Attucks; Glenn Robinson, Gary Roosevelt; Scott Skiles, Plymouth; Homer Stonebraker, Wingate; Deshaun Thomas, Ft. Wayne Luers; Tom and Dick Van Arsdale, Indianapolis Manual; John Wooden, Martinsville; Robert “Fuzzy” Vandivier, Franklin.
Gene Keady, who recruited the state for 25 years as Purdue’s head coach, offered a list of all-time greats. Later in the conversation, he realized he had skipped a few.
“You start forgetting many of these guys,” he said. “That’s easy to do in Indiana. It’s amazing how many players come out of Indiana, per capita. The state has the best players in the history of the game.”
The state held onto one-class basketball until 1997, something that traditionalists say made the state tournament unique.
“I think it was special,” Keady said. “Everybody in the world knew about Indiana’s one-class basketball system.”
Former Pacers coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard, who played high school basketball at Terre Haute Gerstmeyer but was better known for his success at Indiana University, said towns often were identified by their high school basketball teams.
“When I was in high school, there were 714 teams in the state tournament,” the 77-year-old Leonard said. “That’s before a lot of consolidation. And there’s a lot of schools that had 20 kids in the graduating class, and everybody played.”
Leonard remembers listening to state tournament games on the radio in the 1940s, and what the atmosphere was like in Terre Haute and the surrounding towns as state approached.
“All those little towns, those gyms were packed on Friday night,” he said. “When it got to state tournament time, they closed the barber shops, the drug stores and everything else, and everybody headed to the basketball game.”
The special moments, like Milan’s victory, stand out. Keady mentioned Luke Zeller’s buzzer-beater just inside halfcourt that gave Washington an overtime win over Plymouth in the 2005 Class 3A final.
Warsaw coach Doug Ogle recalled watching Bailey play in front of 40,000 at the Hoosier Dome in 1990.
“I remember being way, way up, not being able to see very well, but you just felt it was kind of neat to be there as part of it,” he said.
Now, eight teams on Saturday pursue the same dream that Hoosiers have been chasing for 100 years. That isn’t lost on Ogle, whose Tigers will play Indianapolis North Central for the Class 4A title.
“If you love Indiana high school basketball, how can it not add to the excitement, being part of the 100th boys basketball tournament?” he said. “It’s important. I think it’s going to be meaningful to all four champions on Saturday because I think people are going to remember the 100th. I just think it will stick in their minds a little bit more.”