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Butler is kinda sorta like 'Hoosiers'

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As inevitable as headlines saying “the Butler did it,” Butler University’s presence in the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four has dredged up the comparisons with the movie “Hoosiers.” It’s a facile exercise, considering Butler’s status as a relatively small fish in the NCAA pond, and its home court, Hinkle Fieldhouse, where as the 1986 movie taught us, the dimensions of the court are the same as our gym back in Hickory.

However, Butler has as little in common with the 1951-52 Hickory Huskers as the very urban IUPUI, which used “Hoosiers” as its inspiration when it made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2003, and Notre Dame center Ruth Riley, who thought of little Ollie shooting his underhanded free throws when she hit the game-winning freebies to give the Irish the 2001 NCAA women’s title. Butler is a team full of talent, beyond Gordon Hayward as Jimmy Chitwood (though Hayward looks more like he could star in “The Rade Butcher Story”), and it’s had a sustained period of success, with three appearances in the round of 16 since 2003.

Four passes before you shoot Gordon, er, Rade.

Instead, the plucky high school team Butler resembles the most is not fictional, but very real — the 1954 Milan Indians, whose “improbable” Indiana high school basketball title run inspired “Hoosiers.”

Despite the Cinderella story, Milan was no out-of-nowhere team in 1954. In 1952-53, Milan went 24-5 and reached the final four of the Indiana state boys high school basketball tournament under a baby-faced coach in his mid 20s named Marvin Wood. (Milan lost to South Bend Central, Hickory’s opponent in “Hoosiers.”) The nucleus of that team was back for 1953-54, including Bobby Plump.

The 1953-54 Milan team went 28-2 — 28 being the number of Butler’s regular-season victories this year. Just like Butler, Milan mostly dominated its similarly sized competition. Despite the movie’s depiction of a series of tight games, Milan cruised through the tournament, not facing a close game until its legendary 32-30 nailbiter final in Butler Fieldhouse (Tony Hinkle was still alive and coaching Butler at that point) against Muncie Central, a game won by Plump’s last shot. (Plump’s Last Shot 40 years later, became the name of a Indianapolis restaurant co-owned by Plump.)

Meanwhile, baby-faced Butler coach Brad Stevens, age 33, is bringing his Bobby Plump, Hayward, into the NCAA Final Four, after previous success led to expected excellence (Butler at one point was a top 10-rated team during the regular season) as the Bulldogs dominated their similarly sized competition (the Horizon League). By the way, just to close this circle, Plump played his college basketball at… Butler, and, until Matt Howard broke it during the regional final, he had still held the school’s record for most free throws made.

Rade Butcher, er, Bobby Plump, er, Gordon Hayward at left. (Photo from Flickr)

This is not to say Butler shouldn’t milk the “Hoosiers” connection. With the Final Four five miles south on Capitol Avenue at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, I look forward to Stevens breaking out the tape measure, and having Hayward stand on a ladder to hold one end to the rim, and Shelvin Mack on the floor holding one end on the free throw line. Stevens could call the picket fence, with Hayward as a decoy, and Hayward telling Stevens, after the team shakes its head thinking back to that game against Oolitic: “I can hit that shot.”

Anyway, I presume that while Bulldogs fans want their story to end just like Milan (or “Hoosiers,” for that matter), they don’t want Stevens to do what Marvin Wood did after Milan’s title — leave for a bigger school.

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Love 'Hoosiers'? What would you think of 'Hoosiers 2: East Chicago'?

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“Let’s win this one for all da region schools that never had a chance to get here.”

Indiana native Angelo Pizzo earned great acclaim for writing and producing “Hoosiers,” the story of an unlikely state basketball championship team that was deservedly declared by many to be the best sports movie of all time.

So how would you feel if Pizzo went back to the Indiana basketball well, this time riffing off of the undefeated 1969-70 state champions from East Chicago Roosevelt? From the Northwest Indiana Times:

Three years ago [former East Chicago Roosevelt High basketball player Napoleon] Brandford met with Angelo Pizzo, the Bloomington native who wrote and produced “Hoosiers.” … Pizzo is looking at reworking the screenplay about the Rough Riders, which already has been written.

“If I put my pen on paper, I will not be doing another version of ‘Hoosiers’,” Pizzo said. “Region basketball is not Indiana high school basketball. It’s much different. It’s a different culture. But it is a great story.”

Brandford wrote a book — “Hoosiers, too: The Road Warriors” — that chronicled the great E.C.R team. The investment banker has spoken with many about making this film. The first screenplay was written by Paul Quinn, brother of actor Aidan Quinn.

James D. Stern, an owner of the Chicago Bulls, has taken an interest in the project. …

Brandford said the movie about the Rough Riders will be made, but the economy has slowed the process. A year ago he had an option to make the movie with Endgame Entertainment. Some artistic liberties were taken initially with the story, so now it’s back to the drawing board, where Pizzo stepped in.

With all due respect to Pizzo’s moviemaking abilities, I don’t see why the 1969-70 East Chicago Roosevelt team would be so inherently fascinating. Yes, it didn’t have its own gym, and there are aspects of the racial tension of the time that might provide some drama. But it doesn’t seem to stand out to the level of supporting its own blockbuster story.

The team that Pizzo used for “Hoosiers” — the 1953-54 Milan Indians — worked because it was the ultimate underdog story, the ingrained symbol (at least in Indiana) for how anyone, with hard work and some pluck, could take on the mightiest foe. It wasn’t just the story of a basketball team; it was Indiana’s whole mythology, and partly explains why welfare benefits aren’t so generous there.

If there is another Indiana team to become fodder for a movie, it’s the one that succeeded Milan — the 1954-55 Indianapolis Crispus Attucks team, lead by Oscar Robertson. Talk about your black-white tension: while schools with black players were allowed in the Indiana state tournament, segregated, all-black schools such as Attucks (as well as parochial schools) weren’t allowed in until 1942. (That rule was put in place by Indiana’s Avery Brundage, a man named Arthur Trester. With no irony, the Indiana High School Athletic Association, which he once ran, hands out the Trester Award for Mental Attitude during the state tournament.)

Milan beat Robertson and Attucks during its 1954 title run, and “Hoosiers” gives that game a nod by casting the coach of that Attucks team, Ray Crowe, as South Bend Central’s coach in Hickory’s final game. In fact, “Hoosiers” sets up a “Hoosiers 2: Attucks” perfectly by its undercurrent of how Hickory was a last stand for rural Indiana, soon to be overtaken in importance by modern city life. The Attucks team isn’t interesting just because it was the first team from an all-black school to win the storied Indiana state basketball title. It’s also compelling because most of the players grew up together in the same housing complex, playing on a dirt court.

Interestingly enough, Robertson himself led an effort to make a movie made about his high school team. It was a documentary called “Something to Cheer About, and it was released in 2007. But a fictional version might spread the Attucks story more far and wide.

One problematic part: the ending. Attucks’ victory didn’t bring about instant racial reconciliation. It turned out the Indianapolis city fathers, either out of racism or a misguided feeling to let blacks enjoy “their” title, put the victory parade on Indiana Avenue near Attucks, then the center of the city’s black community, rather than around Monument Circle in the center of the city.

The New York Times thinks it's identified a cancer in Hoosier Hysteria

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John Branch of the New York Times visited tiny Medora, Ind., to find a high school boys’ basketball program he calls the anti-Hoosiers, as in the bizarro world where the Medora High Hornets are doing this for all the small schools that never sunk this far. It all makes sense, except that Branch doesn’t spend enough time on the more boring, important reason why a small Indiana high school struggles so much in the supposed Hoosier birthright: it’s a small school in a small district.

Players for Medora High School have taken the court wearing work boots because their families cannot afford basketball shoes. Most smoke cigarettes. Some talk openly of drug use. All but a few come from broken homes.

Of the roughly 400 schools in a state that reveres boys high school basketball, none lost more last season than the 0-22 Medora Hornets, under the first-year coach Marty Young, the youngest head coach in the state.

Now 23, Young is not expecting many, if any, on-court victories during the season that starts on Saturday, either. But he counts wins and losses differently from most.

“If they’re in the gym these two hours, then I know they’re not in trouble,” Young said.

Poverty rates are high here, college graduates few. Drug use is rampant, several said, and many residents live in ramshackle trailer homes strewn about the hills that surround the checkerboard streets of the town. In these depressed times, there is little to cheer but the high school basketball team.

Except it does not win.

The lone basketball championship banner hanging in the gym dates to 1949. There has not been a winning season in decades. Counter to those sepia-toned images that outsiders have of small-town Indiana, the boys here rarely dream anymore of starring for the local team.

That is the unexpected predicament confronting Young, the kind of Indiana boy who grew up sleeping with a basketball. Indiana, after all, is the home of “Hoosiers,” the 1986 movie loosely based on the small-town 1954 Milan High team that beat all the bigger schools to win the state championship. Medora, about 65 miles west of Milan, could be this generation’s anti-Hoosiers.

“It used to be such a big deal,” said Maria Powell, born and raised in Medora and now the mother of one of the basketball players. She recalled postgame parties with classmates at a pizza place called The Covered Bridge — long since closed — when she was in high school. “Basketball was just what you lived for.”

Medora, with 16 members in the senior class, is the fifth-smallest public high school in Indiana. It is slowly shrinking, like the town of about 500 itself. Two of three large feed mills are gone. An automotive plastics factory employed several hundred until it closed in 1988. A brick plant on the edge of town died in 1992.

Now, if Branch has watched “Hoosiers,” he knows that one of Norman Dale’s bigger shocks in coming to small-town Hickory, Ind., is that only seven boys, counting the manager, come out for the basketball team. Also, he might have noted that there is an undercurrent to the whole movie about the future for schools like Hickory — consolidation and being erased from existence in the name of educational progress. (Recall, if you will, Ollie reading definitions of progress in Coach Dale’s history class.) In that context, Medora is Hoosiers II: The Downer Sequel.

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Medora High: the inspiration for Matthew Perry in “Hoosiers 2.”

Medora survived the first round of consolidation in the 1950s and 1960s, during which time the number of members in the Indiana High School Athletic Association dropped from a peak of 820 in 1942 to about half that by the dawn of the 1970s. Nationwide, the number of school districts dropped from 119,000 in 1939 to 16,000 in 1975 — a drop of 13 percent a year, every year, for 36 years.

Now Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is trying to undertake Consolidation II: Educational Boogaloo. While a bill failed last year, Daniels again is expected to push that any district with fewer than 500 students be consolidated with a nearby district, while those between 500 and 1,000 students not meeting certain academic standards also be consolidated.

It’s part of the Republican Daniels’ so-far-unsuccessful effort to follow a report issued in 2007 by a commission, chaired by a former Democratic governor and a Republican-appointed Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice. Its recommendations talked about reducing government spending by reducing small but politically powerful jurisdictions like townships and school districts with fewer than 2,000 students. Hence, why they’ve been unsuccessful. (Though Daniels was able to get Indiana to adopt highly unpopular Daylight Saving Time and still get re-elected.)

Not all tiny school districts are created unsuccessful. Dewey Township schools in LaPorte County, in northern Indiana, with 161 students the state’s smallest district, has a basketball team that hovers close to .500 and offers programs like biomedical science. Of course, its student poverty rate of 7 percent is less than half of Medora’s 17 percent, and it also spends nearly $13,000 per student compared with Medora’s $7,500, which is well above the $5,500-$6,000 per student nearby, larger districts to Medora would spend. Dewey Township is an exception, though. Most tiny school districts are like Medora: a double-digit poverty rate, higher-than-usual per-student spending, and an isolated, rural location with a declining population.

Medora’s poverty rate is not much higher than the other schools in Jackson County, Ind., John Mellencamp’s home base. It’s just that with 278 students, every troubled student in Medora makes the school district that much more troubled. And with Medora spending more per student than any other Jackson County school, buttressing Daniels’ argument that districts like it would be better off combined with larger districts for more efficient spending. Small districts aren’t planning to operate wildcat schools, as Onward, Ind., famously did in the early 1950s, its citizens surrounding the school to prevent authorities from consolidating it, but they aren’t terribly happy about the idea of this second wave of consolidation.

But forget about academic or fiscal arguments for a moment. We’re talking basketball! And in those terms, it’s also getting harder for the tiniest districts to compete.

Indiana split its basketball into four classes starting with the 1997-1998, presumably to give the Medoras of the world a chance to get some trophies for their cases. (It so happened that Medora won its last sectional — the first round of the all-comers postseason tournament, in 1997, the final year of single-class basketball.) However, the IHSAA’s membership is starting to shoot upward again because of charter schools from the big cities and small private schools from everywhere (particularly established schools who stayed away from the single-class IHSAA for fear of being stomped), thus providing the tiny schools competition of equal student size by not equal athletic ability.

And particularly in these charter schools in urban districts, the players might have some of the same pathologies at work as they do in Medora, maybe worse. Except that they’re 6-foot-7 and can jump out of the gym. The idea Daniels has is not that small schools are bad — small school districts are. Milan, once home to the 1954 Miracle that inspired the movie “Hoosiers,” and which was not consolidated with other districts in the late 1950s and 1960s because of that success, now clocks about three wins per season.

So while it’s true that Medora’s economic problems and small size have turned Hoosier Hysteria into Hoosier Meh, the issue is a little more complicated than underwhelming kids being drawn from a community of ramshackle meth huts. The problem isn’t just that Medora’s basketball team has issues. The bigger problem is whether a tiny district like Medora is capable of fielding anything of quality when it comes to its schools, just by dint of its size. If Medora can’t prove itself, it won’t be long for this world, now matter how good or bad the basketball team is.

Written by rkcookjr

November 29, 2009 at 5:51 pm

“Let’s win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here”

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If you’re tearing up a little reading that headline, then you must be as big a fan of “Hoosiers” as I am. It’s not only the quintessential sports movie, but it’s also the quintessential youth sports movie, a look at how adults project their own hope and aspirations into their high school basketball team — and vice versa, as it turns out. Every inherent contradiction about youth sports glory is in this exchange, as Jimmy Chitwood’s guardian argues with Coach Norman Dale against Jimmy playing basketball:

Myra Fleener: You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god, er, uh, how can he ever find out what he can really do? I don’t want this to be the high point of his life. I’ve seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.

Coach Dale: You know, most people would kill… to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.

Part of the appeal of Hoosiers was its cast of basketball players. Except for David Niedorf, a professional actor, every one was a real life Hoosier, found through auditions. Interestingly enough, Maris Valainis, who played Jimmy Chitwood, was the only one who didn’t play high school basketball. But whatever happened to this guys?

I can tell you what happened as of 2004, when I wrote a story for Flak Magazine in which I caught up with as much of the cast as I could. I still get emails from people about the story, including one that popped up last night. I was inspired to write it after the suicide of Kent Poole, who played Merle Webb, the player who delivered the oft-quoted line that became the headline. It’s a where-are-they-now mixed with my own thoughts on the myths and realities of basketball in the state in which I grew up, and how those are reflected in the movie itself and the lives of the people who were in it.

I’ll link to the story here. Thanks for reading.

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