Jimmy Chitwood plants his two feet into the dirt lot by the barn, he grabs a worn down leather basketball and gets into a rhythm. It’s a consistent rhythm too … hell it’s rather poetic if you ask me …made free throw after made free throw, perfect form, not a single sound minus the rattle of the rim, a bounce off of the wooden backboard and the ball hitting the dirt.
And then Jimmy misses. The ball clanks off the rim and sits in the dirt. One can only stay flawless for so long before the consistency finally comes to an end.
It’s the exact same situation the movie that made the fictionalized hero Chitwood famous now faces. For nearly 30 years, “Hoosiers” was consistent. Make after make, the film remained perfect, it’s rhythm so perfect that no other sports movie has been able to match it in terms of popularity and inspiration.
But “Hoosiers” has finally missed and in doing so, has done so with one big clang and thud.
How could it possibly do wrong? Little Hickory did everything right didn’t they? The small school located in the middle of nowhere had just seven players – well six-and-a-half if you ask Ollie – and slayed Goliath-like South Bend Central to win the single-class state championship. They were the ultimate Cinderella story, a picture-perfect group. The onscreen heroes became real in the minds of those who sat and idolized the film. These weren’t just actors in uniform anymore. In the minds of the people, they were the names and faces they played.
Which leads to the ultimate problem. No longer has “Hoosiers” remained just an award-winning picture. Instead, many tend to believe that Hickory is all of a sudden a real small town, that Jimmy Chitwood still goes to some rinky-dink small town high school in Indiana and “shoots them buckets,” and that Norman Dale is one head coach who deserves a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame. But such is not the case. Dale and Shooter Flatch, played by actors Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper,branched off and went on to other acclaimed movie roles, never tied down to their roles in 1986. Guys like Maris Valanis, who played Jimmy, never made it past the final scene. Valanis’s acting career was unsuccessful following the Chitwood stint and his only appearances and recognition since then has come at movie reunions in the last 30 years. But names like Gene, Dennis and Maris don’t ring a bell to the people. In Indiana, those three no longer exist. The three stopped going by those names when they all resided in Hickory and claimed the state title in 1952. They still live there to this day … so everybody thinks.
By now you’re either flirting with the red “X” symbol on the right of your screens or you continue reading this thinking to yourself, “Man this guy is so idiotic that I have to keep reading to see how much dumber he gets.” To those who represent the latter, I say thank you, and hope that you are keeping up with me. Just maybe you’re either agreeing or at least you’re still intrigued.
Fair warning though … I’m about to “give country hospitality an awful name.”
Or perhaps I lose you right now when I say that Hickory’s fairy tale never existed in real life either. At best, the real life version is a watered down story compared to the big screen portrayal. Great story? Absoltuely. But never in a million years does it come close to the Hollywood script.
“But Rob, isn’t the movie based off the real life state champion Milan Indians, the tiny school who hit a last second shot and knocked off the big school?” Let’s get something straight first .. the term used should be “loosely-based.” There’s no denying that without the real-life 1954 Milan Indians, “Hoosiers” would have never been made. Without the team’s state championship run, David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo would have never even came up with the idea let alone stuck their nose inside Milan, which without 1954 is just another small town in Indiana that nobody has ever heard of. The facts stop there. The rest of Anspaugh and Pizzo’s work is fiction, right down to even the smallest of scenes.
Hickory won 15 games one year prior to the fictionalized 1951-1952 championship run which was then followed by an offseason that rivals what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has went through this summer. Fans in the town had plenty of personnel back – all but one player- but the question remained whether Chitwood, their star player, would even be back. Close with the old coach who was replaced by Dale, fans sat through the summer and fall months, waiting for Chitwood to decide if he would stick around and play, or bolt for local rival Terhune. Without him, the Huskers were doomed and would not even contend for a sectional title let alone a winning season.
The Milan story is less dramatic. As a matter of fact the season prior to their 1954 state championship run should have been a sign of what was to come. Marvin Wood, a head coach that does not identify with the rough and controversial ways of a Norman Dale, moved to town in 1952 with his wife Mary Lou after the Indians’ previous head coach was removed for purchasing new uniforms without permission. From there though it was nothing but success for Wood in his first year. Unknown but loaded with talent, the real miracle occurred that year when the team nobody had heard of in 1953 marched all the way to state finals of a single-class tournament, bowing out in the afternoon semifinals to eventual state champion South Bend Central, the same team Hickory beat in their state championship game in the movie. Heading towards the 53-54 season, everybody returned, including Wood, which immediately should have been enough for most to think that the Indians could repeat such a feat once again.
Granted modern-era high school basketball has now been split into four separate classes (we’ll get to that later) but most in any year would automatically tab a Final Four team that returns its entire lineup a state championship favorite the following year. Big schools still received the most recognition but Milan’s team was no longer the unknown. An underdog? Slightly since they were a small school, but the special 53-54 year never dealt with what Hickory went through during their own special cinematic season.
Hickory struggled out of the gate, Coach Dale was on the proverbial hot seat and midway through the season the town was ready to disown him and the team. The rest of the year is well-documented. Chitwood makes a triumphant return and in doing so saves Dale, then the Huskers cruise the rest of the season en route to the buzzer beater that dethroned a much stronger South Bend Central Bears team.
Milan on the other hand? The Indians cruised to a 19-2 regular season record before dominating in their first eight tournament games. Wood’s gang through their state semifinal win over Terre Haute Gerstmeyer, defeated tourney foes by an average of 17.5 points per game which included a 13 point win over then-sophomore Oscar Robertson and Crispus Attucks, who spent the next two years making their own history in Indiana High School basketball. It was virtually the last time until 1957 that Attucks would be stopped and most argue had “The Big O” had more experience that the loss to Milan never happened.
But never mind the side note, let’s stick with facts. Much of the so called “Milan Miracle” is rather boring compared to Hickory’s road, which involved a sectional brawl, an assistant coach in rehab and miraculous granny-shot free throws made by Ollie McLellan, the team’s glorified equipment manager and last resort on the bench that sent the team to the state championship game. The only two things that seem to be similar are the buzzer beaters hit by Chitwood and Milan star -turned state basketball legend- Bobby Plump and the fact that indeed, the small school did prevail over the giant.
Great and historical accomplishment? Yes, there’s no denying Milan’s place in basketball history. But much to popular opinion, especially the opinion of the old-timers and those in and around Milan, much of what really happened in the team’s history during an incredible two-year stretch has been forgotten. More of what you hear anymore sounds like what might come out of the exaggerated mouth of one Shooter Flatch after a few snorts off the bottle.
Whether it’s fictional Hickory or factual Milan, it is clearly safe to say that the basketball landscape in Indiana since such teams has changed throughout the years and that stories and feats like theirs will never again be duplicated . Four separate state tournaments in four separate classes highlight the high school season featuring over 350 schools has forever banned one Cinderella from strutting her stuff at the big dance, leaving those in the self-proclaimed “glory days” clinging to the Milan tale. If one school could do it over 60 years ago and inspire a beloved film, why can’t the same happen today? At least that’s what they say. Until the return to such a time occurs – which it never will – the advocates for once-upon-a-time will continue to preach and in doing so, keep “Hoosiers” and everything that goes along with it personified to support their own opinions and arguments. Such antics will do nothing but continue to jeopardize the future of Hoosier Hysteria, which still does exist to those who refuse to be blinded by the “old days.”
Norman Dale was right when he stood in that Hickory High School hallway … it is nice to be treated like a god. It happened to his own team, it happened to Milan and it happened to the era that “Hoosiers” represents.
But I can’t help channel my inner Myra Fleener to those that continue to worship the ancient basketball gods and to those who continue to drive all over Indiana in search of a green sign that says “Welcome to Hickory, Home of the 1952 Indiana State Basketball Champions.” Maybe it’s time to get away from this place.
I don’t want you all coaching in Hickory when you’re 50.