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An upclose view of David vs. Goliath

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cherokee Village resident Gordon McCain with the plaque he received for officiating the Indiana High School state football championship in the early 90s. McCain worked a total of six state championships in Indiana and is also one of only two officials elected to the Indiana High School Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame. Photo by Terry Mullins
Don't get me wrong.

We love our high school basketball in these parts.

But with all apologies to both the Natural and Show-Me States, our love for the sport can't hold a candle to the real hotbed of passionate high school basketball fans -- the Hoosier State.

After all, it's said that the state of Indiana boasts more basketball goals per capita than any other state in the Union. And oh yeah, there's even a hoop in the driveway of the Governor's executive mansion.

And then there's the high school gymnasiums.

Or maybe palaces is a better word to describe where a bunch of Indiana high school teams take to the hardwood.

Over 30 high school gyms in the state of Indiana hold over 5,000 spectators, and nine of the 10 largest high school gymnasiums in the United States are found there, with the largest being the New Castle Fieldhouse, capacity 9,314.

But the "bigger-is-better" theory is really not what makes Indiana High School basketball so special.

That honor goes to a small school located in Ripley County that in 1954, tallied an enrollment of 161 students.

A small school that accomplished such a legendary feat that some 32 years later, a movie was based around those accomplishments.

Milan High School.

Better known to fans of the movie "Hoosiers" as Hickory High, Milan won the 1954 Indiana High School State Championship with a 32-30 victory over Muncie Central.

At that time, the state of Indiana held a single-class tournament, with all schools competing for the same championship, regardless of size of enrollment. With that win over the considerably larger Muncie Central, Milan became the first small school in Indiana to win the state championship, thus inspiring the movie "Hoosiers."

Widely considered one of the best sports movies of all time, "Hoosiers" was not really a factual account of Milan's championship season of '54, but was rather inspired by the school's David vs. Goliath storybook finish.

Nevertheless, Milan's triumph over Muncie Central was still the stuff of legends and one local resident was actually there to witness it.

Cherokee Village's Gordon McCain.

A senior at Indiana's Flora High School in 1954, McCain made the trip to Butler Fieldhouse on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis to enjoy the state finals.

McCain's Flora squad, a team from a school similar in size to that of Milan, had not made it out of the Sectional round that year.

"We got beat in the final game of the Sectional by Kokomo, a school that, at that time, probably had 1,500 or 1,600 students," he said. "But that was what made Indiana basketball. Muncie Central was not the largest school in the state, but it was one of the larger ones. They played in the North Central Conference, which was the premier conference in the state at that time. So when a school our size played a school like Kokomo, or Milan played a school like Muncie Central, it was us against the world."

And if there was one thing that "Hoosiers" did an incredible job of, it was capturing that "us against the world" spirit. In that sense, "Hoosiers" may be the ultimate underdog story.

But while the Milan Indians were certainly underdogs in their quest for a state title, they weren't exactly treading into uncharted waters by making their way to Butler Fieldhouse in 1954.

"One of the things the movie doesn't say was that Milan had made it to the finals the year before (1953) and had gotten beat. And they had everyone back from that team so people were looking for them to make a run the next year," McCain said. "Marvin Wood was the coach (at Milan) and contrary to the movie, he was in his late 20s when he was coaching that team."

The success that Milan had in 1954 (28-2 record and state title) paid off with a number of Indians earning scholarships to play at the next level.

"Off that team, three players went on to play at Butler (University), one went to Indiana (University) and a couple played at Franklin, which is a small college near Milan," McCain said. "The player that made the game-winning shot for Milan, Bobby Plump, was a good high school player, but he was better in college."

Plump's big shot in the finals against Muncie Central came after the Indians froze the ball for four minutes late in the game, with the contest tied at 30-all. With time winding down, Plump drilled a 14-footer from the right side that fell through the nets, giving Milan the amazing two-point win over the four-time state champs from Muncie Central.

Now that's a legendary finish to a legendary game.

"I'll tell you one thing, the last two or three minutes of that game there was not a single person sitting down in the fieldhouse. Everyone was standing," McCain said.

And while he was just a spectator as history was made in the 1954 Indiana State Finals, earlier that season McCain actually took to the floor in competition against one of the best basketball players of all time.

"We played against Crispus Attucks in a regular season game and they had Oscar Robertson on their team," he said. "He (Robertson) was a sophomore then. They had a lot of good ballplayers and they beat us by about 21 points or so."

After going on to star at the University of Cincinnati, Robertson, "The Big O," one of the most versatile basketball players ever to grace the hardwood, went on to a long career in the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks. The Hall of Famer Robertson is the only NBA player ever to average a triple-double for an entire season. He currently ranks number eight on the NBA's all-time scoring list.

"They won the state title in 1956 (becoming the first undefeated team in Indiana high school history) and that was Oscar's senior season," said McCain. "And by that time, he was head and shoulders better than anyone else."

While McCain's Flora team couldn't solve Crispus Attucks in 1954, Milan did, beating the then-segregated school 65-52 in the Semi-State playoffs (quarterfinals) at Butler Fieldhouse.

However, the headlines of "Small fry knocks off big guy" days are gone in the state of Indiana these days.

Adopting a formula close to the one in use in Arkansas and Missouri, Indiana made the controversial decision to change from a single class tourney to a multi-class one, based on enrollment, in 1997.

"It's like all things -- there's advantage both ways. We have lost a lot of revenue since we went from the single class system to the four-class system we use now," said McCain. "Several stations used to televise the finals and didn't have any trouble getting advertising. It was worth a lot of money to the IHSAA (Indiana High School Athletic Association). Money they don't have now. They don't even televise the finals on any of the major stations there anymore."

These days, only three states, Delaware, Hawaii and Kentucky, still use a single-class tournament for high school basketball championships.

And with those bygone days of all schools battling for one trophy gone, so too is a bit of the electricity that used to pack those venerable old gyms in Indiana.

"When I was a senior and we went to Kokomo (to the Sectionals), there was probably eight or nine teams there and you couldn't get a seat in the house," said McCain. "Kokomo seated like 7,800 and it was sold out. They really packed them in there. The gym at Seymour would seat about 8,700 and the one in Lafayette, which was close to us, would hold about 7,800 and it was a sight to see those places packed for high school basketball games. If you haven't been through it, it's kind of hard to imagine gyms like that full. Back in those days, those places really rocked-n-rolled on sectional weekends."

And also in those days, you just couldn't walk up to a ticket window and purchase entry into the State Finals. Tickets were distributed to high schools throughout the state and that was where you went to purchase your ticket.

"Of course the bigger schools got more tickets; a school like Kokomo probably got about 20," said McCain. "Our school got six and seniors had first priority on those, so that's how I got my ticket to the Milan game."

McCain, an avid golfer, has been vacationing in Cherokee Village for about 40 years and bought a house in the community in 2000.

And while he spends quite a bit of time in Arkansas now, McCain still officiates high school basketball and football games, along with some swim meets in Indiana. And he has worked six Indiana state championship football games.

Not just any average Joe with a whistle around his neck, McCain is one of only two officials elected into the Indiana High School Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame.

"I also work some small college -- Division II and Division III," McCain said. "I've called some playoff games but not any finals in college."

Although it's been 55 years since McCain experienced firsthand the real-life magic of Milan's win for the ages, and it's been 23 years since that magic was captured on celluloid in "Hoosiers," one thing that will never get old is the message of both -- you don't have to be big to be a champion.

"The thing about it is, small schools fed on that for years after the game," said McCain. "They'd say 'remember Milan?' and that makes quite a bit of difference when you can see that something like that can really happen. I haven't been to Milan lately, but on their water tower, they still have '1954 State Champions' painted on it."

Milan shall never forget and neither shall we.

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Excellent article, Terry, on a very interesting man.

Hoosiers is no doubt the favorite sports movie of many people and this account of the game and what led up to it, accentuates the reason that is true.

-- Posted by Ron Kemp on Fri, Jan 9, 2009, at 4:08 PM

That was an interesting article. The Village has its own celebrity resident in Gordon McCain.

-- Posted by conventional1 on Tue, Jan 13, 2009, at 9:32 AM

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