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Ben Smith

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Milan and Muncie Central players watch as a shot by Bobby Plump, not shown, falls through to give the Indians the 1954 state title.

Milan Miracle myth doesn’t match actual narrative

– It was just a plain old country jumper, when you scrape all the meat off its bones. A stop and a pop, 15 feet or so out. A soft, one-handed push, rising and falling around 11,000 or so held breaths in Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Always, in those grainy few frames a million Hoosiers have seen a million times, the basketball drops clean. Bobby Plump stops, Bobby Plump pops, and the course of high school basketball in Indiana, the very nature of it, is set in stone forever.

But what if he misses?

What if the Shot Heard ’Round The World is a misfire, kicking off the rim, turning a victory lap and spinning away?

Well, then maybe Muncie Central wins and Milan loses, and the planets align in a wholly different way. “Hoosiers” never gets made. Class basketball never becomes the Crusades for the guy driving this sentence. A reality-challenged state rep named Mike Delph never leads a hopeless charge backward 15 years too late, invoking the Milan Miracle decades after its relevance was gone.

But the Shot did fall, and America heard about it, and Milan became the symbol of something greater than itself. David taking down Goliath became the catechism for an entire basketball culture, even though it never happened again and, by the time the hour for Hoosier Hysteria grew late, had no real chance of happening again.

Know what’s funny about that, as we come up on the 60th anniversary of Milan 32, Muncie Central 30?

It didn’t happen, either. Not the way the catechism and Hollywood says it did.

Truth is, Milan landing in the state championship game in 1954 was no particular surprise, small as it was. The Indians didn’t materialize in Hinkle that year from the mists of legend; they were exactly where they’d been a year before, when Plump and Co. took the Indians to the state finals and lost in the afternoon to South Bend Central.

Everyone of consequence returned from that team, which is why they arrived in the title game with a 27-2 record.

And though the victory over Muncie Central was an upset, it was hardly bigger than 1949, when a Jasper team that finished the season 11-9 and wasn’t even favored to win its sectional won it all behind a 5-foot-6 guard named Bob White.

What lifted Milan to mythic status was its 161-student enrollment vs. Muncie Central’s 2,200. Yet the Indians had already beaten a big school (Terre Haute Gerstmeyer) in the morning, and, in those pre-consolidation days, there were a lot of schools Milan’s size.

None of this is to suggest the Milan Miracle still wasn’t something of a miracle – Muncie Central, state champs in ’51 and ’52, was heavily favored – or that it didn’t have an enduring charm that would eventually seduce even Hollywood. It’s just that the narrative never actually matched the myth of the narrative, and it’s the myth that has shaped everything about basketball in this state.

That’s why, when Delph pushed to reinstitute single class last year, there was still a lot of talk about Milan, even though it was 2013 and 1954 might as well have been 1254. The small schools have dwindled away, while the big schools have just gotten bigger; as of 2012, there were two Indiana schools boasting enrollments of more than 4,000, seven with 3,000 or more, and 24 larger than Muncie Central was in 1954.

Even Milan is three times larger than it was in ’54. Which would make it a Goliath, or a semi-Goliath, if it were playing the Milan of Bobby Plump today.

Now that would be a Shot Heard ’Round The World.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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