GREENFIELD — Ray Craft wanted to separate fact from fiction for the 40-plus people sitting in front of him at the Hancock County Public Library.
First, however, the former star guard from the 1954 Milan High School basketball championship team needed a show of hands.
“How many of you have seen the game film? I’m not talking about ‘Hoosiers,’ I’m talking about the real game,” the 79-year-old Craft remarked, inducing laughter across the conference room late Tuesday night.
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A little more than a dozen revealed what Craft suspected.
“Well, for those of you who haven’t; I know you’ve heard the story, but now you can see the real game,” he said while his gold state championship ring gleamed under the podium lighting. “The movie ‘Hoosiers’ was inspired by the Muncie (Central) game. It is not the story of the Milan team. It is a very good film about basketball in the early 1950s, but I think we rode a little bit better of a bus than that.”
There was no shortage of one-liners dished out by the quick-witted Craft throughout the two-and-a-half hour presentation, which included a Q&A session and a viewing of the state title game.
The nearly filled room showed their appreciation with wide eyes and open ears eager to learn the true tale of the little team that did rather than could from southeastern Indiana.
Part of the library’s July summer reading program, designed to celebrate the state’s bicentennial, Craft shared his memories and countless facts, in distinct detail, now woven six decades deep into Hoosier Hysteria history.
The leading scorer in the title game known as the “Milan Miracle,” Craft referred to the Indians’ 32-30 victory at Butler Fieldhouse (since renamed Hinkle Fieldhouse) for what it was, a true David vs. Goliath feat.
“This is 62 years, people, since this happened, and we’re still talking about it,” Craft quipped. “Did we think it was a big deal? Yes, it was big for basketball because Muncie was going for its fifth state championship that year. They were a school of around 2,000 and we were a school of around 162.”
Nods from a majority of the audience, some who were fortunate enough to see the game in person as youths, conveyed their approval of yesteryear’s hoops romanticism, when Indiana thrived in a single-class state tournament era.
Quick to side-step the debate about the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s later implementation of a multi-class format, Craft turned back the clock to a time when aluminum cans and paved parking lots weren’t commonplace.
Instead, it wasn’t uncommon for regular-season high school basketball games to sell out or diehard fans to camp out to secure a coveted sectional, regional or semistate tournament ticket.
“Around that time, it was a really good basketball era in Indiana. A lot of unique things happened,” Craft said. “Attucks won the first championship for an Indianapolis school and an African-American school (in 1955 and 1956), they were the first undefeated team to win a state championship. A lot of things happened, good things.”
Arguably, none were as memorable as the Milan Indians’ run led by 1971 Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coach Marvin Wood.
Yet, while the iconic 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” written by Angelo Pizzo, which was inspired by Milan, focused on one season, Craft pointed his attention toward the journey in its entirety.
From shortfall to pinnacle, the 1951-52 and 1952-53 seasons were equally as relevant.
“The more amazing part of our story was we were in the state finals the year before. We got beat by South Bend (Central High School, 56-37, in the semifinals),” Craft said. “It wasn’t maybe a fluke that we got back the next year and won the state championship.”
As Craft peeled back each layer of the team’s rise to prominence, the timeline spiraled even further backward. He playfully called Thanksgiving Day in 1945, his starting point when his family relocated to Milan from Middletown, Ohio.
Herman “Snort” Grinstead, though, ultimately put the ball in motion, said Craft, for what became a championship dream.
“Somebody once said, ‘You guys were lucky.’ Well, sometimes to accomplish things you have to have a little luck along the way,” Craft said. “Someone once said, the definition of luck is when preparedness meets opportunity. I think we were prepared.”
The reason was because of Grinstead, who decided to put down his foot in 1951-52.
“That year, we went to Osgood, which was part of Jac-Cen-Del, and we were down by 20 points at halftime. He told the seniors, if we don’t win this game, I want your uniforms. That was three or four games into the season,” Craft reminisced. “We didn’t win. We got beat (82-40), and he took the uniforms.”
True to his word, Grinstead jettisoned seven seniors off the team but later brought two back. The roster shakeup opened the door for the younger players’ development, including Bobby Plump, Bob Engel, Gene White and Ron Truitt, who all played roles on the 1953-54 team.
The next crucial step was the hiring of Wood to replace Grinstead for the 1952-53 season. A no-nonsense coach, Wood implemented a team-first philosophy, leaving little room for preferential treatment, even for Plump, Milan’s star guard and state finals hero, who buried the game’s renowned last-second shot.
An anecdote by Craft emphasized his claim and outlined Wood’s persona.
“We had hours back than, I’m not sure if they still have it today, but New Year’s Eve (1953-54), Marvin said we could stay out until one o’clock instead of 12, but ‘I’m going to be checking on you,’” Craft said in a stern tone followed by a smile. “Well, Bobby and his friend had a double date and they pulled up to his house, but Bobby didn’t go in. They sat in the car. They were sitting there and here comes a car down the street. It was Marvin.
“He rolled the window down and asked, ‘Boys, what time is it?’ They said, two minutes to one. He said, I have two minutes after one, and we’re going by my watch.”
Wood suspended Plump and another player for two games after missing curfew. But the second game of their suspension was the county tournament, and “that was pretty important,” Craft said, so he had them run 100 laps in their gym to fulfill the punishment.
That single act told the team and the community, no matter if you’re the star, there are rules and you’re subject to them. The point got across, Craft remarked, but no more than Milan’s state tournament loss in 1953.
Though expected to be a good team the following season in 1953-54, most wouldn’t predict a championship parade and celebration of 40,000-plus the days following.
“I guess they thought our run at the state finals was over because they bought us jackets, which said ‘state finalist’ on it,” Craft joked.
Instead, Milan won the Versailles Sectional by ousting the hosts and rival Osgood. At regional in Rushville, they marched past Aurora, 46-38, in the title game to avenge a late regular-season loss.
At the semistate, Milan faced a tremendous test in Crispus Attucks, led by sophomore guard and future Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Down early, the Indians overtook the Tigers by implementing their cat-and-mouse specialty and zone defense in the second half as Robertson fouled out.
“In fact, that was the next to the last game (Robertson) lost as a high school player. He lost another one as a junior against Connersville,” Craft said. “I think Oscar was the best all-around basketball player that ever came out of Indiana. He could do it all.”
The rest was history as Milan beat an even smaller school (enrollment 79) in Montezuma, 44-34, before facing Attucks and Terre Haute Gerstmeyer Tech, 60-48 in the state semifinals.
However, Milan became legendary because of two sequences against powerhouse Muncie Central, which Craft commented on as the film played before his captivated audience.
Down by two points in the fourth quarter during the state finals, Plump was ordered by Wood to hold the ball for four minutes and 13 seconds to shorten the game. The Butler standout repeated the strategy in the game’s final play before draining his unforgettable jumper. But not everything went to plan.
“After the timeout before the final play, Marvin said, ‘Craft, you take it out and throw it to Bobby.’ Well, Bobby took it out and threw it to me,” he recalled. “We might have thought we weren’t a little nervous, but maybe we were. But it worked out better because Bobby could get in position.”
With Plump’s 10th point, life changed for all of the Indians, said Craft, a key part of the story left out of the movie version.
“We didn’t have fights. We didn’t get kicked out of games, but a local car dealer in Milan told us, if you go to regional you’ll drive there in Pontiacs. If you go to semistate, you’ll go in Buicks,” Craft said. “We went to state in Cadillacs.”
Even larger than the game, nine of the 12 players on the team graduated from college, an inspiration to many, leading to more students, not just athletes, furthering their education.
Craft, who went on to play with Plump at Butler, earned his master’s degree at Indiana University. He was a teacher for 10 years, an athletics director for 15 years, became a principal at Shelbyville High School and was appointed assistant commissioner of the IHSAA in 1983. He retired from the IHSAA Executive Staff in 2008.
Along the way, Craft added actor to his résumé, appearing in “Hoosiers” despite the story trending liberally into fiction because the Milan Indians just “weren’t controversial enough to make a movie.”
“Honestly, it’s been a great 62 years. It’s changed my life. It changed Milan. It changed a lot of players’ lives. I was fortunate, I moved to Indiana on that Thanksgiving Day,” Craft said. “It’s an Indiana basketball players’ dream to win a state championship, and we were able to do it.”
His final words were met by rousing applause as the clock pushed past 9:30 p.m. Before heading to their cars, people gravitated to the front of the room to shake Craft’s hand, snap a quick photo and talk more basketball.
“My sister (Marsha) and I are really into basketball,” said Greenfield resident Cathy Young, 66. “I felt like I was there. He’s that good. It makes me miss the single-class tournament. I love the movie, ‘Hoosiers,’ and I know it’s not the same. This was better.”