Tuesday, March 2, 2004 Updated: March 3, 8:58 AM ET
'Hoosiers' in reel life
By Jeff Merron Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: On the 50th anniversary of tiny Milan High School winning the Indiana state basketball title, we take a look back at a Classic Page 2 column: Jeff Merron's real life vs. reel life, a comparison between Milan's victory and Hickory High of "Hoosiers," the movie inspired by the events of 1954.
Milan High School, enrollment 161, saw plenty of real-life drama during its tournament run, but, said Angelo Pizzo, the scriptwriter for "Hoosiers," a great deal of fictionalization was necessary for the Hollywood feature "because their lives were not dramatic enough."
So, "Hoosiers" isn't a true story? Well, it sort of is, but mostly isn't. Or, it mostly is, but sort of isn't. You decide.
In real life, Milan High School didn't come out of nowhere. The Indians had made the state semifinals the previous season.
In reel life: The team that wins the championship is Hickory High. In real life: The team that won the championship is Milan High. There is no town of Hickory in Indiana.
In reel life: Hickory wins the title in 1952. In real life: Milan won the title in 1954.
In reel life: The previous coach dies, which is a crucial part of the plot -- the team's star player, Jimmy, doesn't play part of the season because he's so upset. In real life: The previous coach, Herman "Snort" Grinstead, who Bobby Plump (the real-life hero) said in an ESPN chat was "the most popular coach in Milan's history," was fired for ordering new uniforms against the superintendent's orders.
In reel life: The head coach, Norman Dale, is a middle-aged man with a mysterious past that includes being suspended years ago for punching one of his star players. In real life: The head coach, Marvin Wood, was 26 years old when he coached Milan to the title, and it was his second year as head coach of the team.
In reel life: Coach Dale alienates just about everyone with his independence, and there is a town referendum on whether the school should keep Dale on as coach. In real life: Marvin Wood did face an uphill struggle, because he replaced Snort and changed both his offense and defense. But by the time the Milan Indians were playing their championship season, he had won the town over.
In reel life: The assistant coach, "Shooter," (played by Dennis Hopper in an Oscar-nomination performance), is the town drunk and the father of one of the players. In real life: There was no assistant coach.
In reel life: Coach Dale is an outspoken and sometimes abrasive man. In real life: Coach Wood was softspoken.
In reel life: Hickory is the ultimate Cinderella team, a classic underdog coming out of nowhere. In real life: Milan High had made it to the semifinals of the state tourney in the 1952-53 season, and the key players returned the next season. They entered the tournament with a 19-2 record.
In reel life: Coach Dale has slow-burning romance with teacher Myra Fleener (played by Barbara Hersey). In real life: Coach Wood was married with two children and didn't have a romantic relationship with a teacher.
In reel life: Coach Dale is a taskmaster during practices, running the players through drills. He does so wearing shirt and tie. In real life: Coach Wood often suited up and played with the team during practices.
In reel life: Jimmy Chitwood, the team's star player (the Hollywood version of Bobby Plump) sits out half the season because he's so upset about the previous coach dying. In real life: Bobby Plump played the entire season.
In reel life: Hickory's total enrollment of 161 is so small that it can only field a team of six players. In real life: Milan High did have an enrollment of only 161, but 58 of the 73 boys in the school tried out for the team. Milan High had 10 team members in 1954.
In reel life: The manager, "Ollie," comes on the court in the semifinal and hits two free throws to win the game. In real life: Milan's manager, Oliver Jones, stayed on the sidelines and didn't make any heroic buckets.
In reel life: The film's director found it impossible to find enough extras to fill Butler University's Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the scenes for the final game were shot. About 1,000 extras had to be shuffled all around the arena as the actors went through their moves. In real life: Hinkle Fieldhouse was packed to the rafters, and tickets were being scalped for up to $50.
In reel life: Jimmy Chitwood, during the timeout with 18 seconds remaining in the championship game and the score tied, is told that he'll be a decoy while the team runs its "picket fence" play, and a teammate is assigned the final shot. When the teammate, in the team's huddle, gives a look of dismay and eyes Jimmy, Jimmy says, with confidence, "I'll make it." In real life: Coach Wood told Plump, not another player to take the final shot. "I was a very shy kid," Bobby Plump told the Washington Post in 1995. "I never would have said, 'I'll make it.' "
In reel life: Hickory wins the action-packed final by a score of 42-40. In real life: Milan won the final by a score of 32-30. During the final quarter, with Milan trailing 28-26, coach Wood ordered a stall. Plump literally held on to the ball, without moving, for 4 minutes, 13 seconds, before taking a shot (and missing) with a few minutes left on the clock. Plump also held the ball, without moving, as the clock ticked down from 1:18 to :18.
In reel life: "Hoosiers" has been listed by many publications as one of the best sports movies ever made. In real life: The Indianapolis Star said the Milan Miracle was the top sports story in Indiana history.
In reel life: "Hoosiers" is available on VHS and DVD. In real life: The Indiana High School Athletic Association has complete videos of Milan's 1953 semifinal loss to South Bend Central and Milan's victory in the 1954 final. (http://www.ihsaa.org/video/BBBVIDEO.html)
"Hoosiers" is one hour and 54 minutes long. Although, as Bobby Plump said in his ESPN chat, "the film captured what it was like growing up in a small town in Indiana and how important basketball was," there's probably more truth than accuracy in the film. "The final 18 seconds were the only thing factual in the movie about the Milan-Central game," Plump told the Saturday Evening Post in 1987. "From the time the ball was in bounds after the final timeout, the movie was accurate."
"Closer Look" will be a regular Page 2 feature, exploring a hot sports topic in greater detail.