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.
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 a things you have a little luck along the way,” Craft said.
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.
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.
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.
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 semifinal before the legendary championship game.