BY FRANK BONNER
For The Daily Journal
The smalltown, Milan 1954 basketball story provides hope and inspiration for young Kentucky basketball player Vincent Croyle.
Croyle plays for Mary Queen of Heaven Middle School and says he has never been able to compete with the top schools. His brother Dominic plays for St. Henry High School, which has not been a basketball powerhouse for a long time.
Milan’s journey keeps the two brothers optimistic about the talent and potential their basketball teams have to compete at the highest level.
Both Dominic and Vincent Croyle are big fans of the movie “Hoosiers” that captures Milan’s historic moment. Sunday, Bill Croyle brought his two sons from Erlanger, Kentucky, to North Vernon to meet the players of the 1954 Milan team that beat a school more than 10 times its size in Muncie Central for the 1954 Indiana high school state championship.
“It’s really cool to meet the people who are known as legends around these parts,” Vincent Croyle said. “To actually see them here and get to have conversations with them is really nice.”
Bobby Plump, Roger Schroder, Ray Craft, Glen Butte, Rollin Cutter and Gene White were the six Milan players who visited North Vernon to celebrate their accomplishments with several people across the state who are inspired by their story. Participants lined up for autographs before stepping into Park Theater to relive the moment through watching the movie “Hoosiers.”
Dominic Croyle, who got a chance to try on Plump’s championship ring, had his Milan High School shirt signed while players wrote their names in Vincent Croyle’s notebook.
Albert Jackson was one of the four 1954 North Vernon players who showed up to the celebration. Jackson played against the Indians, winning his junior year and falling one point shy his senior year. Plump does not remember the 38-37 victory, but Jackson remembers it all too well and reminded him during Sunday’s reunion.
Jackson guarded Plump when he hit the game-winning shot that beat North Vernon just three games before the start of the postseason. Jackson kept tabs on Plump over the years through Jackson’s son-in-law’s father, but had not seen he rest of the Milan team since they were running the courts as teenagers. Reuniting with each other this week was nothing new for the Milan players who have been getting together once a year since 1955.
Plump, who also hit the game-winning shot in the state championship, remembers having thousands of fans trying to meet the team as it traveled back into town after beating Muncie Central in Indianapolis. But he claims he and his teammates had no idea that their victory would become the historical inspiration that it has been.
“It just happened,” Plump said. “We were playing and having fun. If that inspires them, that’s wonderful, that’s great. It certainly wasn’t what we set out to do. We set out to win games and hopefully win a tournament. It’s very gratifying if they feel like that’s something that has helped them in their basketball career.”
Plump enjoys getting together and being a a part of events, as do the rest of the players involved. Butte and Plump understand what winning the state title has meant for the community from a basketball standpoint, but they both agree that is nothing compared to what it has done for the school from an educational standpoint.
Plump was the youngest of six, and none of his older siblings were given the chance to go to college. None of the players would have been able to attend college either if it were not for basketball breaking down the financial barriers, Plump said.
Nine of the 10 players who dressed and 10 of the entire 12-man roster attended college. Seventeen out of Milan’s 30-student graduating class in 1954 attended college, compared to what Plump estimates as a combined 18 from the previous four years.
Ron Truitt, who died in 1988 of colon cancer, received a scholarship to the University of Houston. Truitt became a coach, then principal at a school in Houston after college, and Plump believes Truitt’s life would have taken a different path if it were not for basketball.
“Becoming a principal, coming from his background, basketball saved him,” Plump said. “You drive by that school now, and you look over, it’s called Ronnie Truitt Middle School. Now, that’s a success story … basketball gave us an opportunity to live a life we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to live.”
Don Burchett who played a role as one of the photographers in the movie “Hoosiers” also showed up to North Vernon, and he understands the importance of the moment beyond the sport aspect. Burchett attends the ’54 Milan events in hopes of instilling inspiration into young kids like Dominic and Vincent Croyle and many others that can be used in life and on the court.
“That’s why we’re doing it,” Burchett said. “It’s for the little guys … No matter who you are, no matter where you come from or what size that you are, the underdog is always going to have an opportunity like the ‘Milan ‘54 Miracle’ and the movie ‘Hoosiers.’”