The story of “Hoosiers” and its true-life counterpart in Milan High School’s 1954 state championship are part of the fabric of life in Indiana.
In a basketball-crazy state, the idea of the tiny school from a small rural town surviving to reach the pinnacle of success fascinates everyone from schoolchildren on playground courts to old-timers watching games from their easy chairs.
As hoop dreams go, the Milan Miracle is the gold standard. But what happens to the people of a legendary town when the glow of victory fades and the weight of legend persists?
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“They live in the shadow of this really fantastic story, but I think that sometimes we forget that there are people living there who were not alive in 1954,” said author Bill Riley. “I really thought their story deserved to be told.”
Present-day Milan and the ghosts of its famed championship team are the focus of Riley’s book, “The Milan Miracle: The Town that Hoosiers Left Behind.” He spent months in Milan observing the fabric of the community — spending time
with the basketball team, hanging out at the local grocery store, sitting in the stands Friday nights for games.
His hope is to show people that behind the legendary story is a deeper message about what it means to live in a small Indiana town.
“Yes, the Milan story is special. Basketball is still one of the foundations of our communities. But I also want people to think critically about the message that we send to our kids about what is important. I want them to know that this needs to be more about community, what it means to be from a specific area,” Riley said.
“What I want people taking away from my book is that life in rural Indiana is more complicated than it seems.”
Riley will appear at the Historic Artcraft Theatre for a book reading and presentation Tuesday. He was invited to Franklin through a partnership between the Franklin College English and creative writing department and Wild Geese Bookshop in Franklin.
For organizer Katie Burpo, an English professor at Franklin College, Riley could provide perspective to young writers about the approach to non-fiction, as well as interest the community with a well-known subject.
“His book is a fresh treatment of a story we all know and love,” Burpo said. “I think people will be interested to hear about that legacy of Milan and where it is today.”
Just like it has been for millions of Hoosiers, basketball was ingrained into Riley’s life at a young age. His earliest memory is watching Keith Smart sink the game-winning shot for Indiana University in the 1987 national championship game.
Every year, he and his parents would drive from their home in Greenfield to Indianapolis for the high school state basketball finals. He was there in person to watch Indiana basketball heroes such as Damon Bailey, Alan Henderson and Glenn Robinson play.
“I saw some great basketball, but I was also there to see the way the communities turned out for their teams,” Riley said. “Thousands of people would caravan to watch these teams play. As a writer, I’m far more interested in how sports reveal culture than sports for sports’ sake.”
Riley, who started his career in public relations, always has been drawn to storytelling. True stories in particular have captivated his interest; he loves the weirdness of real life, he said.
After he left his career in public relations, he decided to focus on writing, enrolling at Ohio State University to earn a master’s degree in creative writing. “The Milan Miracle” was born as his thesis project, though it went through an extensive editing process before being published, Riley said.
The idea came to him as he realized he hadn’t heard much about Milan since Indiana switched to a class basketball system. With their pedigree and tradition, he would have assumed that the school was raking in championships in their class.
In reality, the team had suffered through a series of miserable seasons.
“Now that the playing field was even, I kind of expected Milan to dominate, because people in that community really care about what happened in 1954. I guess I expected the kids to care, too; they care less,” he said.
Riley’s approach to the project started by contacting the current coach of Milan High School’s basketball team, Josh Blankinship. He asked if he could come watch a few practices and talk to the team. Blankinship, who was used to media wanting to come and focus on the 1954 championship, was happy to put the spotlight on his current players.
Throughout the 2010-11 basketball season, Riley attended the Milan home games, sitting in different sections of the stands to get perspective from different people. He’d walk the streets and chat with the people he met, hanging out at the Jay-C grocery and getting to know the customers and workers.
Riley wove in the history of the 1954 team to give context but uses it to show how life in Milan is still impacted by it.
He tried to get to Milan two or three times a week, spending time in people’s homes, at the high school and around the community. Though his initial draft of the book included a hefty amount of basketball in the writing, he trimmed that down to focus more on the people that he met.
The book was released in 2016 and recently won a bronze medal in the sports category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Now a creative writing professor at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute, Riley wants people to understand that Milan is more than just the inspiration for “Hoosiers.”
“There are some real problems in Milan. It’s not just a ‘basketball is bad here now’ problem. Less than half the students I met had internet. There is almost no cellphone service in Milan,” Riley said. “They are aware of the problems in their community, and I hope I did this justice, because they are great folks down there.”
What: A book reading and presentation by the author of “The Milan Miracle: The Town that Hoosiers Left Behind.”
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Historic Artcraft Theatre, 57 N. Main St., Franklin
Cost: Free and open to the public