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Honoring history of 'Hoosiers'

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Timothy Molinari carefully unzipped the garment bag as if it contained the leftover linens that wrapped King Tut’s body.

He held up a basketball uniform and a warm-up jacket with

“HICKORY” written across it.

“Do you know what this is?” Molinari asked, never taking his eyes off the prized possessions.

Here in Indiana, it would be hard not to recognize the apparel worn in the movie “Hoosiers.”

For those who just moved to Indiana from another continent, “Hoosiers” was a 1986 film that was loosely based on the 1954 state champion Milan High School basketball team. It starred Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey and earned an Oscar nomination for Dennis Hopper, who played the drunk parent who became an assistant coach for the team.

Although the movie earned few major awards — it’s only Oscar nominations went to Hopper and Jerry Goldsmith for original score — it is universally considered one of the best sports movies of alltime.

The American Film Institute places it No. 4 among the best sports movies and an ESPN survey among its viewers voted Hoosiers the No. 1 spot. A New York Daily News critique listed “Hoosiers” as No. 2 behind “Raging Bull.”

Molinari, a local basketball referee who lives in Seymour, is attempting to help the Milan ‘54 Museum in its quest to purchase memorabilia from the “Hoosiers” collection. The museum has until March 31 to raise approximately $49,500 to make the purchase. If the museum fails to raise the money, the collection will be pieced out and sold individually.

The collection contains more than 100 items, including the Hickory Huskers uniforms as well as all the opponents’ uniforms. Also included are cheerleader outfits and other clothing and props.

The Milan ‘54 Museum was started by Roselyn McKittrick, who fell in love with the story of tiny Milan’s rise to the state championship against much larger schools. Milan High School had an enrollment of 161 and it was the smallest-enrollment school to win the state title in Indiana before a multiple class system was put into place.

Although the movie is “loosely based” on Milan’s improbable state title, Milan and Hickory forever will be connected.

Molinari said the hope is that the “Hoosiers” collection will add to a museum that has a mission statement of providing the public with inspiration and motivation.

“The museum wants to be the catalyst of the economic revitalization of downtown Milan,” Molinari said. “People want to go to Hickory.”

Upon arriving in Indiana from the West Coast, Molinari set a goal. “I promised the basketball gods that if I ever worked a game at Milan, I would donate my check to the museum,” he said. “I did my first game at Milan in 2007.”

He did more than donate his officiating check. He got involved by volunteering his time to help the museum.

Although Milan is the real thing and “Hoosiers” is imaginary, Molinari said the memorabilia purchase makes sense.

“It gives people hope that they, too, can achieve great things,” he said.

Local basketball coaches hope Molinari is successful in his quest. “I’m so biased,” said Ron Bridgewater, who coaches the Columbus Christian varsity girls high school team. “‘Hoosiers’ is my favorite movie of all-time.

“It’s dead on. It is just how it shows the way high school basketball is played and how big it is here in Indiana. Compared to the other basketball movies, there’s not another movie that does such a good job capturing game time action.”

Hauser coach Bob Nobbe, who led his team to the 2006 Class A state championship, has lived the “Hoosiers” story. He hopes that the money can be raised so that story is preserved.

“‘Hoosiers’ is a great piece of our history,” Nobbe said. “It helped describe how basketball had become so important. It was more about people’s attachment to the game. There were kids out there playing for their community and school. It characterizes coaches and players and families and how they felt about the game.

“I think it is a positive thing every time you try to preserve history.”

Columbus East coach Brent Chitty said the movie and the real life story of Milan High School should be linked.

“It depicts a special event in Indiana history,” he said. “I think they did it justice.”

Although Milan might become the new home of the memorabilia, much of the movie was shot in New Richmond, which served as the fictional town of Hickory. The schoolhouse scenes were shot in Nineveh and home court shots of Hickory High were filmed in Knightstown.

The actual rise of Milan to the single class state championship no longer would be possible. Indiana went to a class system that grouped schools by similar enrollments in 1997.

“I don’t like class basketball,” said Bridgewater. “If you look back to Hauser’s state championship team, they really had the kind of team that could have done some damage against the bigger schools, but they never got that chance. (Milan’s championship) didn’t happen often, but when it did happen, it was spectacular.”

Nobbe has mixed feelings about the class system. “From Hauser’s perspective, we’ve created excitement and enthusiasm with a system in which everyone has an opportunity to vie for a state title. The way it is now, the fans always can feel that they have a team that can compete. The consolidation and the larger schools has changed the landscape of Indiana basketball.”

Was it OK in 2006 to be one of four state champions? “Did it mean as much to us?” Nobbe said. “Yes.”

Chitty still has a soft spot in his heart for the way things were when Milan won the title. “I loved the open class,” he said. “I played in it and I coached it.

“But I also understand why people want (multiple) class basketball.”

Molinari wants to find people like the three coaches, who love what “Hoosiers” and Milan’s title represent. “I need to find a few people who have a real affinity for the movie,” he said.

It shouldn’t be too hard.

As Chitty noted, “The game is so magical.”

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