By Bill Kossen / Seattle Times staff
Bill Kossen is a desk editor at The Seattle Times and lifelong basketball and high-school sports fan.
A few weeks ago, I flipped on “SportsCenter” and there was Brad Stevens, the Boston Celtics’ new coach, looking calm and confident sitting on the bench even though he looked young enough to be a rookie on the team.
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Then a few nights later, David Letterman was yapping with Charles Barkley about … yep, the latest hoops legend from Indiana, Brad Stevens.
Not surprising, since Letterman is from Indiana and loves talking about basketball. But it got me wondering, just what is it about Indiana and hoops?
Why has this slender state that’s squeezed between Illinois and Ohio produced what could be the most basketball stars, coaching legends and inspiring stories per acre in the nation? (i.e. John Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, the Butler Bulldogs, “Hoosiers” and on and on.)
Trying to answer that has been kind of a personal quest. When I was a kid growing up in Seattle and the family drove back to the Midwest one summer to see relatives and friends, we stopped in a small town in Indiana on a balmy day for one of those visits with a family I had never met before and would never see again.
I was hoping they might have a pool to jump into or something else fun to do while our parents talked. Instead, they took us to a church for some event. Memories of that are hazy, but it couldn’t have been a Sunday because nobody was dressed up.
What I do remember is that the family we were visiting had a boy about my age and he had a basketball. And he brought it to church!
After what must have been only about 10 minutes at church, he looked at me and said, “Let’s go.” So we sneaked out a side door and went to a nearby garage that had a hoop, a net and a gravel driveway and we played basketball until the church event ended.
Nobody seemed to mind, and I remember thinking, “I love this state!”
Maybe that explains why last summer I ended up in Milan, Ind., to visit the Milan ’54 Hoosiers Museum.
You might have heard of Milan (pronounced “My-lun”). It’s the home of the team that inspired the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers” — the story of the tiny high school that won the state tournament back when all schools competed in the same tournament, regardless of size.
In the 1954 finals, Milan High (enrollment 162) stunned the basketball world and perennial Indiana state champ Muncie Central (enrollment 1,662) by winning 32-30 on a shot by Bobby Plump with just a few seconds to go.
Milan also made some history in the semifinal game when they beat the team from Crispus Attucks High School of Indianapolis 65-52. That team featured future NBA legend Oscar Robertson, who was a sophomore. His team went on to win the next two state championships and is quite a story of its own as “The forgotten Hoosiers.”
I know all of this and a lot more because of a too-brief stop at the museum in Milan, a quaint, small town deep in the rolling hills of southern Indiana and where the streets and driveways are dotted with basketball hoops.
The museum is downtown in a former bank building that’s decorated with a bright orange awning in the shape and look of a huge basketball, sliced in half.
Inside I met one of the museum’s founders, Roselyn McKittrick, who is a town historian and avid basketball fan. (“Oscar was probably my favorite player in the whole world! He was awesome!”)
She enthusiastically tells visitors the story of the “Milan Miracle of 1954” while standing in the converted bank lobby packed with impressive displays of basketball memorabilia (including the actual scorebook from the game).
McKittrick will tell you about how four of the players on the team grew up together in the nearby town of Pierceville and spent countless hours playing basketball together, shooting at a hoop attached to a barn and developing skills and a team chemistry that was literally hard to beat.
She’ll tell you about the team’s innovative “cat-and-mouse” strategy (which could include just holding the ball for minutes at a time back before the shot clock came into being). McKittrick will also tell you how the Milan team was hardly intimidated by their big-city opponents, having made it to the semis in the state tournament the year before.
And she also dispenses small-town friendliness. When a group of visitors from Muncie arrived the day I was there and were asked by McKittrick where they were from, she hugged them and exclaimed: “We love Muncie people!”
Plenty of souvenirs were for sale at the museum, too, including copies of newspaper stories, photos and headlines about the big game in Indianapolis and the ensuing celebration in Milan when, as one headline put it, “40,000 Escort Cage Kings Home in Glory.”
Speaking of headlines, I opened Tuesday’s Seattle Times Sports section and saw one that said “Indiana defeats Memphis to improve to 8-0” and The Associated Press story noted how the Pacers were the only undefeated team in the NBA, adding: “Indiana has made no secret of this season’s plan — dethroning two-time defending league champion Miami.”
If that happens, it will be the first NBA title for Indiana. And it will be while the state also is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the “Milan Miracle.”
What a party that will be. Better plan your trip to Milan now. And bring a basketball. They’ll be happy to shoot around with you, and probably beat you, too.
A few years ago, Bill Kossen also made a road trip to French Lick, Ind., to visit the hometown of Larry Bird with a fellow basketball fan. They were shooting hoops and pictures outside the school where Bird had played when a local stopped his truck and offered to drive them past the Larry Bird estate, down a nearby country road. No joke. In Indiana, if you have a basketball in your hand, you’re family.
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