Milan High School’s Bobby Plump faked left, dribbled to his right, then pulled up and took a jump shot from the free-throw line with three seconds on the clock. With that picture-perfect jumper, basketball’s version of David slew Goliath right in the heart of Indiana.
Milan High School, enrollment 161, defeated the favored Bearcats of Muncie Central, 32-30, to win the 1954 Indiana state basketball championship. Plump’s shot with three seconds left cemented the Milan Indians’ place in Indiana basketball history. No school its size had ever won the state title before that March 20 game and no school that small ever would again. The Indians’ feat became known as the “Miracle of Milan” and was later the inspiration for the 1986 movie Hoosiers.
Following the 1954 championship game, veteran referees Cyril “Cy” Birge and Marvin Todd had no idea how significant the last-second upset they had just officiated was or would become to Indiana basketball and the state. “When the game was over, of course, we went straight to our dressing room, which was underneath Butler Fieldhouse (now Hinkle Fieldhouse),” said Birge, 88, from his home in Jasper, Ind. “We could hear them celebrating up above. We knew a big school got beat by a small school, but we didn’t think anything of it. That happens every once in a while. We just got dressed and went home. Then later on it mushroomed. People still talk about it yet and how many years has it been?”
It’s been 50 years since those two veteran referees patrolled the biggest upset in Indiana history. Todd, who passed away several years ago, was a longtime high school basketball official from Fort Wayne, Ind. Birge officiated basketball 34 years as a high school referee and worked as a college official from 1941 to 1970, including nine years in the Big 10. Both officials had twice been assigned to state prior to 1954.
“I worked some big games in the Big 10, but it’s not nearly like high school. College just doesn’t have that high school hysteria,” said Birge, who was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995 for his efforts as a Jasper player and noted referee. For the Milan-Muncie championship match-up, “Hoosier Hysteria” was at an all-time high as 14,000-plus fans packed into Butler Fieldhouse, and tickets were being scalped for up to $50.
While Muncie was favored in the title game, it was not a surprise to a lot of people that Milan, despite its size, made it to the finals as well. Milan entered the postseason with a 19-2 regular-season record and made it to the semifinals the year before, losing to South Bend Central. Under the leadership of Coach Marvin Wood, 26 years old at the time, Milan won its first eight games in the 1954 tournament by at least eight points before facing Muncie.
Indiana high school basketball at the time was known for its “racehorse” style, pushing the ball up and down the floor, but Birge recalls much of the opposite for the 1954 title game. The game was a slow-down “cat and mouse” affair, with Milan spreading their offense and stalling for long periods of time, especially in the second half.
“The tension was there, but as far as up and down the floor, we didn’t have to run nearly as much as we were used to,” said Birge. “But the tension was there even moreso, I guess, because it was something we didn’t do that often. It was unexpected, but that was Milan’s only way of staying close.”
Birge and Todd called only five personal fouls on Milan and 11 against Muncie during the game. And there were seven turnovers, three against Milan and four against Muncie. Offensively, Milan only took 29 shots in the game, hitting 10. Muncie attempted 42 shots and made 11.
“A lot of people thought that it was an easy game to officiate because of the low score,” Birge said. “But it wasn’t. There was mental pressure all the time that you were going to miss something, that your attention might get lax because of the slow game.”
Birge and Todd made the adjustments they needed to call the game, and later found out that they made some history of their own that day. They received a letter a week after the game, stating that for the first time ever, not a single complaint about the officiating was filed in the Indiana High School Athletic Association office after the finals. With the eyes of most of Indiana fixated to the ballgame and its slow-down nature, every call was likely magnified more than in most games, making the absence of complaints even more significant.
Milan led, 23-17, at halftime, but Muncie came back and tied the game, 26-26, by the end of the third quarter. Early in the fourth, Muncie hit two free throws to pull ahead. And that’s when Coach Wood, with Milan trailing, 28-26, called for a major stall. Milan’s Plump literally held onto the ball, without moving, for four minutes and 13 seconds at center court.
“You had to be alert, but then you got to thinking, ‘Did he dribble or didn’t he?’” said Birge. “Because if he did, then he couldn’t dribble anymore on a double dribble.”
Ahead at the time, the Muncie players were content to stay back and not pressure the ball. Plump eventually took a shot and missed with a few minutes left in the game. Muncie got the rebound but turned the ball over and Milan’s Ray Craft made a basket to even the score at 28-28 with 2:12 remaining. Both teams scored once more to knot the score at 30-30.
Milan then had the ball with less than a minute remaining and Plump held the ball again, letting the clock wind down. With 18 seconds left, Milan called a timeout to set up a final shot.
That’s the part in the Hoosiers movie where fiction dissolves into fact, according to Birge. Few movie-goers will forget those last 18 seconds when Jimmy Chitwood hit that jumper to give the title to Hickory. Just as Birge won’t forget those final seconds in 1954 when Plump held the ball at the top of the key, made his move and hit the “shot heard ’round the world,” giving the state title to the underdog Milan Indians.
“When Bobby had taken the ball, he hadn’t dribbled yet, and someone said he traveled,” said Birge. “But he didn’t come close to traveling. He just took a long step as he dropped the ball. That’s when he took a couple of dribbles over to the side and then shot.
“I was under the basket when the ball came through. The ball hit the floor, Muncie picked it up and the gun went off. They didn’t even have time to throw it in. It was that close.”
Plump’s game-winning shot put small-town Milan on the map. The Milan Indians’ upset victory is still heralded as “the greatest sports story in Indiana history.” And Birge feels proud to have been a part of it.
“You’re never going to have that happen again,” said Birge, “because you’ve got four different classes here now. The bigger schools don’t play the little schools anymore. Looking back, I can see just how big it was.”
Longtime Indiana basketball referee Cy Birge makes a call early in the historic “Miracle of Milan” state high school championship game in 1954. That game served as the basis for the much-loved film Hoosiers.
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