EDITOR'S NOTE: The Place Where You Live is a regular column from a variety of writers in Elkhart County.
Sixty years ago, young Ray Ball had a front row seat for one of the most memorable games in Indiana high school basketball history. He was perched in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse as tiny Milan ambushed mighty Muncie Central, 32-30, claiming the 1954 state championship and literally writing the script for a Hollywood movie. Bobby Plump won it with a shot still heard ‘round the world.
Ball saw none of it.
“I don’t remember a single thing,” Ball sighed years later when trying to recall the night that would later become the inspiration for the movie "Hoosiers." “I spent the whole evening with my head in my hands, buried between my knees. I never saw a single play.”
Ray Ball was there with his Elkhart High School teammates, who had tumbled from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in 32 agonizing minutes earlier in the day. The Blue Blazers had captured the city’s heart by earning sectional, regional and semistate championships along the tournament trail. Those hearts were broken with a 59-50 loss to Muncie Central in the opening round of the state finals.
In movie terms, the Blue Blazers were left on the cutting room floor. Indiana natives David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo took a little creative license when "Hoosiers" debuted on the big screen in 1986. Somehow, "Hickory Huskers" sounded a bit more homespun than the "Milan Indians." South Bend Central made a better villain than Muncie Central. While it was Bobby Plump’s name etched in the scorebook, it became Jimmy Chitwood in the movie credits. Mild-mannered Marv Wood morphed into combustible Norman Dale. Alas, even if Ray Ball had been depicted anywhere in story, he would have been an extra.
“We did something nobody else (from Elkhart) had been able to do up until that time,” Ball said of the team’s brush with history. “Unfortunately, we didn’t do what we set out to do. We wanted a state championship and no matter how much times goes by, there isn’t one of us who believes we shouldn’t have won it. I know the whole town felt the same way.”
Indeed, this was the era when the chase for the single-class state basketball championship was Indiana’s equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail. Tickets for regular-season tilts were at a premium and admission to tournament games was determined by luck of the draw. Downtown merchants beamed as cheerleaders painted the names of Ball and his teammates across storefront windows. Crowds cheered as buses carried the teenage heroes out of town and then scurried home to catch the graveled voice of Eldon Lundquist through the static of their AM radios.
“You prepare all year to get there,” lamented Bill Milliner, who retired as coach of the Blazers after the ’54 title game loss. “I tried to impress upon the young men the meaningfulness it (a title) might have in their lives and, frankly, the life of the community. We were representing the community and we were representing the people of Elkhart. Darn it all, we had a responsibility to perform!”
Ball was named to the 1954 Indiana All-Star team (an Elkhart first) and continued his basketball career at Indiana University. He then spent nearly four decades as a teacher and a coach. He died in 2003, a year before he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
So it seemed natural to find Ray Ball as I sought the recollections of the main characters in this hoops passion play for my "Hoosier Memories" series at The Elkhart Truth and WTRC. After all, if Ball and his mates had lived out their dream, there would be no Milan miracle. At the very least, it could have been the Blazers who were outfoxed by that Gene Hackman character, not the Bears.
“Sorry, I can’t really help you,” Ball whispered at the beginning of our conversation. “I missed it all. Guess I’ll have to watch the movie.”
Vince Turner served as a sportswriter for The Elkhart Truth (1977-1985) and as sports director at WTRC Radio (1985-1998).