Hoosiers is the greatest basketball movie of all time. Period. And it’s sort-of a true story since Hoosiers was inspired by the 1954 Indiana State Champions: the Milan Indians. Sixty years and one day later, we sat down with 1954 Milan point guard, Ray Craft, to get the real story about the game that inspired Hoosiers...
Craft was the leading scorer with 14 points when the Milan Indians defeated the Muncie Central Bearcats 32-30 in Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse on March 20th, 1954. The movie, of course, is a very fictionalized version of the Milan Indians. Craft recalls the actual events leading up to the championship in 1954 and the filming of Hoosiers during a visit at the Milan Class of 54 Museum in Milan, IN:
In 1952 Coach Herman Grinstead selected 7 seniors for the team. When the team was behind at the half during a regular season game, he told the seniors if they didn’t win they’d have to turn in their uniforms. That was exactly what happened, and although a couple seniors rejoined the team, the rest of the team was filled with what would become the championship team in ’54.
Young, green Marvin Wood was tapped to replace Grinstead in 52-53, and the Indians advanced all the way to the finals, losing to South Bend Central. The game of the tournament, however, was their victory in the sectional game against Morton Memorial from Knightstown. Morton, an orphanage for military children, should have beaten Milan, leading by 9 with little time left. Somehow the game clock briefly came unplugged, and the extra time allowed the Indians to pull it close. Ray Craft hit the jumper to send the game to OT where they beat Knightstown.
Craft says, “The newspaper headline the next day was ‘Indians steal game from orphans.”
Fast-forward to the 53-54 season and Milan was expected to advance deep in the state tournament, but the 4-time state champion Muncie Central Bearcats were still considered to be the stronger, better team. That didn’t bother the Indians, Craft said. “We knew Muncie was a powerhouse, but to make it to the finals 2 years in a row was a big deal. We beat Oscar Robertson in the semi-finals just to reach Muncie. We played well as a team.”
From there it’s all basketball history… Milan beats Muncie Central 32-30 (not 42-40 like the movie) and the heroes return to a crowd of tens of thousands despite the town’s population of 1,000. Upon returning Coach Wood’s wife tells the boys, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” A mantra repeated by the players to this day. (The dress she wore that day is also on display in the museum)
The 1954 fanfare lead to Ray Craft playing on a scholarship for Butler, as well as several other players. (10 of the 12 went to college) Craft coached ball himself, married a Milan 1954 cheerleader, Virginia, and spent the rest of his professional life working for the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
It was Craft who answered the call at the IHSAA when movie producers wanted to make a movie about the 1954 team. Together they picked filming locations, and you might even recognize Craft from his role in the movie as the official who tells the team it’s time to take the court in the championship…
Today all but one team member from ’54 are still with us. All take pride in their team from 1954, even more now the movie Hoosiers has been so successful. Although not completely accurate to the ’54 team, Craft is quick to point out, “It depicted Indiana high school basketball in the 50s perfectly,” and the 1954 Milan Indians are just happy to be the inspiration for a movie that brought so much attention to Indiana high school basketball.
And what about the little town of Milan? 80 year-old museum volunteer, Roselyn McKittrick, says the 1954 team help keep Milan on the map. Despite a bypass re-routing traffic away from the town square, the museum is still proud to have hosted people from every state and nearly 30 countries. Even if you can't make it to the museum, support it by buying awesome memorbilia here. Don't let this great museum shut down from lack of funding!
In all the museums we’ve visited, few are put together as well as the Milan 1954 Hoosiers Museum. If you’re anywhere near the southern Indiana town, stop by and see tons of movie props, gear from the 1954 team, and even pieces of the old high school. It should be a part of your Indiana Basketball road trip. If a trip isn't feasable, check out more at the Hoosiers Archive.
While you're here, watch the final minutes of the 1954 State Championship: