Being a former baseball player, Jerry Jackson was told he needed to travel to Milan to check out Roselyn McKittrick’s collection.
Once he arrived at her antique store in the small Ripley County town 20 years ago, the Brownstown man was delighted to find old gloves, masks and other gear.
He also was intrigued by the Milan basketball uniforms and asked her what those were all about.
They were from when the Milan Indians from a school with 161 students defeated the Muncie Central Bearcats, enrollment 1,662, 32-30 to win the 1954 state title. The previous year, the Indians made it to the semifinal game before losing to South Bend Central.
Jackson told McKittrick he could sell 25 basketballs featuring autographs of the 1954 Milan players and “1954 state champs Milan” in bold white painted by locals.
“I sold 25 of them within 30 days, gave them a check for $6,500 and then never looked back,” Jackson said.
Kevin Larrison and Tim Molinari of Seymour jumped on board with fundraising efforts, and the money raised helped the Milan ’54 Hoosiers Museum get up and running at 201 W. Carr St., Milan.
At one point, Jackson said he was told to not approach the riverboats in southeastern Indiana for financial assistance. Molinari, however, did just that and cashed in.
“I have Tim go down there, and he brings two $50,000 checks from the boats,” Jackson said.
Larrison designed Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes, one pair with Milan 1954 on the back and another with Hickory 25.
Plus, fundraising events featuring players and cheerleaders from the 1954 Milan team and actors from the 1986 movie “Hoosiers” that was based on “The Milan Miracle” were conducted at W.R. Ewing and Pewter Hall in Brownstown.
“The Jackson County people helped a lot,” Jackson said of fundraising efforts.
So why the draw to a community about 60 miles away?
“I just fell in love with the story, and they needed help,” Jackson said of Milan’s championship, its story shared in a movie and creating a museum for both.
“That’s why they love Brownstown and Ewing so much,” he said. “Those players would ask me at events, ‘Jerry, how did you get in the middle of this?’ and I’d say, ‘Aren’t you glad I did?’ They are just tickled to death. The Milan story is wonderful, it’s great, that’s the reason why everything happened, but Hickory has kind of given them a shot in the arm.”
It took $250,000 to get the museum revamped and up and running, Jackson said.
That came from grants, donations and foundations along with the tour in 2011 that commemorated the 25th anniversary of “Hoosiers” and included actors from the movie.
Also, in the winter that year, a basketball tournament was held in the historic Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, where “Hoosiers” was filmed. The first game featured Oldenburg Academy and Brebeuf Jesuit, and the second matchup was Milan and Crispus Attucks. It raised more than $7,000 for the museum.w
2004 was a big year for the museum. McKittrick purchased Nichols Barbershop and moved her collection to open a museum, Milan ’54 Inc. was formed and a board of directors was established. That also was the 50th anniversary of Milan’s state title, and the team was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
The barbershop was deeded to Milan ’54 Inc. in 2008, and the museum moved to its permanent location on Carr Street in 2013.
That also has a Jackson County connection with Skaggs Builders of Seymour remodeling both buildings.
Albert Skaggs later donated to help launch the DVD release of “A Victory in Retrospect,” which features interviews with Milan player Bobby Plump and former school bus driver Barter Dobson and his wife, Betty, who was clerk-treasurer at the school.
The DVD also has raw footage of the Milan team returning to town and a parade that was held in its honor. That footage was shared by the Klaes family of Seymour.
For Molinari, it has been interesting to watch the museum go from an idea to reality.
He lived in California before coming to Jackson County, and he recalls reading a lead story on the USA Today sports page about Milan and the 50th anniversary of its state championship.
“I just realized, ‘Hey, that’s the team that I read about in Parade magazine when I was in high school’ and just thought it was fiction back then,” Molinari said. “This is really happening.”
From becoming involved in the museum fundraising to officiating a basketball game at Milan High School and donating his check to the museum, Molinari has great memories.
“It has been a great ride,” he said.
Brad Long and Plump are among those grateful for Jackson County residents stepping up to help create the museum.
Long played the role of Buddy, one of the Hickory Huskers in “Hoosiers.”
“For me, it has been a real pleasure to be able to work with them all of these years,” Long said of being a part of museum fundraising events. “I can’t believe 36 years later, they are still talking about ‘Hoosiers’ and Milan, but it’s something that’s a story that won’t go away.”
Through his job with Jostens, Long helped design a ring, a coin, a keychain and other items to sell to raise money for the museum.
“I have just been a conduit through all of that,” Long said to Jackson. “You guys have carried the ball, the weight and put in the time and effort, and it’s thrilling and an honor for me to be associated with you guys. It’s a lifelong friendship we’ll always share. I love working with you guys.”
Long landed a role in “Hoosiers” after learning the movie’s creators were looking for actors and decided to give it a shot. He had played basketball at Center Grove High School and Southwestern College.
“I really felt like I was too old to play a high school player, but at that age, I looked young for my age,” he said. “I tried out, one thing led to another and I just kind of got a lucky break. Quite often in most sports movies, they look for actors and hope they can play basketball. This one, they did just the opposite. They really looked for basketball players and took a chance on the acting part.”
He said it was “absolutely humbling” to be a part of the movie.
“When you go to other states in other parts of the country and they find out you’re from Indiana, one of the first things they want to know about is ‘Why is it such a big deal about high school basketball?'” Long said.
People are intrigued about Milan winning the title well before four-class basketball was introduced for the 1997-98 season.
“You have little schools like Milan that end up being a Goliath and they talk about it all of these years later. That’s really the premise of the movie,” Long said.
The movie also is special because his father, Gary Long, was cast as the Linton coach. Angelo Pizzo, who wrote “Hoosiers,” told Brad he remembered growing up in Bloomington and going to the Indiana University fieldhouse to rebound for the men’s basketball team and Gary was the only who would say “Thank you.”
“Just by being kind in that time period in his life, Angelo remembered that all of those years later,” Brad said.
Looking back on Milan’s 1953 and 1954 seasons, Plump said the success couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We’re coming out of World War II. Everybody is kind of in a euphoric mood, and after all of that damage and the terror and all of the stuff that was going on in World War II, they wanted a feel-good,” said Plump, who had two brothers serve in the war. “Those particular two seasons made them feel good.”
Small towns like Milan drove the Hoosier Hysteria, Plump said. At the time, he and three of his teammates lived in nearby Pierceville, population nearly 100.
“That was a means of being recognized,” he said. “Small communities didn’t have much from a statewide recognition except basketball. The smaller communities, all of the gyms were sold out. We had a 1,000-seat gymnasium in Milan, and 1,100 was the total population.”
Since there were so many season ticket holders in Milan, Plump said the home games his junior and senior years were played in Versailles, which had a 2,000-seat gym.
“We sold it out every game we played there,” he said.
Plump, who hit the game-winning shot in the title game and was selected Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1954, said one of the reasons Milan’s story has resonated over the years is due to the release of “Hoosiers.”
“I received letters from kids in Paris, France, asking for my autograph,” he said. “With the movie involved and spreading, everybody was looking for a good feeling.”
Even today, at 84½ years old and living in Broad Ripple, Plump doesn’t get tired of talking about Milan.
“That was a pretty exciting time in my life. Why would you get tired of that?” he said. “It not only was a good feeling for the fans, it was a good feeling for us also.”
Like Long, Plump enjoyed attending the museum fundraisers because he was able to meet people and reminisce about Milan.
“Those events were fun. It’s great to meet new people. A lot of those events, a lot of those things, it brought people together, and everybody likes to have a good time,” Plump said.
“They even allowed me back in Muncie to give a speech up there,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, that’s amazing.”
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The Milan ’54 Hoosiers Museum is at 201 W. Carr St., Milan.
For information, call 812-654-2772, email [email protected], visit milan54.org or find the museum on Facebook.