Sunday, December 6, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Milan Vs. Muncie: A Made-For-Movies Rematch

Seattle Times News Services

High school students, by their nature, care little for nostalgia. Such sentimentality is best left to their foolish elders.

But teenage basketball players at two Indiana high schools made an exception and embraced the Elvis era yesterday when they played in a game that was a feel-good mix of past and present, mythology and reality, Hollywood and hardwood.

Milan High School played Muncie Central for the first time in 45 seasons in a rematch of perhaps the greatest high school hoops game ever played, a game so famous a movie was made of it.

Chances are you know the story.

It is as old as the Bible (David and Goliath) and as appealing as a folk tale (country mouse and city mouse).

Tiny, rural Milan beat big-city Muncie Central 32-30 in 1954's Indiana state championship game on a last-second jump shot by a sharpshooter in knee socks named Bobby Plump.

"Hoosiers," the 1986 movie based on the Milan miracle, changes the names and the details but not the underdog-for-the-ages theme. Here it is Jimmy Chitwood of tiny, rural Hickory High who swishes the shot that slays a mighty giant.

Yesterday's rematch was played at Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Ind., the same ancient brick bandbox that served as Hickory's home court in the movie.

"Hoosiers" is an earnest, affecting film that has by now swallowed reality: Many of the youngsters played yesterday have watched the movie so often that it feels more real than mere history.

Milan Coach Randy Combs said one of his players has watched it more than 100 times.

"Even our guys root for the underdog when they watch it," Muncie Central athletic director Mike Lee said.

Combs and Lee have been e-mailing each other about the game for months.

As often happens in Indiana basketball, there are family ties. Combs is brother-in-law to Lee's brother. Both teams hope for better things than last season, when Milan was 8-12 and Muncie 11-11.

"In the scheme of things, our conference games are more important than this one," Combs said. "But then you start dreaming and you realize if Milan could win this thing again - wow, that would be huge."

Because Milan still isn't. It has 348 students. Muncie Central has 1,393.

"I was crazy to agree to the game in the sense that we have nothing to gain and everything to lose," Lee said. "But then you see our kids and their kids getting all the attention and excitement, and you know this is a great thing for everybody."

In 1954, Milan had 161 students, just 73 boys. Muncie was more than 10 times as large. "This was the tournament where the mouse caught the cat," wrote Corky Lamm in the next day's Indianapolis News.

That was March 21.

Six weeks later Oxford medical student Roger Bannister ran history's first four-minute mile. It was the biggest sports story of its era and remains one of the biggest of the century. But it lives now mostly in dusty black-and-white photos. Milan/Hickory lives in technicolor, as close as your VCR.

Last summer, USA Today invited readers to pick their favorite sports movies. "Hoosiers" topped the list, beating out baseball father-and-son flicks "Field of Dreams" and "The Natural." Both are based on mythic novels. Maybe movie buffs like a kernel of truth with their mythology: Milan really happened, even if it can never happen again.

Two seasons ago, the state abandoned the old one-class format and now awards four titles, depending on school size. It was a contentious issue. Romanticists insisted future Milans had been robbed of a chance at renown. Reformers pointed out no small school had won a state title in all the years since the Milan miracle.

This game gives Indiana a fix of that old-time feeling. The Reebok Distant Replay Series brings 10 teams to Hoosier Gym this season. Milan-Muncie is the marquee matchup. Both teams played conference games Friday night before yesterday's rematch.

The festivities began Friday: Members of Milan's 1954 team were back. At Muncie, members of its eight state champions and three runners-up were invited.

There will be a lot of talk about the good old days.

There is a moment in "Hoosiers" when Hickory High principal Myra Fleener (played by Barbara Hershey) tells coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) that she has seen old men who never got past the brief, shining moment of their high school heroics.

"I've seen them, the real sad ones," she said. "They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were 17."

That's the beauty of this game. It harkens back to glory days, but it is not only about what was. It's about today's teens as much as yesterday's.

"We've been hearing about 1954 all our lives," said Milan forward Ryan Hixson, 16. "This is a chance for us to make our own legend."

Maybe even with a made-for-Hollywood last-second shot.

History grows old. Mythology stays forever young. Bannister's run was long ago and far away. But Plump's shot somehow still floats dreamily in the Indiana imagination.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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