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THE LAST WORD: Remastered footage brings real ‘Hoosiers’ to life

Kerry Hubartt

I watched the entire 1954 Indiana high school basketball boys state championship game on my iPad last week, thanks to an enhanced version of the grainy original film made 66 years ago.

What’s more, the remastered video included audio play-by-play throughout.

I had seen parts of the game in fuzzy images without sound at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle, but the original film from that game has been restored by IHSAA Champions Network.

I learned that a special screening of the legendary game between tiny Milan and powerhouse Muncie Central appeared on IHSAAtv.org on Feb. 23, following the 2020 boys tournament pairings show. So I went to that website, scrolled down to Games on Demand, clicked on the video and watched the game from the opening tip-off to Milan guard Bobby Plump’s winning shot at the end.

The film even included the presentation of awards after the game.

You know the story. Milan, with an enrollment of 162 students, beat big Muncie Central 32-30 on a last-second shot by Plump. The David-vs.-Goliath sports legend was immortalized in the 1986 film “Hoosiers.” in which the fictional small-town Hickory High School won the Indiana state title.

“The Milan vs. Muncie Central 1954 State Championship is undoubtedly the most famous high school basketball game ever played,” IHSAA director of broadcasting/executive producer Heath Shanahan told the Muncie Star Press in an email.

“The IHSAA Champions Network restored the film using multiple computerized softwares to enhance, sharpen and stabilize the picture. Game audio was a radio broadcast laid over the game film.”

And that’s what really brought the game to life in the remastered video and had special meaning to me. According to the Star Press story, circulated by The Associated Press Sunday, the restored footage features the cadence of Hilliard Gates.

Gates was the Hall of Fame broadcaster from Fort Wayne who not only called the play-by-play for the 1954 game, but played that same role in the 1986 “Hoosiers” film, based on the Milan game, where the Hickory Huskers played the South Bend Central Bears in the movie’s 1952 title game staged at that same historic Butler arena.

In the original footage of the Milan game, Shanahan said Gates’ voice “was almost indiscernible at times.” But with the updated film, the IHSAA Champions Network says it was able to verify that Gates was on the call and everything from “the floor at Hinkle, stripes on the officials shirt, numbers on the jerseys are clearer,” according to Shanahan.

Gates, who died in 1996 at age 80, was the local sports voice in Fort Wayne on radio and television and served as vice-president, general manager and sports director of WKJG-TV until his retirement in 1990. He was the first broadcaster inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame (1969) and was voted Indiana Sportscaster of the Year seven times.

I remember listening to him call the play-by-play for local high school games throughout my time as a player at Leo. He even broadcast some of our games on the radio. So it was a special honor to have been covering sports events for The News-Sentinel as a young journalist and meeting Hilliard as a fellow professional.

The broadcast on the film traced the game to its final conclusion. The game was noted for its low score and the slow-down tactic of Coach Marvin Wood’s Indians at the end. The two teams were tied 26-all going into the famous fourth quarter. That’s when Milan slowed things down considerably.

Muncie Central hit a free throw with 7:45 remaining in the game to pull ahead 28-26. Plump dribbled down court and held the ball without moving until taking time out at 3:28.

Plump missed an 18-foot shot with about 2:50 remaining, Muncie Central rebounded, Milan got the ball back on a turnover and Ray Kraft hit a 15-footer to tie the score at 28-all at 2:14.

After a missed shot, Muncie Central fouled Plump, who made two free throws at 1:42 for a 30-28 lead. The Bearcats tied the score at 30 with 48 seconds left.

Plump brought the ball downcourt and held it till calling a final timeout with 18 seconds on the clock. His 14-foot jumper from the right wing made the final score 32-30. And Jimmy Chitwood, the character who represented Plump in “Hoosiers,” likewise made his last-second, game-winning shot from the same spot on the floor.

It was the shot that can still be heard ’round the world.

— Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.