Excerpted from The Milan Miracle: The town that Hoosiers left behind by Bill Riley. Published by Quarry Books. Book can be purchased online at Amazon.
Barely ten minutes after the electronic bell’s beep released students into the hallways and out to their cars and buses on the first chilly day of fall, Logan Alloway was in the Milan Senior High School gym with a basketball. Minutes later, two of his teammates and one of his friends joined him, hiking up the legs of their jeans to get into a defensive stance, driving past volleyball players – whose turn it was to use the court – and kicking the ball out for three-pointers. It might have been the volleyball team’s turn to use the gym, but this was first and foremost a basketball court.
Logan was almost five feet nine and just fifteen years old. He wore baggy jeans, an oversized plain black shirt, and loose, untied high-top basketball shoes. Behind him, a ratty 1954 state champions banner hung next to a tattered 1953 state runners-up banner. From my view on the sidelines, the glint of his diamond stud earring was interrupted only by his cocked wrist as he set up another long jump shot.
“He needs to grow four inches,” Josh Blankinship told me with a hand over his mouth, interrupting the instrumental of bounce bounce, swish, bounce bounce bounce, swish. Josh acted as if he were telling me a secret, but it was the worst-kept secret in town. “Four inches and he’d be unstoppable.”
But in that moment Logan Alloway was just a freshman basketball player in a gym with a capacity for 2,076 screaming fans in a town of only 1,816, a boy who couldn’t play enough basketball or get enough of that gym.
A two-on-two game broke out – Logan and his friend against the two other guys on the team. Logan faked to the basket and crossed the ball through his legs, then stepped back to arc a shot. Next possession, he faked a pass into the post and took a snap shot, quick release. The other team switched their marks, and a taller kid came out to guard Logan, to get a hand in his face. Logan passed the ball down to the post, then flared out to the wing, his left hand around his useless belt, holding his jeans up. As he received a pass, he had already started his shooting motion. Three possessions, nine points.
The boys gave up their end of the court ten minutes into the volleyball team’s scheduled practice time, but they left no question about whose gym it was. Logan Alloway was one of four hundred students at Milan High School in 2010, and basketball was one of nineteen varsity sports, but that gym had always been a basketball court above all else.
As I drove into Milan from the east, from the nearest metropolitan area – Cincinnati, just under an hour away – I passed everything most people know about southeastern Indiana. I drove next to the Ohio River, with its barges and muddy water, past the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, and along the Eads Parkway, which seems to be built for the express purpose of shuttling senior citizens to and from the slot machines on the banks of the river. When I hit Lawrenceburg, I rolled down the windows and smelled the gin and whiskey in the air from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana. When Seagram’s built the distillery in the mid-1800s, it was the largest in the world. Three years ago, Pernod Ricard sold the plant to Angostura, a move that still threatens to shake this region’s already unstable economy. The sweet smell quickly becomes sickeningly so.
I kept driving another thirty minutes up State Road 350 to Milan. That’s “MY-len,” not anything like its Italian namesake. The town sits to the east of the Ripley County seat, Versailles. That’s “Ver-SAILS,” not anything like its French namesake.
The fields looked just like the fields that Barbara Hershey and Gene Hackman walked through on the way to their first kiss in Hoosiers, the 1986 movie based on Milan’s 1954 state basketball championship. Hoosiers is set in the fictional town of Hickory, but even as I drove through modern-day Milan, I could tell the producers captured 1950s Milan well.
I knew the town had fallen from its perch as the heart of Hoosier Hysteria in the past few decades, but I believed that people in Milan must still care. Milan, even though I had never visited it before, made me proud to be a Hoosier. I bought into the idea that hard work produced good results. I was never good enough to make my high school basketball team, but I served as my high school radio station’s play-by-play announcer. To me, basketball felt like the culture of Indiana, the social event, the center. And I knew this was in no small measure because of the movie Hoosiers and that Milan team back in 1954. Basketball made Indiana relevant, and Indiana made basketball relevant.
Milan Junior-Senior High School sits on the edge of town. Only a hundred or so homes fit inside the town limits. Downtown is a thousand-foot-by-thousand-foot square holding a medical clinic, a diner, the town hall, five churches, a funeral home, and a museum commemorating the 1954 state championship. The wood siding on the buildings weeps and hangs. The old asphalt of the roads is prone to potholes in the freeze-thaw-refreeze rhythm of southern Indiana’s winters. A meat market sits on the far northwest side of town, and past that, only cows.
The junior high and senior high are connected and share everything but a gym – they each have their own. Behind the school sits the football field, the same field where the members of the Milan Indians football team were starting to crash into each other as I arrived in town, tackling and passing and reading defenses, preparing for their upcoming sectional game against North Decatur High School. The football team was playing well and had beaten much larger local rival Batesville High School already that year. At any other high school in the country, the scene of defensive linemen pushing a blocking sled against the backdrop of red and gold leaves would look like a picture-perfect image of autumn.
I wasn’t there for the football, though. I came to Milan because I was curious. A fellow Hoosier, I had grown up hearing about the Milan Miracle. On the night before soccer games in high school, my team would get together and eat spaghetti and watch an inspirational movie. We saved Hoosiers for our first tournament game each year. It didn’t matter if we were the richest school (we weren’t) or the school with the most talent (we weren’t). We worked hard; we played as a team. Hoosiers told us we could win.
But apparently Milan wasn’t watching Hoosiers. Despite being the small town’s claim to fame, despite being the most-watched David versus Goliath sports movie of all time, Milan’s basketball team was no longer David. Well, in some ways they were David, all right: woefully overmatched in both size and talent in almost every game.
Maybe Goliath had changed: the small area schools had become midsized consolidated county schools, and the big city schools had become farm teams for semiprofessional AAU college scholarship factories. In any event, Milan hadn’t won much lately. Most seasons they struggled to win two games. And yet, we – myself, but also the hordes of reporters from far and wide that remind us each March, when a small school makes a run, that it’s been done before and could be done again – hardly noticed. We didn’t notice when the hoops on the barns outside of town rusted and weren’t repaired. We didn’t notice when people and jobs – what few there were to begin with – left Milan. We didn’t notice that David didn’t seem to be winning much anymore.
I was curious, but mostly I needed to know that the story I had been told, the story I had told, the story I had memorized, still existed. I needed to know – as a small-town Hoosier myself, who put stock in my ability to compete with everyone else – that the underdog could still win.
You can buy Bill Riley‘s The Milan Miracle: The town that Hoosiers left behind at Amazon.