The Journal Gazette
Saturday, May 23, 2020 1:00 am

In Muncie, 1954 state title defeat still painful

Friendships forged in years since help to heal old wounds

Michael Marot | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – The 1954 Indiana high school basketball tournament remains so vivid in Leon Agullana's memory that it's as if he never left Muncie Central.

He can rattle off the magical, same-day sweep of top-ranked Fort Wayne North and second-ranked Mississinewa that set up the Bearcats' chance at a fifth state championship. He can recall spending four days that next week preparing to face Terre Haute Gerstmeyer, only to see the previous season's state runner-up lose to tiny Milan High.

Agullana also remembers this about the storied title game that followed: grabbing the final inbound pass, peeking at the clock and angrily heaving a three-quarters court shot as far as he could, knowing he could never change script of the The Milan Miracle.

“I saw the zeros, so I knew it was no good,” he said. “So, really, I was just throwing it. What I really wanted to do was throw it out of Hinkle Fieldhouse.”

The story of Milan's thrilling run to the Indiana state title is of course the story told in the 1986 film “Hoosiers,” voted the No. 1 sports movie of all time by the sports staff of The Associated Press.

Instead of the Milan High Indians winning it all in 1954 against Muncie Central, it's the fictional Hickory Huskers beating mighty South Bend Central in 1952. The hero of the last-moment shot is Jimmy Chitwood on film, Bobby Plump in real life. The famous fieldhouse was the scene for both.

Back in Muncie, Agullana and his teammates had to cope with the result.

They boarded a bus outside Hinkle (then called Butler Fieldhouse) and made the 55-mile trek home in near silence. At Muncie Fieldhouse, one of the state's largest high school gyms, they were greeted by a full house that had been eager to celebrate.

Muncie Central's fans weren't just disappointed. Some were bitter, and others still haven't accepted – or forgiven – Plump for producing the defining moment of a dominant, historic decade of Bearcats basketball.

“They were unknown to us but not to everybody,” said Joe Beck, a 1956 Central graduate who was at Hinkle that fateful day thanks to winning a ticket lottery. “They had destiny written all over them. ... It just didn't work out. We got outcoached.”

There were two high schools in Muncie back then and Central represented the city's working class. The Bearcats captured their first state title in 1928, courtesy of Charles Secrist's last-second heave from beyond mid-court to beat John Wooden's Martinsville team. The massive fieldhouse opened in December 1928. Central won again in 1931 and by the 1950s had become a basketball powerhouse.

It won state titles in 1951 and 1952, was ranked No. 1 but lost in the regional in 1953, and entered the 1953-54 season a favorite to win it all.

Right up until Plump delivered the dagger, pulling up from 15 feet with three seconds left for the winner. Final: Milan 32, Muncie Central 30.

“I knew nothing about their history,” recalled Plump, who has a restaurant in Indianapolis called Plump's Last Shot. “We were just a bunch of naive kids having fun playing basketball. We knew it was a big deal to win the state tournament, of course, but we didn't realize the significance of that (win) at the time.”

In the years since, the former players have forged a unique bond.

After Beck took Plump to Central's memorabilia room and showed him an authentic jacket from “Hoosiers” – and the autographed ball from Plump – he joined the Central alumni association and continues to pay his $10 annual dues.

Beck and Plump also teamed up to campaign against multiclass basketball in the late 1990s; the 1997 tournament was the last of the single-class format, of which Central won an unprecedented eight state championships.

When a tornado severely damaged the Muncie area in November 2017, flooding Central's basketball court, Beck again called Plump.

“I told Bobby that the memorabilia room was completely untouched,” Beck said. “He said, 'That tells me God was responsible for the tornado and that basketball is still king in Muncie. And it makes me wonder how we beat you in the first place.'”

When the Bearcats held a 40th anniversary celebration of the game, players from both teams participated.

“One of the guys from Milan came up and said, 'Who in the world could ever have imagined we would be here with a team that now wants to celebrate their defeat?'” Beck said. “It was a great line and it was absolutely the truth.”

Plump and Agullana have become friends.

“I walked into his office and the secretary said 'Can I help you,?'” Agullana said, describing his first meeting with Plump years later. “I walked past her and I just stood there in front of him. He said 'Can I help you?' and I just stood there.

“He got kind of nervous and then he said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'I want to foul you on your last shot.' ”

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