Indiana legend Plump connects Butler with “Hoosiers”

If you are looking for the link connecting all those “Hoosiers’’ movie references to Butler, the real Jimmy Chitwood won’t be hard to find.

INDIANAPOLIS — Among Bobby Plump's most prized possessions is a hand-written recruiting letter from late Butler coaching legend Tony Hinkle dated April 5, 1954. Every time Plump reads it, even a half-century later, the words jump off the page and make his heart beat a little faster.

Around this state, especially in this city, Plump always will feel like he's going on 18, no matter what age he happens to be.

"Read the ending, it's the best part,'' Plump, 73, said Tuesday in an office that doubles as a shrine honoring his basketball careers at Butler University and Milan High School — two dots on the Indiana map a little bigger this Final Four.

Bob, I want you to come to Butler. We have a swell school. We have a bunch of good boys. ... P.S. If any of the other boys want to come with you, bring them up also.

Back then, Indiana was full of small towns where a boy, a ball and a dream could be found in nearly every driveway. And nobody was more responsible for filling the state with basketball dreamers than Plump.

Plump hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer for Milan, enrollment 161, against Muncie Central in the 1954 state championship game at Hinkle Fieldhouse that immediately made hope rival corn as Indiana's greatest resource.

As Plump wrote in his autobiography, "Colorado has the Rocky Mountains, South Dakota has Mount Rushmore, Florida has sunshine (and) in Indiana, we have basketball.''

After Plump relived the final possession again Tuesday behind his desk, I asked if it ever got old describing the biggest shot he or any other Indiana prep player ever made.

"What year did you graduate high school?'' Plump responded, leaning forward in his chair. "How many people ask you about your high school career? I get asked all the time. It takes you back to a time when you were so alive. You think I get tired of that? No way.''

If you are looking this week for the link connecting all those "Hoosiers'' movie references to Butler — the smallest school to qualify for a Final Four since seeded began in 1979 — the real Jimmy Chitwood won't be hard to find.

When Butler plays Michigan State on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Plump will be in a suite as the invited guest of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Wednesday, Plump will speak at a downtown rally for Butler at which his only worry is his remarks were limited to five minutes. The rest of the week, he is a good bet to be buying drinks at his restaurant, "Plump's Last Shot,'' just north of downtown.

"I've never met him,'' Butler star Gordon Hayward admitted earlier Tuesday. "But I know the story.''

Thanks to Angelo Pizzo's movie — made in 1986, four years before Hayward was born — practically everybody who ever played three-on-three in their backyards knows the story.

As the film version goes, Chitwood promises Hickory coach Norman Dale in the huddle before the climactic moment that he would make the shot if given the chance — one of several times Pizzo took poetic license.

"I didn't say, ‘I'll hit it,''' Plump said. "I was 1-for-8 before I took that last shot. But it went in and, well...''

Well, it's 56 years later, and the coach at Plump's alma mater was being asked Tuesday, in the same building that houses so much history, how similar he is to the character portrayed by Gene Hackman. Brad Stevens played along because he's 33, with an 88-14 record in his third year, and the only dumb question this week would be "Are you tired of the attention?''

Sure, Stevens probably would rather elaborate on The Butler Way — "It's hard to put words around it, but you know it when you see it.'' Or how his team bonded on a trip to Italy last August when, during tours of the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel, Stevens urged players to consider "what it takes to build something that lasts forever.'' Or about the text message he received from Tony Dungy and how Stevens is prouder of going 18-0 in the Horizon League than 4-0 in the NCAAs.

But if America needs to know who would play him in the movie about this team, so be it.

Tobey Maguire?

"It's fun … we'll take anybody who wants on the bandwagon,'' said Stevens, a former marketing associate at Eli Lilly. "Season tickets go on sale in June.''

Truth is, any movie references threaten to diminish how much talent Butler has. In beating Syracuse and Kansas State, the Bulldogs displayed athleticism and depth not usually part of most Cinderellas' DNA. Butler may be the smallest program to play in a Final Four in 30 years, but it has big-time players such as Hayward and Shelvin Mack who could star anywhere.

A better comparison would be to Larry Bird's 1979 Indiana State team, but that tale never hit the silver screen. A more apt likeness between Butler and Milan comes in the symbolic meaning of their respective appearances. In "Hoosiers,'' Hickory player Merle Webb urges his teammates to "win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.''

In that way, when Butler takes the floor Saturday, the Bulldogs will take all the Valparaisos and Northern Iowas and Bradleys who never got a chance to get there with them.

With that, Plump agreed — sort of.

"Just so you know, we didn't do it for the little schools, we did it for ourselves,'' Plump said. "But it was a good line.''

Six miles south of Hinkle Fieldhouse this week, the lines to another great Hollywood ending wait to be written.
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