By JOHN FINERAN
Special to woodypaige.com
Sometimes it takes a well-thrown sneaker to the back of your head to remind you the things that are important in life.
That toss took place years ago on I-465 as the Fineran family mini-van was in the midst of its more than 1,200-mile journey from southwest Florida where my meager earnings as a sports reporter had allowed our two young children, my wife’s fun-in-the-sun wishes and my golf pursuits to be satisfied in the middle of the Indiana high school basketball season.
Somewhere in the road that encircles the hometown of the Indianapolis 500, our 5-year-old son awakened from his slumber to let me know he was in need of a pit stop.
Being a little out of sorts from the long drive, the resulting nap and then what he perceived was my lack of attention for his immediate needs, Matt removed his left Nike mini-sneaker, took aim and fired.
After quickly regaining my senses because the mini-van was going 75 miles per hour in the left-hand lane, I eventually joined in the laughter of my wife, daughter Katie and Matt. We soon stopped in Carmel where Matt joined his mother and sister in the rest room while I pumped gas and then slid over to the nearby White Castle for the sliders of my youth that I had been forbidden to eat whenever the Finerans shared close familial quarters. You get my drift – or shouldn’t.
In some small way, the White Castles were payback for my wife’s refusal about two hours earlier to allow me to visit the mecca of basketball in the Hoosier State – the town of Milan, where in the 1953-54 season the greatest high school athletic story ever was crafted by a 26-year-old coach and his basketball team.
It was during the 1953-54 season that tiny Milan High School, with an enrollment of 161 students, became the smallest school to ever capture the Indiana state basketball title. In the championship game at what is now the Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University in Indianapolis, the Milan Indians beat Muncie Central – a school with more than 2,000 students that was a perennial state basketball power – 32-30 on a buzzer-beating, 14-foot jumper from the right side by senior Bobby Plump, who held the ball for four minutes and 13 seconds on Wood’s command.
“The Milan Miracle” they called it. Even 63 years later, it still elicits goose bumps around the basketball-crazed state even though Indiana went to a four-class system to determine its basketball champions for the 1997-98 season. Now, only tiny Delaware and Kentucky have one-class postseason tournaments.
Fashioned by Marvin Wood – who played basketball for Butler legend Tony Hinkle, himself schooled by Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago – “The Milan Miracle” is still inspiring people, mostly because of the movie “Hoosiers,” which was released 30 years ago and starred Gene Hackman as fictional coach Norman Dale, whose character was so unlike the real-life Wood.
“You knew he (Wood) meant business,” Plump said when Wood passed away at age 71 from cancer in late 1999. “He coached with quiet confidence and dignity.”
Yours truly, a New Jersey transplant, was more a hockey nut when he came to Indiana to study at Notre Dame and later to write about the icy sport for the South Bend Tribune.
It took me awhile to catch the basketball fever as an adopted Hoosier, and one of those who gave me the bug was Wood, who left Milan after that season on a journey that took him to high schools New Castle, North Central in Indianapolis and Mishawaka. Wood later became the women’s basketball coach at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend and even coached his granddaughter’s seventh-grade team.
Wood and I became friends despite taking different sides during the great Indiana debate over multi-class tournaments. We had a mutual love for golf and the lessons it taught about individual honesty and integrity. Until his death, Marv supported the golf tournament I conducted for Special Olympics, which had an impressive group of celebrities through the years that included Ara Parseghian, who won two national football titles at Notre Dame; Mike Ditka, who coached the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl title; and an up-and-coming young Notre Dame assistant who would capture three national championships elsewhere as a head coach – Urban Meyer.
Believe me when I say this – Wood was their equal. He believed that with the right fundamentals you could succeed not only in sports but also in life. He was a coach for all seasons in a person’s life – their spring and summer years, their autumn and winter ones.
In these days during which basketball players go to college for a year and then turn pro, I wonder what lessons they are learning for when all the cheering and the paychecks stop.
In these days when high school players are often kept eligible even when they aren’t achieving in the classroom, I think of my friend and think how he might have reacted.
I’m pretty sure the underachiever in the classroom wouldn’t have a seat on Marv Wood’s bench. Wood wouldn’t award those who didn’t at least try. But he never stopped trying to help anyone who asked, which brings me to my other favorite Wood-ism: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”
When he was asked about “The Milan Miracle,” Wood often replied, “God was coaching that team, not me.” I’m sure even God would agree that Marv didn’t give himself enough credit.
Yep, I wanted to see the place where God and Marv made it all happen on that return trip from Florida years ago. So with my wife and kids in their respective slumber lands and with the Indiana-Ohio State border 20 miles behind us, our mini-van exited Interstate 74 near Sunman, a small town about 10 miles north of Milan on Highway 101 and stopped for gas, at which time my wife awoke.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Well, I got off I-74 to get some gas,” I said. “We’re in Sunman, which is not far from Milan, the town and school on which the movie ‘Hoosiers’ was based. Do you mind if I drive there to see the high school?”
“No, get back on the interstate and let’s get home,” my wife replied.
Three years ago, I found myself back on I-74, driving back to South Bend after visiting my lone surviving aunt in Cincinnati a day after watching Meyer’s Ohio State team beat Michigan in Columbus on the way to the 2014 national championship.
This time alone, I exited the interstate, drove down 101 through Sunman and eventually to Milan where I looked through the high school doors, closed on Sunday, and saw “The Milan Miracle” trophy and pictures.
I said a prayer for being back home again in Indiana, where I get the chance to experience the passion of high school basketball in a state of diverse urban and rural roots, all of them good.
I said a prayer for Marvin Wood. I miss him and the lessons he taught all of us.
And for those of you who still don’t get it, may your head get in the way of a well-thrown mini-sneaker.
John Fineran has spent an adult lifetime covering sports of all sorts for newspapers in his native state of New Jersey and at newspapers in Michigan, Indiana and Florida. Now, in his autumn years, near where the moonlight meets the Wabash, he is covering high school basketball back “home” again in Indiana.