Game Changers

Butler Fieldhouse was the setting for 'Hoosiers' -- but an even more significant game took place there a year later

Photo credit: Indiana High School Athletic Association

One year after the Milan Miracle that inspired the movie ‘Hoosiers,’ Oscar Robertson and the Crispus Attucks Tigers took the floor at Butler Fieldhouse for one of the most important basketball games of all time. This excerpt from the upcoming book, ‘Hinkle Fieldhouse: Indiana’s Basketball Cathedral,” is re-printed here with the author’s permission.

The 1954 Milan Miracle is basketball-mad Indiana’s most cherished hoops fable. It’s a great basketball yarn. A bunch of farm kids gathered up all of their pluck, gumption, and native optimism and made an unlikely run to the Indiana high school state basketball title. It’s the classic hero’s journey, with a dash of David vs. Goliath.

“That was the story that the local newspaper would pull out every year from the time that I can even recall being aware of what a high school tournament was,” said Angelo Pizzo, who based his screenplay for the 1986 film Hoosiers on the tale he heard time and time again as a Bloomington, Indiana schoolboy. “They brought the story out to inspire the teams, and create the type of mythology that would be inspirational enough for these schools to envision themselves being the next Milan.”

To be the next Milan was the dream of every small school in the state. The Indiana High School Athletic Association imposed no classification system on basketball; tiny, rural schools with double-digit enrollment played in the same postseason tournament as urban powerhouses from Gary, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. The sense that anyone, from anywhere could finish the season on top fueled the state’s legendary hoops-mania, which became known as Hoosier Hysteria.

Each title-worthy team had to run a month-long gauntlet. The winnowing process began at the local level, as bitter local feuds were renewed in Sectionals. If a team prevailed at that level, Regionals came next. Win there, and your team moved into the rarified air of Semistate, which often played out in legendary college venues at Bloomington, South Bend or West Lafayette. The pinnacle was the State Finals, staged in the state’s 15,000-seat basketball cathedral: Butler Fieldhouse.

(Indiana High School Athletic Association)

Ironically, as of 1954, no team from the state’s capitol city had ever won the trophy that was handed out in their own backyard.

The word “sportsmanship” no doubt had a different connotation for white athletes than it did for players at Crispus Attucks, the only all-black high school in Indianapolis. Attucks opened its doors in 1927, in direct response to white citizens who had called for segregated facilities. Following an impressively self-serving mobius strip of logic, IHSAA president Arthur Trester declared that Attucks was not a true public institution since it only accepted black students. He barred the school from his organization until forced to give in to pressure in 1941. Even then, the Tigers struggled to play on anything remotely resembling a level playing field.

Willie Merriweather, who starred for the Attucks Tigers in the early 1950s and went on to become an All-Big 10 performer at Purdue, recalled his experience with high school officiating in the 2001 documentary Something to Cheer About: “(Our opponent) had a fast break, and I was closing off the lane. I had my foot on the out of bounds line and one foot was inside. The player dribbled right around me, around the out of bounds line, stepped on my feet and made a layup. The referee never called it. That’s one incident I vividly remember because we would have got the ball back and probably won the game.”

It would be natural for a competitive player to be livid at such a breach, to argue his case loudly and vocally. Black players in the 1950s didn’t dare.

Fitzhugh Lyons, who coached the Tigers, spent a great deal of time teaching his players what not to do, sometimes in language that was counterintuitive to a winning mindset. He instructed his teenaged charges to keep both feet on the ground when passing and shooting, and to sag off of their opponents on defense. Nobody was to showboat, argue with referees, or stand out in any way. In his autobiography The Big O, Oscar Robertson was blunt: “Lyons selected his players more for their manners than their athleticism.”

That changed when Lyons retired before the 1951 season. Ray Crowe, who had served as Lyons’ assistant for two seasons, took the program in a different direction.

Crowe had been the only black player on his high school team in aptly-named Whiteland, Indiana. In spite of the racial climate of the early 1930s, he was twice named team captain, and led the team in scoring. Crowe later described the racism he faced in those days as “incidental.” He lettered all four years at Indiana Central College and began his teaching career in 1938. He was hired as a teacher and assistant coach at Attucks in 1938.

Frustrated by his predecessor’s seeming capitulation to the lose-with-dignity approach, Crowe took up the whistle intending to defy the soft bigotry of low expectations. He recruited tough, aggressive players and refused to rein them in. White officials — the only kind there were in Indiana high school basketball at that time — routinely made questionable calls against his team in close games. So Crowe taught his players to run and play tight man-to-man defense.

“Get a big lead and keep it,” he told his players. “and the referees will play no role in the game.”

Crowe’s wife, Betty, described her husband’s approach. “Ray was a hard taskmaster. He told them ‘9 times out of 10, when you go in there, you know the referee is going to be against you. So don’t look at me when you get a bad call. Keep putting the ball in the basket. We get the first ten points for the referee, and then we start playing.”

Crowe’s approach worked. The Tigers, who had been absent from the State and Semistate picture for years, lost just one regular-season game in 1951, and made it all the way to the tournament’s final day before Evansville Reitz knocked them out in a controversial semifinal. Attucks stumbled in ’52, then lost early at semistate in ’53. In 1954, when Oscar Robertson began to grow into his role as a sophomore on the varsity team, the Tigers became one of the more notable victims of the slow-down tactics of eventual state champs Milan. Crowe’s teams fell short of the title in each of his first four seasons as head coach, but the goal was in sight for the first time in the school’s history.

The team’s success made them more popular throughout the city, as a point of pride in their own neighborhood, and as a coffer-filling curiosity for opponents. Teams that had never consented to play the Tigers before began to see that it made good financial sense to book games in Attucks’ de facto home gym — the fieldhouse at Butler University.

“If you’re going to play them at Butler Fieldhouse, you’re going to split the gate receipts. It made sense to play Attucks because they drew 10,000 people every game.” historian Aram Goudsouzian said. One of Crowe’s players agreed, with a caveat. “Indianapolis benefited commercially. Butler Fieldhouse, especially, benefited commercially, because whenever we played there, it was full. So they benefited, and yet the benefit was not enough for them to say ‘Yes, they can stay here and go to the cafeteria and eat.'” Attucks players were always whisked in and out of the venerable building as quickly as possible.

Fans of opposing teams weren’t particularly welcoming, either. “My first time playing against (city rival Arsenal) Tech, I was a sophomore and we played them at Butler Fieldhouse,” Robertson said. “Before we played them, I got a threatening phone call at home that said that if I played I’d be shot. My father heard me talking to them and asked me what was going on. He called the authorities and they had people around (at the game) but I think it was just someone trying to get us upset so we’d lose the game.”

(Indiana High School Athletic Association)

A record-setting 10,000 spectators crowded the fieldhouse for the game, which had become an embarrassing cause celebre in the local newspapers, with anonymous threats and counter-threats flying between supporters of the two programs. Attucks won the game, local cops made extra money patrolling the stands, and nobody died. Still, the atmosphere in the city was tense.

By 1955, Oscar Robertson had matured into one of the finest players in the city, the state, and most likely the nation, and he was surrounded by supremely talented teammates. Willie Merriweather shot an amazing 70% during the ’54-’55 season, and averaged a bruising twenty-one rebounds per contest. Bill Hampton, Sheddrick Mitchell, and Bill Scott were returning veterans who knew how to thrive in Coach Crowe’s up-tempo game plan.

Crispus Attucks entered the 1955 IHSAA tournament with a 21-1 record. The team’s only loss had come at Connersville, where the weather, of all things, had slowed the Tigers’ blazing attack. Robertson recalled that night in his autobiography:

The school’s swimming pool was directly underneath the basketball court. It was an unbearably warm night and the gym was packed, and this made the place hotter and more stifling, so the windows and doors were open wide to try and cool off things. But right in the middle of the game, one of those low-pressure fields–the kind that Indiana weathermen still like to talk about–moved in. By the time the second half started, the temperature had dropped thirty degrees, and the Connersville floor had turned into a skating rink. Connersville was tough anyway–they’d opened up a good lead, and there was simply no way we were going to catch them while trying to run around that basketball court without skates on.

The state tournament took place in March, in undeniably cold conditions, but the floor at the fieldhouse was famously well cared-for. Attucks blitzed their first opponent, Wilkinson, by 53 points. A tougher Anderson team got off lightly, with a 25-point whipping in the Regional final. The Tigers drilled Columbus by an 18-point margin, then eked out a dramatic 71-70 win over Muncie Central, the previous season’s second-place finisher, to escape the semistate round.

The state finals were played over the course of a single day in the 1950s. Roosevelt High, an all-black school from Gary, Indiana, started the festivities with an eye-opening 68-66 nail-biter over Fort Wayne North. Attucks dispatched New Albany in the afternoon session, 79-67. It would be Gary Roosevelt vs. Indianapolis Attucks (in the shorthand typical of the tournament) for the state final, to be played that evening, and broadcast to audiences across the state.

It is worth noting that a historical outcome was assured at this point. No state tournament anywhere in the U.S. had ever featured two all-black teams in the title game. Whichever took the crown would be the first “separate but equal” institution to ever win a high school basketball title. Any lingering racial bias in the refereeing corps was effectively neutralized. “The only time I ever relaxed was when we played Gary Roosevelt, because there were two black teams,” recalled Attucks player Stan Patton. “So you figured it was going to be fair.”

City pride may have actually tipped the atmosphere in favor of the Tigers. “It seemed like, at that time, the city was behind us,” said Robertson teammate Bill Hampton. “Because they wanted a championship to come here.”

Ray Crowe and his players were representing Indianapolis on the floor, but they were constantly reminded that their fellow citizens viewed them with suspicion and distrust. A beefier-than-usual police presence was called in to watch over the fieldhouse’s windows, seats and fixtures as the two dark-skinned teams faced off. Oscar Robertson recalled that the crowd was eerily silent during warmups.

A capsule in the Indianapolis Star described the Roosevelt team this way: “The Panthers are fast. They pass well and unselfishly. Their rebounding isn’t what it should be with all that height, but Wilson Eison is a real pro around the boards. As a unit, they’re smooth, smart–a formidable foe for any team.” Eison was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 1955; his presence made Roosevelt a dangerous match for Oscar and the Tigers. “We figured if we could just get to the final four that we could probably take it,” Eison said.

Robertson described the start of the contest with precision in The Big O: “We won the opening tip, and I immediately took a pass at the top of the key, gave my quick fake, and took that one hard dribble–a move I’d been making since I was a child, a move I’d practiced tens of thousands of times. I pulled up for a sixteen-foot jump shot. The ball dropped through the bottom of the net.”

The Tigers blanketed the Roosevelt Panthers with full-court pressure, forcing Eison and his teammates to fight for every inch of the ninety feet they needed to get from one basket to the other. Ray Crowe’s team challenged every inbounds pass and forced Roosevelt players to make dangerous passes by shutting down the dribble. The Attucks backcourt of Bill Hampton and Bill Scott made it their business to pester the Panthers immediately off of made baskets. Big men Merriweather and Sheddrick Mitchell consistently beat everyone back on defense in the event of a rare Attucks miss.

Roosevelt double-teamed Oscar Robertson, and when that didn’t work, they occasionally triple-teamed him. It made no difference. Robertson scored thirty points in the final game. Eison actually eclipsed that mark, pouring in thirty-two in a heroic effort. Robertson likes to point out that he had a chance to tie Eison late in the game, but passed up a jumpshot and whipped a pass to seldom-used reserve Willie Burnley, who scored a basket he’d never forget.

“It’s over, and Indianapolis wins their first state basketball championship!” came the call from the television announcer as the final horn sounded. Crispus Attucks claimed the state title with a convincing 97-74 win. Pandemonium erupted as the final seconds ticked off of the clock. “It was the best, most pure feeling I’ve had in my life,” Robertson wrote, nearly 50 years later.

The celebration continued. It was customary for the title-winning team to board a city hook-and-ladder truck for a triumphant parade through the city. Bobby Plump, who had shot the Milan Indians to the title one year prior, remembered the thrill of the truck stopping at Monument Circle for speeches and more whooping and hollering in the heart of the city. When the truck bearing the Attucks players circled the massive, 284-foot Soldiers and Sailors Monument once, then motored away without stopping, Robertson’s pure feeling began to take on a bit of tarnish.

An elderly Ray Crowe described what happened next with some equanimity when interviewed for Something to Cheer About. “They took us around Monument Circle downtown and then back out to Northwestern Park, to have a big bonfire and celebrate there,” he recalled. “Northwestern Park was in a black neighborhood. I guess that’s just part of the feeling whites had. ‘Let ’em do their own thing in their own neighborhood.'”

Ecstatic supporters of the team didn’t pay much attention to the slight. Members of the Attucks team were oblivious to the fact that the routine had been changed for them. Only the ever-mindful Oscar Robertson noticed. “I guess the people who ran the city thought that, being black, we’d tear up the city, that we’d be different than any other team that won,” Robertson mused, decades later. “Things like that you just can’t forgive people for. I don’t.”

(Indiana High School Athletic Association)

Nonetheless, the championship victory was a watershed moment for black citizens of Indianapolis. The Crispus Attucks Tigers had displayed toughness, unity, and discipline in achieving their landmark success. They had placed a kernel of doubt in the minds of those who would deny the possibility of black excellence, and planted a seed of hope in the hearts of their neighbors in the Naptown ghetto.

The city that had gained so much from the Tigers’ exceptional season did begin to show signs of a sea change following the 1955 season. Members of the team, and then other black citizens, were welcomed at downtown restaurants that had once denied them service, seemingly in direct response to Attucks delivering a title to the city.

Coach Ray Crowe led his Tigers back to the state title game in 1956, where the team made history again, becoming the first undefeated state champion in Indiana history. Crowe’s back-to-back title teams lost just one game in two years. He led the Tigers back to Butler Fieldhouse for a title-game loss in 1957, then hung up his whistle to become the school’s athletic director. In 1967, he was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives, and he later served on Indianapolis’ city council, and became Director of the city’s Parks and Recreation department. He appeared in Hoosiers as the opposing coach in the state final, taking a familiar seat in Hinkle Fieldhouse once again. When Crowe died in 2003, another of his legendary former players, Hallie Bryant, enumerated his teacher’s strengths: “Firm, fair, flexible and frank.”

His excellence as a basketball coach was an organic part of his fundamental integrity as a human being. “Mr. Crowe became our coach, our mentor, our father,” said Merriweather. “He made us believe in ourselves, and together we changed the game of basketball.”

The extraordinary success of the Crispus Attucks Tigers may have changed much more than the game of basketball. Maxine Coleman, a cheerleader at Attucks in the 1950s, hinted at a more enduring legacy of the team’s glory years.

“We didn’t think of ourselves as black,” she recalled in 2001. “We just thought of ourselves as very, very good.”