Eric Angevine

I like to write about stuff.

Game Changers

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.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”(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.”

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”(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.”

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”(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.”

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    On the Cultural Relevance of YouTube

    Next February, YouTube will be 10 years old.

    According to YouTube’s own statistics, more than 6 billion hours of video are watched each month on the social media portal — about an hour for every person on Earth. And, not to get too scientific here, but a whole bunch of that viewing is dedicated to watching cat videos. And sports.

    YouTube is all a generation of sports fans knows, so it behooves us to think about what that means. How has this social media behemoth changed the way we experience sports? I’m glad you asked.

    YouTube has given us agency. It empowers viewers, who can make stars out of role players, or the person next door, simply by watching, liking and sharing. And then watching again.Like we did with these clips that (try) to sum up the YouTube sports experience.


    We’re not alone in the YouTube highlights love. Athletes also seek them out. “Something like a ‘Greatest Goals’ compilation can really build up that sense of excitement,” said USMNT and Sporting KC star Graham Zusi, who had a highlight-worthy moment of his own against Ghana in the 2014 World Cup.

    Highlights are not the sole province of YouTube. Local sportscasters have been stringing together bite-sized thrills for decades. The advent of SportsCenter transformed highlight-gazing into a national pastime, taking the practice to a new level with multiple morning and evening repeats of the same hour’s worth of clips. YouTube, however, freed us from the grasp of segment producers, news cycles, and clock-watching anchors. If you want to relive the NBA Finals at 3 am on a Sunday morning in October, you can. And it will be glorious.


    A handful of sports rake in the majority of U.S. viewers: football, basketball, baseball and hockey, with soccer showing up on more American screens every year. Most other sports fit into small niches which can easily be overlooked, even as small, narrowcasting cable TV networks proliferate.

    Until you stumble across a jaw-dropping feat of athleticism on YouTube. The Bulgarian gymnast in the clip above performed a rhythmic gymnastics routine that turned out to be a must-see, and we were able to, well, see it. Sometimes, it’s not even competition that catches our fickle eyes. We’ll tune in to watch prospects jump over moving cars just because we can.


    Remember when your dad or grandpa would wax rhapsodic about some amazing athlete of yesteryear? Maybe it was Jim Brown crushing would-be tacklers. Or Wayne Gretzky’s beautiful puck work. And as well as he told the story, you could just never quite picture it. No more.

    When I want to show my child something indescribable like a Barry Sanders run play or Michael Jordan’s Flu Game, may the words “back in my day” never cross my lips. I’m just going to email him a YouTube clip. That way, if he rolls his eyes, I won’t have to see it.


    When we say that sports are inspirational, it can sound trite. Isn’t it just entertainment?

    Not always.

    Sometimes, as the saying goes, sports reveals character and often in a way that is accessible to everyone. Brian Piccolo’s heart-wrenching fight against cancer became part of our sporting lexicon in large part because it was dramatized so well by James Caan and Billy Dee Williams on television. We see an injured runner complete an Olympic event hobbling on his father’s arm, or be moved to tears — and action — by Jim Valvano’s courageous ESPY speech. And we can reach for those reminders of human strength and fellowship whenever and wherever we need them.


    For a sporting event to mean anything at all, it has to end. Two teams putting on a masterful show is entertaining in its own right, but each moment of late-game action is fraught with meaning. When your team is on its last out, or the clock ticks down to that penultimate red digit on the scoreboard, it’s hero time. Recharge those goose-bumps at will.


    Let’s be honest here. Sometimes it’s an awkward moment (or two) that makes our day. We’re not above indulging in a little schadenfreude, right? Watch Carl Lewis “sing” the national anthem. Then watch it again. Try not to laugh during that hilariously fractured “rockets red glare.” Maybe a classic coach meltdown will give you that much-needed smile at the end of a rough day. If it happened in front of a camera, YouTube probably has it.


    We get more TV channels every day. Name a sport with a decent following, and someone is sending a professional camera crew to cover it.

    But one thing YouTube, in concert with the ubiquity of the cell phone, has brought us, is the ability to lay eyes on fleeting moments of greatness accomplished by unknowns in hometown venues. It makes each of us feel like our triumphs can and will be noticed; that the promised fifteen minutes of fame is within our grasp if we work for it.


    There are some moments that become iconic because they’re just so unlikely. The Kick Six in the Iron Bowl is a perfect example.

    The 57-yard kick could have sailed through the uprights as time expired. It could have been wide right and into the stands. Auburn’s Chris Davis could have failed to field the miss. Any one of the eleven opposing Alabama players could have made a game-saving tackle. Those were the likely outcomes. Instead, it was 109 yards of highly improbable college football magic. And if you missed it the first time, no biggie.


    Supercuts and Mixtapes are perhaps the most notable, and most fan-driven, aspect of YouTube sports culture. Film fans can watch Nicholas Cage lose his mind on a seemingly endless loop, which is, you know, fun once. Sports fans have the better end of that deal. We can get highlights packages of our favorite individual players, with multiple seasons worth of action condensed into a melee of incredible moments. Never heard of this kid your alma mater is recruiting? Check the internet. Everyone who’s anyone has a personal highlight reel of their best moments, spiced up with a hip-hop soundtrack.

    UCLA coach Steve Alford admitted during a recent phone conversation that coaches enjoy watching prospect mixtapes, but chuckled as he offered this caveat: “I have yet to see a YouTube video where a kid misses a shot or guards anybody.”


    We all have dreams, and we tend to cast ourselves as heroes in our sports fantasies; scoring the crucial points in the final seconds. Dig a little deeper, and you start to realize that you’ll never get to that final do-or-die moment without hours and hours of hard work. When it comes time to start training your body for greatness, odds are, you’ll find video of one of your idols, showing you how to do it right.


    This drone camera footage of Laird Hamilton surfing under the Santa Monica pier on a hurricane swell was recommended by Amber Jones (@berstreet), who added her enthusiastic endorsement to the visually amazing action: “Tow in surfing is so insane. Think about it. These waves are so massive, you have to be transported out to where you can surf them, or else they’ll eat you alive.”

    (Pro tip: you can watch this video on your phone if you only want a tiny piece of your mind to explode out of your eyeholes, but I highly recommend going full-screen on the largest device you can find.)

    Most of us, if asked to do something wildly dangerous and possibly deadly, would ask “Why?” Fortunately, the world has a small cadre of elite athletes who instead ask “Why not?” and proceed to blow our minds. You may not tune in to watch an entire X Games event, but odds are, you’ll check out a 60-second clip of some amazing aerials, and maybe you’ll start to think “Why not?” a little more often.

    At its core, sports is just entertainment. But its power to ignite shared passion in people who share little else can be nothing short of profound. YouTube’s role in enabling us to build cross-cultural bridges may sound overstated in this context, but consider the positive feeling that comes out of shared global sporting events. Our most distant neighbors seem closer than ever, which builds a community based on shared interests. It’s a small step, but a very real one.

    Or, YouTube gets personal. It can aggregate a planet’s worth of human athletic achievement — both contemporary and historical — and deliver it to each interested individual. It’s a social media platform as a delivery system, as well as something to figuratively stand on as you survey the world around you. YouTube has been a sports fan’s best friend for the better part of a decade. We can’t wait to see what comes next.