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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: The Real Hoosiers

Review by Budd Bailey

The 1950s certainly were an interesting period for high school basketball in Indiana.

If you are a hoops fan, you've certainly heard of the team from Milan High School. It won the state title in 1954, despite coming from a very small town with the corresponding small population of students who could potentially play for the team. It was a story ready made for Hollywood - and Hollywood came up with a popular movie, "Hoosiers," in 1986 that was "inspired" on Milan's championship run. (If truth be told, Milan was considered a very good team entering the season, so it wasn't really that much of a Cinderella story.) 

Along the way, Milan defeated Crispus Attucks High School of Indianapolis. That turned out to be a mere speed bump for the Tigers, who blasted their way to winning the next two state championships. As Jack McCallum points out in his book, "The Real Hoosiers," Milan might have been the most dramatic story, but Attacks provided the more significant tale in the larger scheme of things.

That's because the Tigers were the first all-Black team in the entire United States to win a state high school title. In the process, the team opened up some possibilities for the sport. For much of the previous years, basketball had been an over-coached, don't-run, run-the-plays sport. Attacks did it differently. The Tigers were full of athletes who could run and jump, and they played that way. 

The result was one-sided. Attucks lost one game in two years, and ran its way to two state titles in 1955 and 1956. Of course, it helped to have a superstar on their side, and the Tigers certainly had one of those in Oscar Robertson. You might remember him as the man who once averaged a triple-double in the NBA before anyone noticed that it should have been a big deal, and was a perennial All-Star. Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan might have overshadowed "The Big O" in terms of publicity about basketball's best all-time guards these days, but Oscar could play. Check out the videos of him on You Tube if you don't believe it. It was his game and his basketball, and he seemed to be letting the others play once in a while. No wonder John Wooden - himself a superstar guard from Indiana back in the day - once said that Robertson could have made the jump from high school all the way to the pros. That's quite a statement for someone playing in 1956.

As you'd expect from the description of those two championship seasons, there wasn't a great deal of drama along the way. Attucks had a few close games, but not very many. They took care of business, and moved on to the next contest. In fact, the team members realized that the officiating in that era was not going to do African Americans any favors, so it was to their advantage to put the game away early and not allow a single call determine their fate.

Even so, McCallum finds plenty to write about here. Indiana in the 1950s was an interesting place in terms of race relations. The state had those Midwestern roots that left the people there somewhat reserved. But Indiana also was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and it was called America's most northern Southern state at one point. 

Crispus Attucks High School was itself something of a monument to those racial pains. It was built in the Black part of town, as integrating the schools was a little too much too soon for Indianapolis. There were all sorts of snubs along the way, even dealing with fears about how "that part" of the city might celebrate a simple high school championship. Remember, the 1955 championship was won only months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The research is first-rate, with plenty of voices supplied either directly or through quotes from other sources. Interestingly, Robertson turned down the chance to talk about those days. He did his business and moved on, which sort of describes his approach to life. But Oscar did write an autobiography and has given a few interviews, so he's certainly represented here. 

McCallum always was the proverbial good read when working as the main basketball writer at Sports Illustrated. He was always good at turning a phrase and making the reader smile.

McCallum still has those skills, but this shows he can handle the more serious stuff as well.

"The Real Hoosiers" does justice to the team and the time. You can't ask for more than that in a book like this. Well done. 

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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