SI Vault
Brock Yates
December 03, 1973
More than moonlight is bright on the banks of the Wabash these days: Indianapolis is pushing its way into the sporting big time
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December 03, 1973

A Hot Time In The Bold Town

More than moonlight is bright on the banks of the Wabash these days: Indianapolis is pushing its way into the sporting big time

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But possibly Indiana's most celebrated basketball folk hero is a stubby, easygoing man named Bobby Plump. Yes, Bobby Plump. It was Plump who was the star of the 1954 Milan High School team—a peewee-size school in southeastern Indiana—and his exploits in the championship earned him Hoosier immortality. The Indiana State High School Tournament is a classless, divisionless, winner-take-all affair that pits every school, large or small, in the eliminations. Traditionally, the large city schools from Indianapolis, Muncie and Fort Wayne, etc., have dominated the proceedings, but it is Bobby Plump and Milan the fans remember. Amazingly, this school with 73 boy students forged through the preliminary rounds until it found itself in the championship game against giant, talent-laden Muncie Central, a traditional basketball power. The game was played in the Butler University field house, where the 15,000 SRO crowd was more than 10 times as large as the entire population of Milan. Undermanned, Plump and his team stalled the ball. After holding a small lead, Milan's Indians fell behind 28-26 in the fourth quarter. Then Plump brought the ball over the line and, unbelievably, cradled it under his arm for four minutes and 15 seconds, calmly standing there amidst the jeering of the Muncie rooters and the fevered urging of the Milan backers. With three and a half minutes left, Plump finally passed the ball and the Indians scored to tie the game.

The teams traded baskets again and the clock ticked away with the score frozen at 30-30. With eight seconds left, Bobby Plump had the ball at the keyhole, his skinny 5'10" body flitting among the wagging arms of the Muncie guards. He dribbled quickly to his right, stopped and reared up to arch a shot cleanly through the net. Milan won the state championship 32-30, the biggest upset in Indiana basketball history. Nearly 20 years later Bobby Plump is a prosperous Indianapolis insurance man, and he gives shameless credit for his success to that single shot. In any barroom, gym or club where basketball is taken seriously, the exploits of Bobby Plump and his fabled "shot heard 'round the state" are recounted with an urgency worthy of yesterday.

While high school basketball is at the core of sport in Indianapolis, the city has long supported the college teams produced by Butler University (where Plump went on to set scoring records) and at nearby Indiana U. and Purdue. Moreover, its association with the professional game is much longer than the seven year history of the Pacers. It can be traced back to the 1930s and the patronage of a south-side grocer named Frank Kautsky. After playing in AAU competition for several seasons, "Kautsky's A.C." then turned professional and engaged in competition against midwestern pro and semipro teams. The Kautsky's played a fine brand of basketball and counted on their rosters such men as Arnie Risen, later to star in the NBA, and John Wooden, whose coaching exploits at UCLA require no repetition.

After winning the 1947 World Professional Tournament, the team was sold, and for one season became the Indianapolis Jets in the NBA. Then came the ill-fated Olympians. The basketball team that represented the United States in the 1948 Olympics was composed of Adolph Rupp's collegiate champions from the University of Kentucky, including such notables as Ralph Beard, Alex Groza and "Wa-Wa" Jones. After graduation, this trio and other members of the Kentucky team came to Indianapolis to form the Olympians. Playing from 1950 to 1953 in the Butler field house, the pro team was a success and appeared headed for permanent membership in the NBA until 1952, when Beard and Groza were among those implicated for shaving points during their collegiate careers. These men were banned from all forms of major basketball competition, and without their All-Pro talents the Olympians staggered through one more season before collapsing.

Professional basketball returned when the American Basketball Association was formed in 1967. Much of the incentive for the new league was supplied by an Indianapolis attorney named Dick Tinkham, who also was involved in the formation of the hometown entry, the Indiana Pacers. The fledgling pros drew a turnaway crowd of 11,000 for their 1967 opening game against Kentucky and have been leading the league in attendance ever since. This took place despite the fact that Butler University's unpleasant experience with the Olympians caused it to close its field house and forced the Pacers into the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, a cavernous building designed for horse shows, parades and cattle judging. Propelled by Center Mel Daniels; Roger Brown, an erratic but high-scoring forward who presently holds a seat on the Indianapolis city council; guards Freddie Lewis and Donnie Freeman; the aforementioned McGinnis and Keller; high-jumping Darnell Hillman; and star rookie Kevin Joyce, the Pacers have been the league's most successful franchise, both artistically and financially.

The group responsible for the prosperity of the Pacers—and now aiming at the hockey world—is known as Indiana Professional Sports, Inc. John Weissert, former bank executive and marketing expert, is the vice-president and general manager of the team. His close associate, the organization's president, is Chuck DeVoe, a wealthy local sportsman whose credentials include captaining the 1952 Princeton basketball team and maintaining his skills as a superior amateur tennis player. Weissert. an intense, wry-humored man who notes that his pinnacle of sports accomplishments is his ranking as the 93rd alltime scorer for South Bend's John Adams High School basketball team, is sure that the Pacers are on firm footing and now, like the rest of his group, is looking toward the new hockey team.

It was Weissert who absorbed the heaviest rebuff the city received from the National Hockey League. "In May 1972 we were one of 11 applicants for an NHL franchise," he recalls. "I carried into the meeting at the Waldorf—in a briefcase that about gave me a rupture—28,000 signatures from area people pledging to support the team. We seemed to have an airtight argument. Hell, they didn't even want to look at the signatures. Again, I think it was partly a case of our image. So many people think of this town as a racetrack in a cornfield."

DeVoe says, "We simply haven't had much national press to tell our story. People here are basically conservative and contented. They've been perfectly willing to let the world find out for themselves about the city's advantages. But we're about to change that."

Frank McKinney Jr., the young president of American Fletcher National Bank, has been doing his part to further the change. The son of the longtime owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Louisville Colonels and Indianapolis Indians (the city, whose American Association baseball team is now community owned, has been represented in minor league baseball for 87 consecutive years), McKinney is a powerful supporter of his city's major league aspirations. He waged a one-man campaign to move the Amateur Athletic Union headquarters from New York to Indianapolis in 1970, the better to give it a mid- America outlook. "We know the city has the economic base and the enthusiasm to back major league sport," he says flatly.

Regardless of its passions for basketball or its aspirations regarding football and baseball, Indianapolis is known first as a motor-racing town. People who can't tell a Buick from a Bugatti know that Indianapolis means automobile racing. In fact, the race has bored so deeply into the American consciousness that any gadget, from a lawn mower to a light bulb, gains a mysterious, idiomatic aura of speed and glamour by labeling it with the numerals "500."

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