Hollywood meets heartland at Hinkle

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jan Currier came into Hinkle Fieldhouse on Tuesday and pointed her camera toward the cavernous ceiling. Then the resident of nearby Plainfield, Ind., took pictures of the scoreboard hanging over midcourt. And of the afternoon sunlight slanting through the vast windows.

It was her 42nd wedding anniversary, and this is where she and husband John chose to spend it.

"We were thinking of something that would make us both happy," she said. "And this is it."

Butler University and hallowed Hinkle are the epicenter of Hoosier State happiness this week. The Curriers and many others are flocking here, cameras and credit cards in hand, to celebrate the Final Four Bulldogs. Visitors are mobbing the bookstore to buy Butler gear and explore the school's historic gymnasium, smitten with a multi-layered love story that is a little bit Hollywood, a little bit heartland and completely embraceable for basketball romantics.

The Butler team that plays in this 82-year-old building is a rare example of a Final Four participant from outside the six power conferences that rule college athletics. A school with only 4,200 students, from the relatively obscure Horizon League, has a chance to be the least-likely NCAA tournament champion since Villanova 25 years ago -- maybe longer. And Butler has that chance in its hometown, playing just six miles from campus.

It's the stuff of screenplays -- which is, of course, part of the allure here. Hinkle was the setting for the climactic scene of "Hoosiers," when Jimmy Chitwood scored the basket that allowed Hickory High School to beat South Bend Central for the state championship in the 1986 film that has earned an enduring place in the American sports-movie canon.

Hinkle and that movie are so closely intertwined that Butler coach Brad Stevens said he's personally heard pilgrims to the gym wander in and shout "Hickory!" And although his team has won 32 games -- the past 24 of them in a row -- and is actually favored against Saturday opponent Michigan State, Stevens is happy for his team to play the role of plucky Hickory this week.

"Love it," he said. "I'm an Indiana kid. I grew up 20 minutes away [in Zionsville]. The worst thing I could say is, 'Don't compare us to Hickory.' I love being the underdog. I love being a team people think has overachieved."

But as an Indiana icon explained later Tuesday at the restaurant that bears his name and fame, the more accurate parallel to this Butler team is the real-life Hickory.

"'Hoosiers,' I wouldn't compare it to," Bobby Plump said. "Milan, I would."

He was sitting in Plump's Last Shot, a place in Indy's Broad Ripple neighborhood where Hoosier Hysteria comes to life. Hanging on the wall is a framed bracket from the 1928 state high school championship, the first played in Hinkle, then known as Butler Fieldhouse. It includes the notation that Martinsville High lost 13-12 when star player John Wooden missed a free throw in the final seconds.

And there is Milan memorabilia all over the place. Milan High School was Hickory, but much better than the film portrayed. The Indians were state runners-up in 1953, then were a dominant team the next year. Before winning the '54 state title over Muncie Central 32-30 on a last-second shot by Plump, their average winning margin was 15 points per game, and they beat Oscar Robertson's Indianapolis Crispus Attucks team by 13 in the quarterfinals.

But it was Milan's small-school identity, with an enrollment of 161, that made the championship the most celebrated in the history of the state. Until 1997, Indiana played single-class basketball: the tiniest schools in the same pool with the biggest, with just one champion every year. And the state tournament meant everything in Indiana's small towns.

When the smallest school ever to win the state title beat huge powerhouse Muncie Central -- and did it on a shot made by a kid whose home had no electricity until he was 13 -- it was a Hollywood script waiting to happen.

Thirty-two years later, screenwriter Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh -- both Indiana natives -- made it happen. And 24 years after that, we have this complementary collegiate storyline.

But it gets better. Because Bobby Plump is sitting in his restaurant animatedly telling stories while wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of his alma mater -- Butler University.

After winning the state's prestigious Mr. Basketball award, Plump turned down offers from Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State to attend Butler. The biggest reasons: Freshmen were ineligible to play in the Big Ten at the time but could play at Butler, and famed coach Tony Hinkle sweetened the pot in ways the NCAA would not approve of, then or now.

Butler didn't have athletic scholarships, but Hinkle found a booster willing to pay Plump's way. Hinkle himself paid Plump's phone bill, which he ran up significantly with calls to his girlfriend at Hanover College in Madison, Ind.

Plump returned the extra favors by becoming Butler's all-time leading scorer, racking up 1,439 points by the time he graduated in 1958. Until forward Matt Howard broke it last week, Plump still held the school record for most free throws made in a career.

It's safe to say nobody has experienced better times in Hinkle Fieldhouse than Bobby Plump.

"I don't get maudlin when I walk in there," he said. "It's just nice remembrances."

Plump and almost all the rest of Butlerkind will relocate to Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday to see the Bulldogs go where they've never gone before. In fact, Plump and his Milan teammates -- all but one still living -- will be there as special guests of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

"I don't know if anybody could have more fun than I have watching Butler play in this tournament," Plump said. "Not just as a Butler grad, but the way they play. They do it as a team, both ends of the floor, and they're fundamentally sound. They are extremely good."

Fact is, Butler has been good for 15 years now, through a coaching succession from Barry Collier to Thad Matta to Todd Lickliter to the youthful Stevens, who looks like he's late for his freshman econ class. The Bulldogs have been to nine NCAA tourneys in those 15 years.

This, however, has been the high point. Gonzaga and Xavier get more attention as high-powered mid-majors, but neither of them has broken through to the Final Four.

And the Butler fan base is suitably moved.

Take Brian Clouse, Butler Class of '90, and wife Paula. They were flying home to Indy from San Francisco on Saturday, and while connecting in Dallas caught the last minute of the Bulldogs' upset of Kansas State to reach the regional final.

They touched down around 10 p.m., and by the time they got home they learned that the team was expected back on campus at 3 a.m. Brian looked at Paula and said, "Let's go." So they joined a welcoming party estimated at 2,000 lining the way from the bus into Hinkle.

While wearing a Butler tie Tuesday, Brian Clouse was grabbing armloads of gear at a mayhem-ridden bookstore.

"Can't have enough," he said. "A couple things I've got to get framed for my man cave."

Not far away, an elderly woman was sweating and trembling as she waited to get through the bookstore checkout counter. She checked her blood sugar and bent over, clutching the sides of a table. She certainly didn't seem to be in the proper health for a shopping spree amid crowded conditions, but her grandkids needed T-shirts and a stuffed bulldog.

Despite the general mania, Butler's players have been expected to do what Butler players do. Namely, go to class. That will remain the modus operandi straight through the week, when the school will shuttle players to and from Lucas Oil news conferences and practices to campus for class.

"When the kids went to Salt Lake City [for the West Regional], they had backpacks," Plump said. "And they had books in them."

Butler players live in regular student housing; no jock dorm here. And Stevens bends the practice schedule around class schedules, which necessitates regular pre-dawn practices.

"We're all regular students like everyone else," said point guard Shelvin Mack. "At some schools athletes are treated better, or treated differently, but not at Butler."

Which might be why so many of the Bulldogs are not one-dimensional jocks. Starters Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward were recently named academic All-Americans -- Howard (3.77 GPA in finance) on the first team, Hayward (3.31 GPA in computer engineering) on the third team. And Stevens told the story Tuesday of guard Ronald Nored running for freshman class president almost immediately upon his arrival at the school.

But class attendance aside, it is all about basketball this unprecedented week on the Butler campus. This is an unlikely basketball love story in full bloom, a story so romantic it can spur an Indiana couple to very appropriately spend its anniversary in an empty gym.

Beneath the massive old roof of Hinkle Fieldhouse, Jan Currier smiled and shrugged.

"This," she said, "is Middle America."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.