SHELBYVILLE, Ind. – One of the first things I noticed when I walked into Ray Craft’s home, aside from the pool table and pinball machine in his family room, was a framed movie poster of the movie Hoosiers that was sitting on the floor leaned up against that pinball game. The poster had been signed by Ray, his teammates from Milan High School who won the state basketball championship in 1954 and his coach Marvin Wood who died of lymphoma in 1999.
Ray told me he had recently cleaned a closet in his home and pulled the poster out of hibernation. There’s a cameo scene in the film where Ray welcomes Coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, and the Hickory Huskers to Butler Fieldhouse as they arrive for the state tournament. The movie, released in Nov. 1986, has kept the story alive of the small school that won a basketball championship in front of a crowd larger than the population of their tiny hometown in Ripley County.
Ray was the highest scorer with 14 points for the Milan Indians during that state championship game against the Muncie Central Bearcats on March 20, 1954. But, it was a two-point shot made by his teammate Bobby Plump that has immortalized the team.
“For me, it was just unbelievable that I would move to Milan in 1945 and meet up with the 1954 team and be a part of it. I never dreamed we would win a state championship. [I] never dreamed I’d be inducted into the [Indiana Basketball] Hall of Fame [in 1991]. [I] never dreamed there would be a movie based out of the Milan story,” says Craft.
I have known Ray for almost a decade, but this was the first time that I have asked him about his high school basketball career, including the matchup in the semi state in 1954 between Milan and Crispus Attacks. His team beat sophomore Oscar Robertson and the Tigers 65 to 52.
“We knew they were very good and we knew Oscar was an upcoming star. I think he got somewhere around 18 points and he fouled out. He’s just a great person,” says Craft.
After winning the state title, both Ray Craft and Bobby Plump went to play for Coach Tony Hinkle at Butler for four years.
“Coach Hinkle was very reserved, [he] didn’t yell much, but he demanded respect. [He] was very knowledgeable [and] ahead of his time,” says Craft of Hinkle’s coaching style.
After spending nearly two hours with Ray, I asked about his wife Virginia, who was known as “Jinky” to their friends. She had fallen while she and Ray were at the museum in Milan honoring the 1954 state championship and taken to a hospital in Batesville where she later died on March 16. She was a cheerleader at Milan during the school’s run to the state title.
“We weren’t high school sweethearts, she didn’t wise up until she got halfway through college,” says Ray jokingly.
“I think [she] thought she was assistant coach while I was coaching, but she was very supportive of me and the kids. She was just a very loving, caring person. I just can’t say enough about her as a wife and a mother,” says Ray as tears formed in his eyes.
As I was leaving, I had brought my Special Edition DVD copy of the movie Hoosiers that I bought in 2006, along with a sharpie to ask for Ray’s signature on the cover. I had been meaning to get Ray to sign it since I first got to know him nearly a decade ago. Much like Ray’s movie poster that he pulled out of his closet and had sitting in his house, I now have my DVD of Hoosiers with Ray’s autograph sitting facing out on a shelf in my house instead of hiding inside a box in my closet. It now reminds me of the afternoon I spent at Ray’s house, and the sadness in his voice as he told me how fortunate he was to have shared 55 years of his life with Jinky.
93 WIBC’S C.J. MILLER REPORTING