Former Milan hoop star visits Needham Elementary

Two Needham Elementary School students had a chance to see their history projects come to life on Tuesday morning.

Gene White, a Franklin resident who played on the famous Milan High School basketball team that won the state championship in 1954, visited the school to talk to the fourth grade about his experiences.

Students had been tasked with completing a project related to Indiana history, and two of them, Carter Green and Isabel Stillabower, had chosen the Milan team as their topic.

"(My father) talked to me about this, because I didn’t know what it was, and I thought it would be cool because I play basketball," Stillabower said.

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White, who graduated from Franklin College in 1958 and taught math at Franklin Community High School for 13 years, shared his memories of his senior season and took questions from students for about half an hour.

The 83-year-old White says that he always enjoys telling his story to children, though he’s a little surprised that there’s still an interest in it at the elementary level.

"I’m kind of amazed that kids like that even bother with it," he said. "There’s been a lot of teams between now and then."

Both Green and Stillabower researched their project at the Milan ’54 Hoosiers Museum, where they had a chance to view numerous pieces of memorabilia from the championship season and watch part of the state title game.

Green watched the first half of the game on his visit; Stillabower saw the fourth quarter.

Neither of the students had watched "Hoosiers," the movie inspired by Milan’s legendary season, until afterward. Having studied the real-life version first, the students were surprised by some of the creative liberties that Hollywood took with the story.

"When I saw it, I’m like, ‘Hickory? Isn’t it supposed to be Milan Indians?’" Green said.

More than 30 years after spawning a feature film, Milan’s legend continues to grow. White believes that part of what has helped the story endure was the end of the single-class state tournament in 1997, as that assured Indiana will never have another small-school Cinderella.

"When they did that, it put us in as the last one to ever do that," White said.