Gene White good-naturedly references his offensive output in the most famous high school championship game ever played in this state, and perhaps the nation, in any sport.
A sold-out Butler Fieldhouse. March 20, 1954. South basket. Free throw attempt.
“I didn’t shoot a lot of free throws,” remembers White, who at 5-foot-11 was the starting center on the 1954 Milan boys basketball team that became legendary with its 32-30 victory over Muncie Central in the state championship game.
“But it helped that we played in the state finals the year before.”
White’s family has lived in Franklin since 1985. He celebrates his 88th birthday on Dec. 11. Less than a week later, White, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, will undergo surgery to have the top lobe of his left lung removed.
The man who was on the floor to witness every rotation of Bobby Plump’s movie-inspiring 15-foot jumper from the right side hopes life’s final buzzer isn’t sounding anytime soon.
There is, after all, much to celebrate, including White’s upcoming induction into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
He is part of a class of 17 inductees that will be celebrated the evening of March 20 at Primo Banquet Hall in Indianapolis. If the date sounds familiar, it should. The ceremony is 70 years — to the night — after the Milan Miracle.
White, who never really viewed himself as a Hall of Famer prior to the Nov. 27 announcement, is nonetheless excited to be joining the Hall, which already includes three other of the Milan players from back in the day — guards Plump, Ray Craft and Roger Schroder.
“I wasn’t too much of a scorer,” White said. “We played a zone defense, so I was in the middle and under the basket, so I didn’t worry about fouls. The game in those days was decided pretty much in the halfcourt.”
Known more for his rebounding and defense, White averaged 5.5 points a game as a senior. All the same, his excellence in other facets of the game earned him a spot on the all-sectional, regional, semistate and state finals squads after the fact.
Greenwood resident and graduate Jim Higdon, who has known White for approximately 30 years, was a driving force in nominating the former Milan center to the Hall of Fame committee.
“I just thought with him being a starter on one of the more storied teams ever that he was deserving,” said Higdon, 73, who played for the Woodmen from 1965-68. “You look at Gene’s career, all the things that he has done.
“Bobby Plump once told me Gene was the smartest basketball player he ever played with. That says a lot.”
One newspaper at the time mentioned how White’s lockdown effort on Aurora standout Bob Fehrman played an integral role in Milan’s 46-36 victory in the championship game of the Rushville Regional.
Earlier that day, Fehrman, a 6-6 senior center who went on to play at Purdue, poured in 35 points as the Red Devils knocked off Connersville in the afternoon semifinal, 67-51.
“Gene and I were classmates for 16 years. Grades 1 through 12 at Milan, and four years at Franklin College,” said Schroder, who resides in Indianapolis. “I would describe Gene as a smart defensive player.
“He was kind of able to keep the other team’s center away from the ball, and usually the other centers were bigger.”
White chuckles remembering the way his father, Horace, used to view personal fouls.
If Gene told his old man after a game that he had been whistled for one or two fouls, Horace wondered why he didn’t commit more. If Gene picked up four or five fouls, Horace viewed it as a positive.
After high school, White attended Franklin College, dabbling in basketball and playing catcher for the Grizzlies’ baseball team before graduating in 1958.
He served in the United States Army before returning to Milan to become the school’s athletic director and boys basketball coach, leading the 1984-85 squad to a sectional title.
White coached women’s basketball at Franklin College from 1987 to 1994, and again later (1998-2001), leading the program to 158 wins and being named Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year on three occasions.
His career also included teaching at Franklin High School and working two tours as a Grizzly Cub assistant girls basketball coach under former coach Walt Raines.
A hoops cup runneth over.
White’s induction adds yet another layer to the Milan mystique, as head coach Marvin Wood entered the Indiana Basketball of Fame in 1975. Plump was next in 1981, followed by Craft (1991), the entire Milan squad (2004) and Schroder (2015).
And now Gene White, who was one of 73 boys in a school of 162 students — the smallest high school to win a state championship since the 1915 Thorntown team.
“It just seems to get stronger,” Shroder said.