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Film historian preserves film reels that inspired "Hoosiers"


Andy Ulrich, a film archivist, unrolls the film of the Muncie vs. Milan Indiana High School Boys Basketball Tournament championship  from 1954. This film reel helped inspire the movie "Hoosiers". Mallory Smith

Film historian Eric Grayson is restoring the film reels of the two 1954 high school championship basketball games that inspired the 1986 sports film "Hoosiers."

Film archivist Andy Uhrich said the films were initially shot as part of an IU initiative to distribute and produce educational films.

“They were made with the idea that they would be sent out to other teams to watch,” Uhrich, who works at the University's moving image archive, said. 

Andy Ulrich, a film archivist, shows some of the damage that has happened over time to the film reel of the 1954 semi-final Indiana High School Boys Basketball Tournament championship with Terre Haute vs. Milan. The film reels are kept in a cold area to prevent further damage. Mallory Smith

The University, Grayson added, made multiple copies of the films for distribution. Both games were originally shot in black and white with no sound. 

Grayson, who is now helming a restoration project to digitize the films, said he first got ahold of them in early 2015.

“It’s been boiling for about two or three years,” he said. “I had to go through a grant process, and film restoration efforts, and fundraising stuff. It’s been going on since then, and it’s just now getting done.”

Grayson said he began working with the best available copies of the films he could find, which weren’t the copies stored at IU.

Uhrich said with a medium such as film, natural decay and wear-and-tear are problems to overcome. The material inevitably degrades over time as it reacts with its environment. 

The film reels of the semi-final and final for the 1954 Indiana High School Boys Basketball Tournament championship now reside at the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility. The films show Milan winning the Indiana High School Boys Basketball Tournament championship. Mallory Smith

He said the film reels can preserved in a freezer. But that doesn’t change the decades’ worth of degradation the reels had already suffered. 

Uhrich said restoration efforts are a necessity to preserve old film reels for future generations.

“If you wanna save this piece of history, this representation of history, you have to save the material artifact,” he said. 

The films were shot in 1954 when the Milan High School's basketball team, a scrappy team from a small school, beat the much larger Muncie Central High School in a now famed event Grayson said was known informally as the Milan Miracle. 

“The legacy is huge; everybody remembers this game,” Grayson said. “It’s a milestone in high school basketball.”

Grayson said the film did not directly adapt the story of the Milan Miracle because the creators did not want to worry about obtaining the rights to the story. As a result, the filmmakers changed names and events, but, Grayson said, the story and its spirit remained the same.

He said part of what makes the games so special is that class systems now make games between such unfairly-matched teams like Milan and Muncie impossible, preventing underdog triumphs like the Miracle in the future. 

The film reel for the championship game of the 1954 Indiana High School Boys Basketball Tournament with Muncie vs. Milan now resides in the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility. This film reel helped inspire the movie "Hoosiers". Mallory Smith

He said he thinks the historic basketball games are special because they tie into an innate love for underdog stories.

“I never know what makes an underdog story so vital." Grayson said. "It’s part of the American mystique. It’s a very American thing to always root for the underdog, and Milan High School was by far an underdog here.”

He said he felt it was important to preserve this record of an important cultural occurrence. 

“It’s sort of providing this access for people to their own past and to their own stories,” he said. “That can be really entertaining, that can be really emotional, that can build communities, it can make people think finally about the past.”  

Grayson said the influence of the Milan Miracle was tremendous. In Indianapolis, there’s a restaurant called Plump’s Last Shot in honor of Milan Basketball player Bobby Plump, who scored the final shot of the game. 

Grayson said because of this, he felt a personal drive to make sure the old films saw proper restoration.

“If I didn’t save them, then it wasn’t gonna get saved,” Grayson said. “Who else is gonna do it but me?”

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