Oral histories are all the rage these days. Maybe there’s too many of them. Hell, fake oral histories are probably overdone too. But…happy to drive an idea or format into the ground, here’s an oral history of the 1952 Hickory basketball team, which won the state title in the movie Hoosiers. Now, ESPN did an oral history with the actors and creators of Hoosiers. This isn’t that. This is an oral history of that magical season itself.
They came from the middle of nowhere, but by the end of the season they were known by basketball fans everywhere. The 1952 Hickory Huskers weren’t the greatest team in Indiana state basketball history, but they were the most memorable. Even today people can name their starting five. In the years after Hickory’s triumph, names like Jimmy, Rade, Buddy and, unfortunately, even Ollie, became some of the most popular names for babies born in Indiana. Coach Norman Dale took over Hickory at the start of the season and quickly established his authority, while angering everyone in town. The Huskers lost early, welcomed back Jimmy Chitwood just when the season was falling apart and soon established themselves as a force in Indiana high school basketball. Still, no one could have predicted how that season ended. Now, more than 60 years later, the players, coaches, administrators, town drunks and morose tutors remember that magical year, even though some of them are now more than 110 years old. Here then, an oral history of the 1952 Hickory Huskers.
COACH DALE COMES TO TOWN
After a 15-10 season in 1951, locals had high hopes for Hickory as all five starters were set to return. But then coach died and the star Jimmy Chitwood decided not to play and people even thought he might leave for Terhune. Cletus, old Cletus the principal, took his time hiring a permanent replacement and didn’t find anyone until a week into practice. And that man was an old Navy guy named Norman Dale.
Cletus: When I thought of who’d make a good replacement, I figured, why not get a guy who I haven’t seen in 20 years, a man who hasn’t coached in a decade, was fired for physically assaulting a player and was actually serving in the Navy when I tracked him down. Made some type of sense at the time.
Norman Dale: I’d wanted to get back on the sideline ever since I punched that kid. I got the call from Cletus while at a base in San Diego. Told him I could coach. Told him I could teach history and civics. Went AWOL, hopped into a car and drove two days to get to Hickory.
A local, George — who spoke in riddles about naked men barking at the moon and hide-strapping people’s asses to pine rails — coached the team on an interim basis until Dale arrived.
George: Course we were nervous. What in the hell did he know about high school buckets? I suppose it all worked out in the end. But give me Jimmy Chitwood on that team and I probably would have won state, too.
Norman: I didn’t think the name of the town would so adequately describe its residents. These hicks had never heard of defense and fundamentals and when I went to teach the boys those things, there was obviously some pushback.
Rade: No doubt that first practice was tough. We liked to shoot. He had us doing defensive shuffle drills and passing drills and wind sprints. We did the three-man weave…without a ball. At one point he told poor Ollie that we wouldn’t stop the conditioning drills until he filled a trash bucket with vomit. When he threw Buddy and Whit out I started wondering how we were going to play with five guys.
Norman: I needed to break the boys down to build them back up. Some guys were easier to break down than others.
Before the first game, the school threw a pep fest for the team, which turned ugly when the students started chanting, “We Want Jimmy! We want Jimmy!”
Merle: Did they think we didn’t want Jimmy too? We all stood there, dumbly, wondering what to do.
Norman: I wanted to defuse that situation quickly. Jimmy wasn’t there. Jimmy wasn’t going to play. Our school needed to know that.
Merle: You can talk about all the speeches coach Dale gave before the games, and those were great. But to me, the best thing he ever said was, “This is your team.” We knew he believed in us, even if the school and our parents didn’t.
WAITING ON JIMMY
After averaging 24 points his junior year, Jimmy Chitwood — the quiet, enigmatic, monosyllabic shooting star — did not go out for the team his senior year following the death of his beloved coach. Instead he shot jumpers alone in gyms and playgrounds and studied under the direction of Myra Fleener.
Cletus: I said it then but let me amend my old statement: In more than 100 years of watching Indiana high school basketball, I’ve still never seen a better player than Jimmy Chitwood. But the boy had a tough time after his father died and coach died.
Jimmy: I suppose I snapped a little bit. Spent some time traveling, got into a bad crowd, wrote some poetry, read some Nietzsche. We didn’t really have a word for it back then but I guess you would call me a headcase. All I know is I didn’t have any desire to play ball for Hickory when that season started.
Myra: I told him if he worked real hard he could get an academic scholarship, despite the fact I’m not even sure he was literate in 12th grade.
Norman: Did I get tired of hearing about him? Of course. But I always had it in my mind that I might be able to convince him to play. That whole I don’t care if you play or not thing at the outdoor hoop? Classic coaching psychology.
Myra Fleener — tutor, acting principal, expert shrew — became a key fixture during that championship season. Instead of turning him off, her vicious and highly personal verbal assaults on coach Dale turned him on and the two became an item by the end of the year, though rumors about her true relationship with young Jimmy persisted for years.
Myra: The funniest thing is no one gives me the credit I deserve for that title. They say Jimmy was the main reason or Normy or they give credit to God. Let me say this: I was the one that made sure those boys were on the court. I wrote every single paper for every single player that year. You think Jimmy was capable of putting together 10 pages about Gettysburg? Do you see Rade as a guy who’d write five pages about his goals in life? How about that six-page report Buddy did about the female reproductive system? Or Ollie writing that paper on progress and indoor plumbing by himself? Everyone in town knew about it.
Norman: I’m unaware of any improprieties that may or may not have taken place.
ROUGH START FOR COACH DALE
Hickory got blown out in its first game and the drama extended from the locker room to the bench as his four-passes offense confused players and fans alike.
Norman: Those guys think four passes was bad. They should have seen me at Ithaca when I first started. It was 12 passes before a shot or your ass was on the bench. We averaged 34 points per game one year we won a national title. That’s what defense can do for your team. I’d gotten a little soft as I aged and figured four still worked.
Rade: I’m not saying we had to be seven seconds or less. But 70 seconds or less would have been nice.
Norman: The boys struggled that first half. Then at halftime the police chief barreled into the locker room to complain. The chief! Law and order. A man with a gun and a grudge. Came into the locker room to complain about the offense. That’s why I laugh when I hear coaches today complain about pushy parents. Try having an angry Chief Wiggum who thinks he knows more about basketball than you do screaming in a locker room.
In the fourth quarter, with the game out of reach and Merle fouled out, Rade got up from the bench to check back in. At the start of the second half, ignoring his coach’s edict to pass four times, Rade had gotten the team back into the game by firing away with his one-legged jumpers. Coach Dale did not forget. Or forgive.
Nameless ref: I told him he needed five guys on the court. I’ll never forget what he said.
Norman: My team is on the floor.
Cletus: That’s when I first thought old Norman had possibly gone insane during his time on those navy ships, maybe during World War II. Christ, who had I hired? Should I have done more of a background check than finding a piece of scrap paper that was 20 years old and had a name scrawled on it? Four guys on the court! By choice!
The tough start continued. A bench-clearing brawl marred the second game. And in an attempt to help out Hickory senior Everett Flatch, Dale — without the school board’s approval — hired Shooter, Everett’s dad, and the town drunk. He cleaned him up and put him in a suit. But after Dale got ejected in a home game, Shooter sat helplessly on the bench as another game slipped away from the Huskers.
Shooter: You wanna know what drinkin’ does to the body? I blow the game in 1933 sectionals. Look at me; that was 19 years earlier but I aged 35 years. After that night I never went a day without a drink — or eight. Old Norm helped me out.
Everett: Dad taught me how to shoot a basketball at 6 and offered me my first whiskey at 8. He had a good — if severely damaged by drinking — heart. And you ain’t never seen a better basketball mind.
Norman: I thought he could help the team. Unemployed, alcoholic, irresponsible, terrible father, bad husband, told anecdotes that went nowhere, liked shotguns — combine that with his scouting acumen and why wouldn’t you want him around a group of 17-year-olds?
Shooter: People still talk about the picket fence. They come up to me on the street to ask me about it, and then tell me to get off their property. And I know I had some faults, but if you want to get down to it, I was probably a better in-game coach than Norman.
Finally, the town elders called a meeting to take a vote on coach Dale’s employment. The result seemed like a foregone conclusion. No way coach Dale would survive. But a headcase with a sense of drama had other plans.
George: During my time in Hickory I’d been to one other town hall meeting like that. It was to vote on whether to allow evolution to be taught in school. That one was struck down 104-0. I figured coach Dale would lose by a similar margin.
Norman: Of course I thought I was finished. I’d gassed up my car right before it so I could get started back to San Diego right after the vote and see if the Navy would drop their desertion charges and let me back in. I will say, Myra speaking up for me was a pleasant surprise. Although she could have explained a bit more why it’d be a mistake to let me go. As passionate defenses go, she wasn’t exactly Atticus Finch.
Jimmy: Figured I’d shoot at the gym for awhile. Then figured I’d get up to the town meeting, but I wasn’t in a real hurry, why not wait until the vote had been taken and was being tabulated to try to save coach and the season? The look on everyone’s face when I walked in was incredible. The power I felt. Then I just said figured it was time I start playing ball.
George: Look, I’m happy Jimmy came back. I’m happy we won a state championship. But that really was the start of a troubling trend where apparently a player decides who coaches a team. Usually it’s a guy wanting someone fired. But tell me: Is it any better that a guy demands someone stay on the bench?
JIMMY — AND HICKORY — DOMINATE
Hickory never lost another game. Led by Jimmy, who averaged 34 points per game, Hickory cruised through the rest of the regular season.
Cletus: Okay, how many times do I have to say it? In how many different ways? Never seen a better player in Indiana. Bobby Plump, Rick Mount, Oscar Robertson, Steve Alford, Shawn Kemp, Larry Bird, Damon Bailey. None of them could compare to Jimmy.
Buddy: An underrated part of Jimmy’s game was passing. I mean, a lot of people have seen our old game films and you might not have ever seen him actually pass, but trust me, he could. But why would he when he was about a 97 percent shooter from the floor?
Norman: I talked about how no one was irreplaceable and all that and I suppose I still believe that or at least do when I talk at coaching clinics. But Jimmy was our offense, no doubt. Everything we did started and ended with him, even if I sometimes forgot about that during the course of a game.
THE SUPPORTING CAST
While Jimmy starred, the other seven players all played key roles. Rade, Merle, Whit, Ollie, Strap, Buddy and Everett played tough D, hit some key shots and grabbed big boards.
Rade: It got a little annoying that the Hickory Argus sports editor called us Jimmy and the Jimmyaires, but what are you going to do? I would have loved to average 20 a game, but believe me: In Indiana, being a 20-point scorer doesn’t get you girls. Anyone can do that. But being a state champ in the one-class system?
Buddy: We all liked each other, that was the key. Well, Strap could get a bit annoying with the over-the-top religious displays and all. Do you realize he twice nearly cost us because he was on his knees praying and either wouldn’t come out of the locker room or wouldn’t come into the game? And the Region Finals, coach Dale specifically told him not to shoot unless he was alone right under the basket. So what’s he do? First play, pump fake and drive to the bucket. Second play? Sky hook from the free throw line! I mean, on that team the higher power you were supposed to listen to was coach Dale.
Strap: Buddy’s family were heathens. Explains that.
Everett: I bet we could have won 15-16 games again with that crew, minus Jimmy.
Whit: Thing about that team, we all knew our roles. Mine was to rebound, play defense and pass to Jimmy. Rade’s was to handle the ball, play defense and pass to Jimmy. Everett had to rebound, play defense and pass to Jimmy. Strap had to rebound, play defense and pass to Jimmy. Buddy had to rebound, handle the ball, play defense and pass to Jimmy. Ollie had to collect the towels after games and practices.
In the section finals, Shooter, unable to handle the pressure of the moment, missed the team bus and went on a bender. He stumbled onto the court in the middle of the game.
Everett: When I heard someone scream in a slurred voice, “That was charging all the way!” I knew it was pops. I’d recognize that voice anywhere.
Shooter: People ask me how I got to that game since I was nearly passed out. They don’t understand drunk driving laws weren’t what they are today.
Norman: We got a technical but I’m still not sure it was deserved. Okay, a guy I self-identified as an assistant coach came onto the court screaming at the ref and reeking of bourbon, but why’s that a T? Could have cost us the game.
Everett: That’s the game I busted up my shoulder when I got thrown into the trophy case. Blood all over, eight stitches. But I kept playing.
Hickory survived Shooter’s meltdown — and hospitalization — and defeated Terhune in the section finals. In the regional finals, coach Dale had his greatest moment.
Norman: Yeah, the speech. I put it together on the bus ride. I just wanted to let the guys know that no matter what happened, they were winners. I knew we might lose on the scoreboard, but that didn’t matter.
Jimmy: I was a robot, basically. I’ve still never cried once in my life. But even I got excited after that speech. I nearly made a facial expression after coach finished talking.
In the closing seconds, with Buddy fouled out, and Everett injured, coach Dale called on the smallest guy on the court — and no one came up bigger.
Rade: Did I think we were in trouble when Ollie wandered in? Yeah. Guy had scored 3 points all year. And with him bumbling around we blew our lead right away.
Ollie: I get fouled, we’re up one. My free throw, granny style like my grandma taught me, barely made it halfway to the rim. I just wanted to go back to the bench.
Buddy: When Ollie then got fouled with us down one and went back to the line, I seriously considered punching him so he’d get hurt. Yeah the other coach would get to choose the free throw shooter, but anyone else would have been better.
Norman: Buddy said that? Ha. Seriously, same thought went through my head. Thought I was going to have to punch a player for the second time in my career.
Ollie: I don’t know how or why I made those two with three seconds left. It was all like something out of a movie.
THE STATE TITLE GAME
Hickory faced powerful South Bend Central, whose frontline went 6-4, 6-5, 6-5. When Hickory arrived to the fieldhouse, coach Dale took the measurements of the basket and free throw line in another classic motivational ploy.
Norman: I’d actually pulled off the same thing in Ithaca, figured it might work again.
Once the game started, South Bend Central dominated, jumping out to a 16-6 lead.
Rade: Coach Dale calls timeout and tells us maybe we don’t belong, maybe people were right about us. And I was thinking, maybe he’s right about that. It was an ass-kicking.
Merle: Finally I told coach that I thought maybe Jimmy could take his guy if we set him up. That somehow hadn’t occurred to coach Dale, who was apparently thinking the whole five pistons firing at once thing was going to win us that game. He was going to be fired until Jimmy joined the team. Then he watched Jimmy dominate. But he still needed me to bring up that idea. Best motivator I’ve ever been around. But game-coaching…
Hickory chipped away, thanks to Jimmy’s genius. Hickory wasn’t a one-man team but they were a one-man scoring show. Trailing by 6 with 2 minutes left, Hickory rallied thanks to tenacious defense, a series of steals and several clutch baskets by Jimmy. Hickory found itself in possession of the ball with 19 seconds left, the season on the line.
Rade: When I saw coach Dale draw up the play, first thing I thought was: This crazy Navy son of a bitch has finally lost his damn mind. Merle! For the state title! He wanted to use Jimmy as a decoy!
Merle: No one knew what to say.
Norman: I really thought it had the element of surprise.
Jimmy: The fortunate thing was that all I had to say was, “I’ll make it.” You might have noticed I was incapable of speaking in sentences longer than eight words. So if I would have had to explain why I’d make it, we probably lose that game.
Everett: We all cleared out and just let Jimmy be Jimmy.
Jimmy: I wanted to either go into OT or we win the game. Couldn’t leave them time on the clock. They’re a tough team. Boyle, No. 15, averaged 20 points per game for them. Notice how coach never said how much I averaged. Anyway, I took the clock down, made my move with 5 seconds and went to my favorite spot on the floor. Well, one of them, since I could hit from anywhere. The second I let it go I knew it was good, felt like I was back shooting on a grass court in Hickory under the watchful eye of a female tutor with questionable motivations.
The arena erupted when Jimmy’s shot fell, giving Hickory a 42-40 victory. The celebration continued back at the team hotel, where Jimmy kissed a girl for the first time. Two days later police and firetrucks welcomed the team back.
Rade: Only thing I didn’t like about that season? Really set us behind for baseball practice in the spring.
Hickory remained the smallest school to ever win a title in the one-class system in Indiana. The players went their separate ways, but they’ll always be linked by the greatest season anyone had ever seen.
Norman: I resigned a week after the championship. There was no real way I could stay behind. We were losing all five starters and I was never going to be in Indiana full-time. Did I have a future with Myra full-time? I got a job at a small JUCO in Minnesota, and spent 15 years there. For just a moment in 1952 I was treated like a god. Most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments. All I had to do was punch a kid, go into the navy and take that long drive to Indiana.
Jimmy: Myra was right. That was the high point of my life. I played some college ball, kicked around some semipro leagues, learned to read, then came back to Hickory to work in sanitation.
Rade: I came back to coach when I was 28 and stayed at Hickory for 39 years. Best we ever did was make it to the sectional finals. But, since we didn’t have Jimmy, that was as far as we ever got.
Everett: We still get together every 5 years for a reunion. Coach makes it most years and Ollie always does the best impression of coach saying, “My team is on the floor.” Dad pops by occasionally, sometimes sober. Each year we make Jimmy re-create his winning shot in the title game. Know what? Guy still has never missed one.