CRYSTAL LAKE – Norm Jones is an experienced writer, huge sports fan and retired, with plenty of time on his hands.
So when an advertisement in Sports Illustrated appeared in early 2012, Jones was compelled to respond. The ad asked people to send in their stories of sporting events that were meaningful or significant to them. If HBO, which was producing the documentary, liked your story enough, you could be selected and interviewed for the show.
Jones, who grew up in basketball-crazy Indiana, had no problem choosing which story he would submit. He was there, as a high school senior with free tickets, watching as tiny Milan upset Muncie Central in the 1954 Indiana State Basketball Tournament. It was the story that inspired the movie “Hoosiers.”
“I didn’t even think about it, and about six weeks later this production company called me up and said they were real interested in it,” Jones said.
Jones will be part of the hour-and-a-half “Sport in America: Our Defining Stories,” which airs at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. The documentary will have moments from the tragedy of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s major league home run record, Jesse Owens’ 1936 Olympic performance and other landmark moments.
Jones is uncertain how much of a part he will have, but he enjoyed the experience and had an “in” that helped draw interest in his story. The 77-year-old Crystal Lake resident is friends with Bobby Plump, who hit the winning shot for Milan in that game. He called Plump and they met the film crew in Chicago in June 2012. Jones met again with a crew in June this year to summarize what they talked about.
Jones grew up in Marion, Ind., and recalls the precise moment at which he was totally smitten with basketball. He was a sixth-grader playing in front of 5,500 fans.
“That ain’t going to happen anywhere but Indiana, right?” Jones says with a chuckle. “I made two baskets and heard the roar of that crowd, and that’s when I knew I wanted to play basketball in Indiana. For little kids to run out on that floor … I mean your knees are knocking, it’s the most exciting thing a little kid could go through.”
Logansport played at Marion that night, and the sixth-graders played between the junior varsity and varsity games, then again at halftime of the varsity game. Jones said every seat in Marion’s 5,500 capacity gym was sold.
Jones went on to play varsity basketball, then two years at Manchester University, where he suffered a knee injury. After recovering, he transferred to Ball State, walked on and made the starting lineup, but re-injured the knee and basically retired as a player.
In 2005, Jones self-published “Growing Up in Indiana: The Culture and Hoosier Hysteria Revisited,” which he calls his memoirs. There are stories about Indiana basketball from a man who lived, ate and breathed it.
Jones can tell you Indiana had three teams in the NBA’s early years – the Fort Wayne Pistons, Indianapolis Olympians and Anderson Packers. Or that the state tournament started in 1911 after one of James Naismith’s assistants moved to Crawfordsville and introduced the sport at a local YMCA. Or that in the 1930s, the state tournament would draw as many as 15,000 fans to Butler Fieldhouse or the Indianapolis Exposition Center.
When asked what was special about Indiana basketball, Jones smiles.
“The excitement,” he says. “The absolute arrogance of most towns against other towns.”
Jones eventually became Palatine’s head boys coach from 1967 to ‘71, earned a doctorate in counseling and educational psychology from Mississippi, and wrote two other books. He and his wife, Pat, moved to Crystal Lake in 1999.
Jones and Plump are the same age, and when he received tickets to the 1954 state championship game, Jones was not going to miss it. While the movie is fictional, Jones says Plump considers the last part of the movie, the finish of the game, quite accurate.
The two have grown closer through the years. Jones remembered playing against Plump, an Indiana legend even before that famous shot, although Plump did not recall the game as well.
When Jones heads to Indianapolis, he often hits Plump’s restaurant, “Plump’s Last Shot,” where he and Plump regale each other with hoops stories.
On Thanksgiving Day, they will tune in to see their moments on HBO.
“It was a neat experience,” Jones said. “They ask you a lot of questions, but once you get relaxed, it’s like you and I talking. It was a lot of fun. It’s going to be a great program to be on.”