Published March 20, 2012
Bobby Plump has lived 75 years, but he's best known for 18 seconds of it.
In 1954, he threw a basketball. It sailed through a hoop and bounced into history. The shot won the Indiana High School Athletic Association championship in the final moments of the game.
Plump's team rode home to Milan, Ind., population, 1,100, in Cadillacs borrowed from a local car dealer. More than 30,000 screaming fans lined the streets for these unlikely tiny-town champs. And this became known as the shot that rang around the world.
Many people remember where they were on that day, the same way they remember where they were during the moon landing. The shot would not only define Plump, but the entire state of Indiana when it inspired the beloved 1986 film "Hoosiers," starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper.
"The only factual thing in that movie is the last 18 seconds when the ball is thrown," said Plump.
He'd consulted with the film's directors, demonstrating exactly how he made his legendary shot. Filmmakers reproduced it perfectly, he said, but the rest of the script needed conflict.
The truth is, while Indiana was a state obsessed with high school basketball, it was also a land devoid of dramatic tensions--a place where arguments between friends were soon resolved and relationships swiftly healed. "You can't make a movie about everybody hugging and loving and kissing," Plump said, so it was largely fictionalized, with his character's name changed to Jimmy Chitwood.
At Plump's namesake watering hole in the Broad Ripple neighborhood of Indianapolis, he served me the biggest pork tenderloin sandwich I have ever seen. It has rightfully been named Indiana's best. And Plump might have become famous for this culinary masterpiece, alone, but the name of his pub remains "Plump's Last Shot."
Plump is also not as widely known for spending about a half-century as a life insurance agent and financial planner. He continues working with ING Financial Partners, even as his heart ticks on a pacemaker after bypass surgery. He has no plans to retire and is fond of rhetorically asking, "What do you retire from after you retire?"
We met on St. Patrick's Day and our conversation was interrupted by well-wishers, autograph hunters and people hoping to take a photo where the famous Plump talks about his last shot. He has told the story of this shot thousands of times and it never gets old.
"He is an epic man," cheered Sean Kurker, a long-time Plump customer who was finally meeting the legend for the first time.
Thomas Jordan, an Indianapolis police officer, told me he raises his children with life lessons from Plump's 1997 book, "Bobby Plump: Last of the Small Town Heroes." Jordan came by with his two sons and got Plump to mug for a photo. "Bobby Plump and Indiana basketball is one and the same," Jordan said. "He's an iconic figure. He put Indiana on the map."
In every sport, there are brief moments, good and bad, frozen in memory. College basketball great John Wooden, who died just shy of 100 years old in 2010, often dwelt on a shot he missed, Plump said. It was a free throw that would have tied a state finals game in 1928. "He talked about missing that free throw until the day he died," Plump said.
Plump never found a more defining moment than his last shot--and that was in high school. He played for Indiana's Butler University. Then, in 1958, he turned down the National Basketball Association to play in the National Industrial Basketball League, featuring teams sponsored by Caterpillar Inc., Safeway Inc. and other corporate giants. If he'd signed with an NBA team, he'd have made $4,000 a year. Instead, he signed with the Phillips 66ers for $6,200.
Between seasons, Plump worked for the oil company in sales. He was actually expected to recoup some of his costs as a player. You don't see that level of expectation in the NBA today.
"They ought to go out and work for a living," Plump said of today's pros. "They don't appreciate a damn thing. The money has just gotten out of hand.
"I won't spend $100 to $200 to go to the game," he said. "They have priced the fans that built the NBA out of the game. The normal, blue-collar person cannot afford to go to the games. That's sad."
Plump first played the game on a wooden backboard nailed to a smokehouse in his hometown of Pierceville, Ind., population 45. The ball wouldn't bounce evenly on a gravel lot. "It teaches you how to handle the ball," Plump said. "It also teaches you how to stay away from the defensive guys because you get skinned up if you go down.
"There was also a manure pile," he recalled. "If you drove to the left-hand side, you often ended up in the manure pile... That was a good thing... They didn't guard you too well after you were in that manure pile."
Basketball shouldn't be about money. It should teach people how to restore confidence after a loss, and how to avoid being destroyed after a raging success. It should also teach that life is not really about one shot.
"If I would have missed that shot, I would have still had a college education," Plump said. "I would have still played ball in college. I might still have played for Phillips 66. I might still have gone into the insurance industry.
"And, my wife, Jenine? Whether I made or missed that shot, I still had an opportunity to meet her. The most important things that happened--getting married, having children and grandchildren, having success in business and in life--they would have happened anyway. That shot was not the most important thing that happened in my life."
Oh, of course, it was the most important thing, I told Plump: It seems to have defined everything in your life. People probably bought life insurance from you because you made that shot. And, eh-hem, the name on your bar here is not Plump's Great Pork. It's Plump's Last Shot.
Plump smiled, but wouldn't fully concede the point: "OK, as far as instantaneous thrill, that shot is No. 1, but ..."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)