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Conversation with Philip Raisor

September 29, 2003 Columns No Comments

A Conversation with Outside Shooter Phil Raisor

by Adam Shandler

We all know how the movie Hoosiers ends. Tiny Hickory does the impossible, defeating the larger South Bend in the state title game. Gene Hackman and the Huskers celebrate, dancing under the setting Indiana sun, their crew cuts as golden as the farmland grains. Or something like that.

But what happened to those South Bend players? Where did they end up? In a church bell tower toting a bunch of Uzis? Or did they learn to grow from the loss as author Phil Raisor did.

Photo courtesy University of Missouri Press
Philip Raisor

Mr. Raisor, author of the new memoir, Outside Shooter, participated in that legendary 1954 game upon which Hoosiers is based. Milan High School, incarnated as Hickory in the movie, bested Raisor’s behemoth Muncie Bearcats, dressed as South Bend in the 1986 flick. Phil Raisor ended up just fine, and some might argue that his story is just as celluloid worthy. In fact, he might even tell you that he overcame worse hardships, greater adversity and more formidable obstacles than the Milan-over-Muncie upset.

Outside Shooter is the coming of age story of a guy who grew up among the innocuousness of basketball and pranks in urban 1950’s Indiana. But as Raisor moved on to college, with stops at Kansas and Louisiana State, the nation changed – and Raisor is forced to choose his battles. With its cameos of Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain, and its intrepid portrayal of the turbulent LSU campus of the early sixties, Shooter is a time capsule of

both the good ol’ days of basketball and the bad ol’ days of white-only, black-only.

In this edition of Conversations with Adam, I sit down with Phil Raisor, now an associate professor of English at Old Dominion, about the makings of his memoir, college kids today and the status of Indiana high school hoops.

Adam Shandler: What made you decide to write this memoir?

Philip Raisor: I hadn’t thought about doing it until after the movie Hoosiers came out. That game was in 1954 and I had pretty much put it out of my mind. But people who saw the movie heard that I was on the losing team and wanted to talk about it. People asked me, “Was the game really like that?” And I said, “No, of course not, the story wasn’t told from the losing side.” Somewhere down the line I said I’d write my version of the Milan-Muncie game. So I wrote the first chapter and that’s where I was going to leave it, but then I said, nah, nah, nah, there’s more to this story than that, and I decided to write a memoir with other events in my life tied into it.

AS: You were on the losing side of the Muncie-Milan game and the triple-overtime Kansas-Carolina NCAA title game of 1957. Never has losing been so interesting. Do these games still sting or are they more of a novelty for you now?

PR: Well, I couldn’t say that these games have a negative impact on me and I can’t say that they’re novelties either. They were events tied up in a string of other events. Those two games I remember vividly – they were losses, major losses – but I was just one guy with a bunch of other guys who won a lot in our lives but lost a lot too, so I wanted to rethink those games from that perspective.

We always focus on the big names, like Wilt Chamberlain, and what he did in that game, but the other guys on the team that you don’t hear about were probably more involved in the community and campus life. But you’ll only hear about the big name players and what they do on the court. The starting guard at Duke, do we really know anything else about him? Or the second string center at Louisiana Tech? So I wanted to tie in those events to other events that happened in my life.

AS: You seem to do a lot of purging in this book, and after all it is a memoir. Was writing this story a cathartic experience for you?

PR: No, I wouldn’t say this book is a catharsis. I look at this book as I would any form of creative non-fiction. I was a character in the book and we’re looking at that character’s life story and how he grew and developed during a period in his life. If he was a jerk, then I need to put that in there. If he overcame something great, then I put that in there without trying to be too humble. There is an interdiction at certain points, but that was calculated.

This isn’t a sports or a love story per se. And it’s not a racial conflict story. It’s about the tying together of different events that contributed to the growth and development of a person’s mind.

AS: It seems like your chain of troubles started with a neighborhood bully named Wayne Klepfer who just didn’t like the way you looked. Does your fight with him still incite the same rage that follows you throughout this book?

PR: No, I learned to deal with it, but it was hard to deal with it early on. Wayne was a really big kid who came up to me and punched me, and I punched him back and broke his nose, so I guess you could say I won the fight. But that summer, he and his brothers looked all over town for me.

I discovered something after that fight. You’re going to get into fights and you will get over them. Part of my character was that “zero-at-the-bone” kind of thing. When something touches you that strongly, at that “zero” level, it’s going to show up not just in fist fights but elsewhere, in other confrontations.

AS: Another central figure in the book is your old Muncie teammate, John Casterlow, a black man who would inspire your efforts to integrate the LSU campus. How was it that you and John had such a strong relationship?

PR: I think it all started with that Milan-Muncie game. We had been starters all year long and had won 23 out of 25 games together. But here we were, two of the best players on the team, in the state final game on the bench. We didn’t understand it.

And when John let me know that his mother had died, I felt a strong empathy for what was hurting him inside and I tried to help him through it.

AS: There’s one scene in the book when you’re at LSU and some fellow athletes thought you were gay because you were a jock who had penchant for creative expression.

PR: I hung out with poets and artists when I was in school. That really shook the jocks up. I guess I was a different breed of jock. But that kind of isolation made me think, Am I weird? Are there others like me? One of those guys came up to me and said, “Phil, pay no attention to those guys. They don’t understand a mind like yours.”

But I later found that there were jocks with other interests. One of them was into opera! So here I am worrying that I’m different and one of them is an opera buff.

AS: So I finish this book, and I’m thinking…this guy got punched in the face, lost two heartbreaking games, got busted with his friends for playing with a farmer’s pigs, wrecked his knees, got pegged for being gay, almost got his butt kicked for trying to desegregate LSU and got his girlfriend (now his wife) pregnant. Did the sun ever shine on you during this experience?

PR: I think the way I finished the book is how the sun came out. Throughout the whole book I was trying to understand something. I needed to understanding something. The book is not just events I lived through, but events that were tied together to bring about an understanding. What John Casterlow went through as a young man before he died, when he looked at Oscar Robertson after a game, looking in his eyes and making a connection without words, I could really see something there. And the connection with my wife, Juanita, looking at what she went through growing up and saying I understand that, I understand what she went through.

AS: Do you think the college students of today’s generation are as willing to challenge authority as those of your generation?

PR: No, I don’t think so. After my time at LSU I taught at Valparaiso and Kent State. I was at Kent State from 1966-69.

AS: When it all went down.

PR: Oh yeah. At that particular time you had an emergence of campus revolutions. What we started at Baton Rouge was a movement for academic freedoms, racial equality…at Kent State the women’s movement had begun, as well as the SDS, Students for Democratic Society. You had all these different movements vocalizing their objections to the system. Nowadays, most students think they should just get their college degree and get a job, and if you tell them to do any more they think you’re nuts. College becomes a standing off point, a place where you’re just passing through to get to the real world. Well, a college campus can be just as much a real world as the real world.

When I was in school our minds were more focused on social issues and students today just aren’t as vocal as they were in my time. I just don’t see that kind of diversity of interest.

AS: Are you touring with this book or doing any promotional appearances?

PR: I hope [to do a book tour], but I just found out that ESPN wants to do a timeline piece of the Milan-Muncie game. They were looking for video and pictures and I told them [about Outside Shooter] and they said, “Sure, we’d be interested in including that.” We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the basketball game so I’m looking forward to more things happening this spring.

AS: As a veteran of Indiana high school hoops, what do you think of the state’s recent change in their playoff system? Instead of one true state champion you now have a few divisional champions who play for titles among like-sized schools. Do you like the old way or the new way?

PR: I have a couple of thoughts on that. What the Milan-Muncie game did was show that the underdog can win, and that’s a healthy enterprise. If your team is imaginative and disciplined you can do that, you can transcend that view of the underdog. So the old system allowed for that kind of creativity to take place.

I think it’s impossible to get there now. Realistically I think there are very few small schools that are going to have a chance at beating the bigger teams. At this point I’m a little ambivalent on the matter. (Laughs) I’d have to be back in Indiana to see how I feel about it.

For more on Phil Raisor and Outside Shooter visit the University of Missouri Press.


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