As Plumlees roll on, small hometown wonders what could have been

lkeeley@newsobserver.comMarch 30, 2013 

— Inside the Tiger Den, the gym at Warsaw Community High, the school’s – and the town’s – most prized achievements are painted on the floor: state champions ’76, ’78, ’84.

There are about 2,100 students who attend Warsaw High, but the Tiger Den holds more than three times that many. More than half the population of Warsaw, basketball-crazy even by Indiana standards, could fit inside.

Rick Fox, who played under Dean Smith at North Carolina and won three championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, graduated from Warsaw High. So did two winners of the prestigious Indiana Mr. Basketball award. But the most notable basketball family in Warsaw history left in the midst of their prep careers, leaving the town to wonder what might have been.

Miles, Mason and Marshall Plumlee developed and flourished after they left Warsaw and went to boarding school in Arden, N.C. In 2006, Miles, a junior, and Mason, a freshman, were reserves on the first Warsaw team to finish below .500 since 1988.

“There is sort of a general feeling up here of, ‘Why would anybody leave Indiana?’ ” said Garry Donna, a dean of Indiana prep basketball and the publisher of Hoosier Basketball Magazine. “It’s the No. 1 basketball hotbed in the country, so people here think.”

For the Plumlees to reach their potential, leaving was the only way.

Decision to leave splits town

Warsaw High sits to the north of about 30 miles of cornfields and occasional silos that line two-lane State Road 15. A recent elementary school city championship drew about 1,500 people and was broadcast on the radio. In 2008, when the school board called a special session to discuss the fate of high school basketball coach Doug Ogle, around 200 people came, and 45 spoke for four hours about Ogle and the state of Tigers basketball.

“Warsaw is a very rapid basketball community, and they’re with you win or tie,” Donna said. “And there are no ties in basketball.”

In 2006, Warsaw wasn’t winning, and the Plumlees weren’t playing.

“I didn’t even play five minutes a game,” Miles said. “That’s what I mean by we didn’t get to play, we didn’t get to play.”

Miles and his father, Perky, readily admit he was a late bloomer. Miles is a 6-foot-11, 255-pound NBA center now, but as a high school freshman he was just 5-10. He played on the freshman team and then JV as a sophomore. As a junior, he had sprouted to 6-7, started to grow into his body and spent most of his time on the varsity bench.

Mason, a 6-7 freshman, was also a reserve.

“Warsaw hadn’t had good players in a while,” Mason said earlier this season. “I had a dunk there in a game, I think it was the first dunk in 15 years. It was like I was walking on water.”

Perky wanted more playing time for his sons. Ogle thought differently.

“I just think Perky felt they should have been playing more, their roles should have been more than what I saw at the time,” he said. “So, there was that tension.”

The agitation in the town reached a boiling point when the local paper, the Times-Union, published a column titled, “What’s wrong with Tiger Basketball?” at the end of the season. Dale Hubler, the sports editor, wrote about the decline of the program and questioned why the Plumlees weren’t playing more. He also wrote that they were spending their spring break in North Carolina, looking at a prep school.

“I just found it really weird that, hey, (former Illinois coach) Bruce Weber is calling Perky about these guys, and other coaches, but the high school coach, for some reason, didn’t see the talent,” Hubler said.

The reaction to the article came swiftly, most of it negative. Warsaw is a conservative community, and residents didn’t appreciate the paper publicly questioning Ogle. And they couldn’t understand why the Plumlees would leave.

“There’s no question that we were roundly criticized for it. Probably the first year or so was the roughest, and most of the criticism was levied at me,” said Perky, who added that people looked at him differently and avoided him after his sons left.

“You hear everything. They’re bad kids, they’re not coachable, the dad thinks they’re better than they are, just a lot of things like that were stated by people. And then once they’re stated, they get repeated and repeated enough to the point where people think they’re actually true.”

Plumlees win big in N.C.

The truth was the Miles needed to reclassify, or repeat a grade, to give himself more time to develop. That, and transfers for athletic purposes, weren’t allowed under Indiana rules. So the family had to look elsewhere, and considered postgraduate prep school. But Perky had a friend from college that had a son at a boarding school, so he called him to learn more.

Knox Fuqua, Perky’s friend, raved about Christ School. Perky called David Gaines, the Christ School coach. The spring break visit and subsequent applications were the final step in the process to leave Warsaw.

“The boys weren’t star players here,” said Perky, who still lives in Warsaw. “So, at the time, we were kind of surprised in some respects that it did provoke as much reaction because it wasn’t like they were the star players leaving the program. They were reserve players that didn’t play much.”

Gaines describes his buddies, as he calls the Plumlees, like this: Miles is the most athletic. Mason is the best all-around player with the best basketball sense. And Marshall, who came to Christ School a year after his brothers to start ninth grade, doesn’t have their natural talent but is the most positive one and worked to make himself a McDonald’s All-American.

Miles didn’t start immediately at Christ School, but he did by the end of the season, which brought the first of five state championships while the Plumlees were in school.

“The former coach up there made a comment about how they don’t showcase kids there in their program up there in Indiana,” Gaines said. “We don’t showcase kids, either. None of the three of them ever averaged more than 14 points a game.”

Ogle admits that he’s surprised Miles developed into a first-round NBA pick.

“I don’t think there would be too many people who would have projected Miles to do what he did,” Ogle said. “Mason, you could tell, was going to be really good, big time. But Miles was a late bloomer.”

‘Could they have been like Zellers?’

While the Plumlees were winning state championships in North Carolina, Ogle faced public scrutiny about the way he handled his Warsaw program. The school board meeting was like the scene out of Hoosiers, Hubler said, when the town gathered at the barber shop to discuss whether the coach stays or goes. In Warsaw, other kids had transferred, and the Tigers still weren’t winning as much as people wanted.

“Each year, they think they’re going to win a state championship,” Mason said. “That was the same year there was Greg Oden and Mike Conley at Lawrence North. Part of the thing was that Warsaw would never play the city schools. We would stay in the corn. We would never go to Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, any of that. So, I had to get out of there.”

Warsaw did reach the state final in 2010 with Nic Moore, a point guard who excelled at Illinois State before transferring to SMU.

“The combination of having this guard that we had, with Marshall, mainly, would have been powerful,” Ogle said. “You always wonder if they would have stayed. Could they have been like the Zellers? But it’s for speculation.”

After Duke won the 2010 national championship in Indianapolis, Miles and Mason came back to Warsaw for an autograph session. Ogle ran into Perky last November at McDonald’s, and the two talked for the first time since the boys left. Ogle says he’s happy for them and wishes them well. Others still wonder what might have been.

“I can’t go anywhere personally without hearing, ‘Oh man, did you see the Duke game last night? Did you see what Mason did, can you believe Miles got drafted in the first round?’” said Hubler, the sports editor who is also a Warsaw native. “I mean, they left seven years ago. But it’s still very much a topic in town.

“Three kids that play for Duke got away from my hometown. That is mind-blowing to me.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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