A Weekend Meant for Hoosiers

On typical weekends, Indiana people amuse themselves pretty much as other Americans do. They barbecue. They rent video cassettes. They go fishing. They visit in-laws. They watch TV shows about drugs and sex, like "The PTL Club." And, they watch basketball. Lots and lots of basketball.

Hoosiers love their hoops. They love basketball the way Texans love football, the way Hawaiians love swimming, the way Kentuckians love horse racing, and the way North and South Dakotans love, uh, something. In Indiana, basketball is a way of life. It's only in the other 49 states that people think driveways are meant to be used for parking cars.

Let it be clear, then, that in the weekend to come, a weekend so full of excitement that it will even include Monday, anyone who has friends or loved ones in the state of Indiana should not--repeat, should not--at any time during a 72-hour period make any attempt to contact these people, as they will have no time whatever to waste on chit-chat.

On Saturday, as some in other states already are aware, Coach Bob Knight and his Indiana University basketball team, led by All-American guard and All-American boy Steve Alford, will be playing top-ranked Nevada Las Vegas in a semifinal game as part of the NCAA tournament's Final Four festivities at the Superdome in New Orleans.

On this same day, a college team from Providence, which is a city located in a state that is the same approximate size as the Superdome, will play Syracuse for the right to reach the national championship game--possibly against Indiana.

One of the stars of the Providence team is Delray Brooks, one of the greatest high school players in Indiana basketball's storied history, a kid so good that after Knight successfully recruited him, he started needling Alford with taunts such as: "When Delray Brooks gets here next year, you'll never play . . . no one will ever hear from you again." Knight even included Brooks as one of two high schoolers invited to the 1984 U.S. Olympic team tryouts.

But Brooks never did become a standout player at Indiana, and eventually transferred, switching to Providence. Now, Brooks might help another school beat Indiana for the national championship.

While all this is going on, back home in Indiana there is a full day of basketball scheduled Saturday at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. The state high school tournament, a tradition so revered that it inspired the current hit movie "Hoosiers," has come down to its own final four teams, and the championship will be settled with two games in the daytime and the big one that night.

One of the four teams left, Marion, is trying to become only the second school to win the state title three years in a row. But a lot of eyes are going to be on Marion's opponent in Saturday's matinee, Bedford-North Lawrence, because this team is led by a freshman, the most famous 15-year-old schoolboy to come along in a long time, even more famous than Delray Brooks ever was. His name is Damon Bailey.

Bailey is the kid prominently featured in John Feinstein's best-selling book "A Season on the Brink," the story of a year spent with Knight and the Indiana team. In the book, Knight raves about the kid and takes his assistants to go see him. "Damon Bailey is better than any guard we have right now," Knight tells them. "I don't mean potentially better. I mean better today."

Bailey was in eighth grade at the time.

The boy became the subject of a lot of sarcastic humor around the IU gym: "Damon this" and "Damon that." Whenever somebody made a good play, somebody else cracked that it was almost as good as something Damon could do. An assistant made jokes out of imaginary headlines: "Damon Signs With Indiana, Will Choose High School Later." Stuff like that.

Because of attention generated by the book, Damon Bailey, a high school freshman, no longer can do anything unnoticed. He has been contacted by more than 50 universities and by at least as many reporters. He is on the cover of the current issue of Indianapolis magazine. A friend of the family already is starting to put together a deal with a publisher for Bailey's biography. He is being sold as "the next Larry Bird."

Damon Bailey is a 6-foot 2-inch guard who plays all over the court and has some of the court vision and instincts as Bird. On his team in junior high, he averaged 22 rebounds a game. He bears a certain resemblance to Alford, sort of a corn fed, floppysocked, freckled look right out of Central Casting for the "Hoosiers" movie.

It is not as though Feinstein's book "discovered" him. After all, Knight's presence at Bailey's games would have been noted regardless, and scouting services are so thorough these days, great eighth graders are rarely anonymous. Asked last week about his first impressions of freshman sensation J.R. Reid at high school games, North Carolina Coach Dean Smith responded that he had had Reid as an eighth grader at one of his camps.

The book, however--some Hoosiers these days are referring to it as The Book--made Bailey somewhat famous. He is in demand. His father, Wendell, a maintenance supervisor at a hospital, has fired off "no comments" in every direction while switching to an unlisted phone number. Damon, in one interview, said: "Playing ball is all I want to think about and all I do think about. I try not to let it go to my head."

Attendance at Bedford-North Lawrence's games, meanwhile, skyrocketed after the book was released. Season ticket sales rose from 600 to 1,800. And since the boy has three years remaining, the school is expected to reap at least $100,000 in extra profits during that time from the large crowds that will attend Bailey's games, home and away.

Bailey was so good so early that when he was in first grade, a coach tried to promote him to the sixth-graders' squad. He eventually had to wait until third grade to do that. To improve himself, Damon runs four miles and lifts weights every morning before school, practices constantly, and yet remains an A and B student. He is extremely quick and has a vertical leap that one coach measured at 39 inches. Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls can go 44 inches.

Of his most celebrated admirer, Bailey says: "Coach Knight, I think he's a good coach. I think I can put up with how he runs his program. Every coach has a system, and that's just how he does things. He gets the maximum effort out of everybody. I just think he's one of the best in the country."

Knight will try to prove as much in the days to come. If he goes all the way, he will have won three national championships in 11 years. And he will have done it without the likes of a Lew Alcindor or a Bill Walton, the super-centers who helped the great John Wooden win so many championships at UCLA.

Wooden, who comes from Indiana himself, recently saw the movie "Hoosiers" and liked it quite a lot.

By Monday, he and many others from that state could be watching the conclusion of one of the wildest weekends of Indiana basketball ever. A whole lot of Hoosiers who can't make it to New Orleans will be glued to the TV.

If they change the channel at some point Monday night, they might even see Dennis Hopper being named best supporting actor. He can tell you as well as anyone: It's a good time to be a Hoosier in America.

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