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THE STAR OF THE STARS : In Indiana, Where Basketball Is King, Damon Bailey, 17, Is the Heir Apparent

<i> St. Petersburg Times </i>

Traffic snakes around the courthouse square. An old Buick, a muddied-up Ford pickup, a new yellow school bus, and a police car with a smiling cop. This is the heart of Indiana, in the heart of America. A Norman Rockwell canvas come to life. Pharmacy, dry goods store, five-and-dime. Nice people live here, and bring up their polite, well-scrubbed children.

“Go Stars!” flashes a sign in front of a real estate office.

“Go Damon!” says another, at a gas station in this town so renowned for limestone. And for a kid basketball hero named Damon Bailey.

On the surface, life hasn’t changed much since the ‘50s for Bedford and its 18,000 citizens. You wonder, how many years has that corner grocery store, before a big basketball game, scrawled, “Beat Floyd Central!” across its plate-glass window?

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Bedford’s heartbeat, however, is three miles up a two-lane road from the courthouse. There, you come upon a rare bit of modern architecture--Bedford North Lawrence High School--sitting handsomely atop a hill. And then you hear it, thump-thump-thump. The town’s pulse. A sound from the gym, of a bouncing basketball pounding beneath a famous teen-aged hand.

Meet master Bailey.

Indiana high school basketball is huge stuff. Since the late 1920s, when John Wooden was a boy wonder over in Martinsville, the games and the kids have meant so much to the Hoosier outback, and to such places as Bedford, Marion, New Castle, French Lick, Anderson, Elkhart, Lebanon, Milan and Floyds Knobs.

Schools here aren’t classified by enrollment. If the smallest are to win a state basketball championship, they must whip the biggest. That’s how it happened more than a generation ago for an Indiana mighty mouse by the name of Milan, the story that was turned into the movie, “Hoosiers.”

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In 1989, Indiana has 30 high school arenas seating 5,000-plus. The largest holds almost 10,000. The game has boomed beyond what the world saw, and loved, in “Hoosiers,” the 1986 film starring Gene Hackman as coach of a small, backwoods school that beat all odds, and all the big-city bombers, to win the state title.

“I loved ‘Hoosiers,’ but times aren’t quite like that anymore,” said the 17-year-old Bailey, the hottest current name in Indiana high school basketball. “There are still barn-like gyms around, but we’ve not played in any. Our crowds are bigger, and louder, than a lot of colleges get.”

Bedford North Lawrence’s gym seats 6,300, and it is sold out for the season.

“Every game is an experience,” said Coach Bob Knight of Indiana University, whose Bloomington campus is 25 minutes to the northeast. “Damon Bailey is reason enough, but high school basketball in our state is something everybody should absorb at least once.”

Bailey is not the best high school player in the United States, but he may well rank No. 1 in recognition. Three years ago, in “A Season on the Brink,” a best-selling book about the controversial Knight and his extraordinarily successful program, there was a chapter about the Hoosier coach driving to Bedford to see Bailey play. Damon was in the eighth grade.

A baby folk hero was born.

Knight, a perfectionist not easily awed, found himself star-struck by the 14-year-old. Bailey handled the ball expertly, passed like a pro, and could leap so well at 6-feet-1 that he dunked. Knight called him “a potential Jerry West,” and any comparison to one of basketball’s greatest guards was a lock to make newspaper and magazine headlines and broadcast reports from here to Guam.

“I was honored to be in the book, and to have Coach Knight talking so nice about me,” Bailey said, dangling his legs from a locker-room table after practice. “But I’ve tried to never let things go to my head. Let’s see how I’m playing at age 20, or 25, before jumping to too many conclusions.”

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Few ever doubted that Bailey would wind up playing for Knight. In one of the earliest commitments on record, the baby-faced Bailey, at the December outset of his junior season, announced plans to attend Indiana.

“Damon plays basketball with high intelligence,” Knight has said. “He has great vision, plays good defense, and has tremendous abilities to jump, rebound and pass. He shoots well, but he’s going to get better. In high school, because Damon, at 6-3, is as big as anybody on his team, he winds up playing mostly inside. He’s up against kids 6-6 and 6-8. They bang Bailey around pretty good, but he keeps going and going.”

No one is saying Bailey is as talented as Oscar Robertson, a Hall of Famer whose name became magic in the 1950s at Indianapolis Crispus Attucks High. Nobody is claiming that Bailey can shoot like the Rick Mount of the 1960s, a 35-point scorer at Lebanon High School before becoming an All-American at Purdue. Or that Bailey is going to be as dominating as Larry Bird, who blossomed 15 years ago in the resort village of French Lick.

“I try my best to be like Bird,” Bailey said, shaking his head. “I never saw Oscar Robertson, so I don’t know how he played. But I do get to see Bird. Right now, I’m not one-third what he is. And, it’d help if I could grow six more inches, and be 6-9 like Larry. But what I can definitely do is become a better three-point shooter, hopefully like Bird, in case I have to play outside at Indiana University.”

He will, of course, play outside for Knight. Most likely as a point guard, running the Hoosier offense of the early 1990s. He can’t wait.

“I think Mr. Knight is the best coach there is,” said Bailey, who has a 3.7 grade-point average. “Coach Knight turns a lot of kids pro. That’s where I want to go, to the NBA. That’s my dream. You give Bob Knight four years and he’ll make you a far better player, and a far better man. What more can a teen-age player ask?”

You see purity, and style, and bushels of common sense in this teen-age colossus.

In his first game as a freshman at Bedford North Lawrence High, he scored 20 points. Bailey averaged 23.5 that ninth-grade term, and the Stars had a 23-4 record. As a freshman, he was named all-state.

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Bailey the sophomore improved his scoring to 31.1, and the Stars went 26-2. Both times, he led the school, an enormous underdog, to the Indiana Final Four, which plays to a crowd of 18,000 at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.

With opponents double- and triple-teaming Bailey, the powerfully built junior is averaging about 25 points this year. And BNL was 14-1 going into the big game at Floyd Central.

“Damon’s appeal is unique,” said Danny Bush, 39, a former Indiana State University star who has coached at Bedford North Lawrence since he was 23. “It’s due to the . . . book, and a lot of other factors.

“Bailey has a knack for doing heroic things. People love him. When our squad didn’t appear to have the talent to be competitive, Damon led us to the state semifinals as a freshman and also a sophomore. Going to the Final Four in Indiana is big, big, big stuff.

“So, the legend was growing.”

When Bailey was a ninth-grader, the Stars won rather easily in a road game against old rival Floyd Central, a school situated about an hour down Indiana 37, in a place called Floyds Knobs.

“In the final minutes, I took Damon out,” Bush said. “He drank some water and then sat the paper cup on a table. A woman leaned from the stands, tapped me on the back and asked, ‘Can I have that cup? And would you have him autograph it?’ Now that’s a little too much.”

Bailey doesn’t actually live in Bedford. He’s from nearby Heltonville, a burg whose population, according to the fabled young man, “is 150 . . . no, make that 200.”

Because Bailey is so locally famous, people take pains to learn the location of his house.

“One day, a bunch of girls from another town stopped by,” Bush said. “They scooped up chunks of grass from Damon’s yard. I guess they considered it some sort of trophy.”

Heltonville used to have its own high school. Bailey’s dad, Wendell, starred in basketball there. His mother was a cheerleader. One of Wendell Bailey’s friendly high school rivals was Danny Bush,, who played a few miles away at Dolitic, another little town noted for its limestone. Fifteen years ago, Heltonville and Dolitic and five other Lawrence County schools were consolidated into one, Bedford North Lawrence, which has an enrollment of 1,700.

Before going to BNL, Damon played for the Shawswick Junior High Farmers. Honest, they’re called the Farmers. And why not, in this area of silos, cornfields, barns and basketball.

The moment Bailey reached the ninth grade, he was the big man on Bedford North Lawrence’s campus. Having learned so much from a basketball-playing father, Damon quickly excelled. “My dad should get much of the credit for whatever good I do as a player,” Damon said, oozing with family pride.

Year after year, day after day, Wendell Bailey would get home from work and join Damon at the hoop behind their house, working with an ever-eager son on shooting, ballhandling and the deepest sort of Indiana basketball fundamentals.

“When I was 5, my dad got me into the Biddy League at the Bedford Boys Club,” he said. “You were supposed to be 7, but Dad did a good selling job. By the time I was 9 or 10, I was much farther advanced than most boys. I could outsmart them all over the court. Only now, in high school, are the other guys catching up. Now, if I want to win, I’ve got to flat outplay them.”

Everywhere Bailey goes in the rolling southern Indiana hill country, he is recognized and even idolized.

“The attention is something you enjoy,” he said. “But it can get old. The one thing people in Bedford won’t allow me to be is an ordinary 17-year-old. I can’t go out with my girlfriend for a hamburger without people gathering all around us.

“Me and Tracy (Ikerd, his girlfriend), we’d like to go where other kids go, but we really can’t. Brent Byrer (BNL’s second-leading scorer at 17 points a game) and I get together with our girlfriends, we go to one of our houses and play games. At least we can get some peace.”

As time neared for the trip to Floyd Central, Bailey went into his usual game-day shell.

“I’ve learned not to be nervous, but I do work hard on my concentration,” he said. “In the hours before we play, I like being alone. All day in school, I don’t talk much. When the 3:05 tone finally sounds, I’ll go down to the gym, where Coach Bush will have sandwiches for us. I’ll stay quiet, even on the bus ride down Highway 37.”

Floyd Central’s gym is smaller than BNL’s, with a 4,200 capacity. Every seat was filled 90 minutes before tipoff. There were a couple of scalpers outside, pushing $3 tickets for up to $20.

How big is Indiana prep basketball? Well, a local cable operator offered the BNL-Floyd Central game on pay TV. Three hundred households bought it at $10 each, which is more than signed up in the area for the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight championship fight.

Floyd Central’s gym was soon busting at the walls, with hundreds milling in the lobby in case somebody gave up a seat.

Adults in the crowd seem to know their favorite team as though the players were all relatives. They also are knowledgeable about the visiting squad. People here live the game, and they often identify prospects as early as elementary school. But for BNL, this would be the second-smallest crowd the Stars had played before all season. With Damon Bailey’s name to hang on the marquee, BNL played Bloomington South at Market Square Arena before a crowd of 8,000.

The Stars’ game against Carmel High was moved to Hinkle Field House at Butler University, where the state finals used to be played, and where “Hoosiers” was filmed. Ten thousand spectators showed up to see Bailey and supporting cast.

But, on that night at Floyd Central, Bailey was but a co-star.

“Pat! Pat! Pat!” chanted green-clad backers of the home team.

Pat Graham, a 6-5 senior, is a quintessential Indiana jump shooter who averages 31 points. He and Bailey are rivals but also pals. Graham also has already signed to play at IU, and two years from now he and Bailey could be Knight’s backcourt.

In Indiana, the most cherished of high school awards is to be named “Mr. Basketball.” It’s a virtual Hoosier Heisman, and goes each season to the senior voted as best in the state. Graham is a major candidate, along with Rick Mount’s son, Rich, who like dad is a Lebanon ace. Next season, Bailey will go in as the odds-on favorite.

Graham scored 31 against BNL, and his school held off a rally by the Stars, winning, 67-65. When it ended, Damon and Pat walked off the court with arms around one another’s shoulders. The competition had been rich, and entertaining, but also clean. Even if the Highlanders, with zealous defense, had twice knocked Bailey to the floor and also popped him in the nose. Bailey also twisted an ankle, but he played on and on.

Bailey, operating mostly at center against four taller Floyd Central players, scored 21. Twice he stole the ball and dunked.

Bailey plays a total game, and the total floor. He can’t shoot with Graham, but Bailey had 13 rebounds, made majestic passes, and all but coached his teammates on the court. He still jumps like a kangaroo, and you see the fruits of all those hours he spent with his dad at their back-yard hoop, and of all the BNL afternoons under the obviously adept coaching of Bush.

Knight is yet to come.

“It’s a year away, but I’m ready,” Bailey said, dressed in a typical off-court teen uniform of jeans, sweat shirt and denim jacket. “I know Coach Knight yells a lot, and is demanding of his players. I saw him get on Steve Alford a lot. And, I know he’ll be after me. But it’ll be for my own good, and I will listen and learn.”

Can this kid be real?

“Basketball is king around here,” said Jim Russell, who covers high school sports for the Indianapolis News. “And we love our heroes. Damon Bailey is a statewide folk hero. Next to Oscar Robertson, probably the biggest high school sports name ever.”

In May, they’re to break ground in New Castle for a $2.2-million Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame. Fancy, computerized exhibits will be used to tell the “Hoosiers” story, from the movie to long-standing reality. Robotic figures of NBA star Robertson and UCLA coaching whiz Wooden will be there to greet visitors.

And, before long, there surely will be a nook for Damon Bailey.


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