UCLA Coach Steve Alford has roots, and rooms, back home in Indiana
Every now and then, a call comes in to a hotel in Indiana with an unusual request.
“Can I talk to Steve?”
The manager, April Barricks, wouldn’t know what to say. Eventually, she asked the owner.
People keep asking for Steve Alford, Barricks told him. What do I do?
“Well,” the owner, Kenny Cox, said, “tell them he’s back there cleaning some rooms right now. When he’s done, we’ll see if he can call you back.”
These things tend to happen when you own the Steve Alford All-American Inn, as Cox does. Apparently some people expect Alford to be rattling around the joint, doing some dusting, maybe, or laundering towels.
Never mind that Alford is the coach of the UCLA basketball team and hasn’t lived in New Castle, his hometown, in decades.
Among residents here, where the hotel marquee spells out “GO BRUINS” — and where, unlike many in Los Angeles, most of the town’s UCLA converts get the Pac-12 Networks — “it would be hard not to find 100% backing,” Cox said. Sometimes, the people just want to talk to the man.
That doesn’t mean everyone’s been happy with their stay. Several signs don’t exactly portend a pleasant night’s sleep.
The hotel’s website looks as though it hasn’t been updated in years. Trip Advisor gives it a solid 3.5 stars, but a few reviews conjure images of cockroaches and vibrating beds.
(A sampling: “A step below Motel 6,” “I mean, ‘what’s that funky smell?’” and “Steve Alford should be ashamed.”)
Upon being told of the reviews, Alford laughed.
“I hadn’t read any of those,” he said
Really, the hotel is just fine. There is no detectable odor — Glenda, the head housekeeper, who leaves handwritten notes along with a basket of free snacks, keeps the place clean. The bed is comfortable enough. A modern room costs $60. Alford need not be ashamed.
“It’s not a five-star Ritz,” said Dave Skoglund, a guest from Cleveland. “But it’s not supposed to be.”
The worst (or, if it suits, best) a guest has to deal with is the sensation that, wherever one goes, Alford is watching.
Cox circulates around the hotel, pointing out the highlights. Step out of the room there, and you’ll be met with Alford’s gaze in a photo affixed to the wall.
There, Cox says, pointing, is the life-size cutout of Alford that hangs in the lobby, among a mess of other curios. There’s nowhere to hide in the rest of the lobby, which is stuffed with photos and other bric-a-brac.
Cox motions to the rim, hanging above the front desk. That’s the same one Alford shot on as a kid. Next to it, near the ceiling, is a fully-stocked row of lockers, near an old electronic scoreboard. An adjacent wall is dedicated to jerseys and banners, and, toward the entrance, is a lineup card from the Olympics.
The building has two floors, each with a single long hallway. Cox walks the halls and notes, on the first floor, the Bryce Alford UCLA jersey on the wall. A Kory Alford Bruins jersey also earns a display. Cox says no one seems to mind all the UCLA love. There aren’t many USC fans in Indiana, and, after all, John Wooden was a native Hoosier.
Cox’s last stop is outside, next to the cornfield, where sits what has become a roadside icon: a giant, 200-pound UCLA sneaker. Cox starts toward the door, then mentions in passing, oh, there’s the Big Ten MVP Trophy, behind the front desk, among some papers.
“I forget it’s back there sometimes,” Barricks says.
Barricks said they get an occasional guest who is not a fan of basketball and who is ignorant of Alford’s role in it. For these travelers, the rooms, at least, offer sanctuary. The basketball theme stops at the corridor. That, admits Cox, would’ve been too much.
It’s likely something that can only happen in Indiana. Even so, there is no John Wooden Hotel. In North Carolina, there is no Michael Jordan Inn, and though many do stay at Krzyzewskiville, it isn’t an actual hotel.
“Whether it’s good or bad,” Cox says, “I think this is the only basketball-themed hotel in the world.”
He ponders this for a moment.
“Larry Bird had a hotel in Terre Haute,” he says. But that’s since closed down.
Opening a hotel entirely dedicated to a man who played high school basketball in the early 1980s takes some guts and a sense of humor. Cox was born and raised in New Castle and was a friend and high school teammate of Alford.
Alford later went on to star as a two-time All-America guard at Indiana under Bob Knight, helping the Hoosiers win the 1987 national championship. He also played in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (also for Knight) and, later, for four seasons in the NBA.
After he retired from playing, Alford got his first coaching jobs at Division III Manchester and Southwest Missouri State. He brought along Cox as an assistant.
Eventually, Cox returned to take over his father-in-law’s construction and real estate company, but Alford left him with a request: If Cox ever found any venture that could keep Alford connected to the New Castle community, he’d be interested.
How about a hotel? Cox eventually asked.
Alford said yes, with one requirement.
“I don’t know anything about the hotel business,” Alford said. “I just know that it’s Indiana.”
Translation: “I just wanted to make sure there were two goals in the parking lot,” Alford said.
Originally, Cox was going to name it the Henry County Motor Lodge. But then, he thought, with the hoops and all, why not just name it after Alford? People around here are just crazy enough for basketball to make it work.
Alford agreed to lend his name and some gear. He says he doesn’t have a financial stake in the place or receive any royalties.
The hotel opened in November 1997, and Cox deems it a success, on account of it’s still around today. He’s not sure it would be had it been named something else. It just seems to fit in New Castle.
Even by Indiana’s standards, New Castle is a particularly basketball-crazy town. Down the road from the hotel, the high school fieldhouse, where Alford played and later proposed to his wife, Tanya, seats 9,325 people.
A banner proclaims it “the largest and finest high school fieldhouse in the world,” and that would be hard to argue, with its parquet flooring and large banners promoting individual players.
Next to the high school is the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, where, among thousands of other artifacts, is a warm, soft-focused portrait of Alford coaching some youngsters. (In the background is another giant portrait of Alford’s face, in case you missed the point.)
As Chris May, the hall of fame’s director, puts it, “We’re weird for basketball in Indiana.”
It’s also a little weird staying at a hotel named in your honor, which Alford used to do more often, when he could return for local events or clinics. Guests would recognize him, Alford said. It’s hard not to.
During one stay, Alford, Cox and some former players were in town for a charity outing. They stayed up late one night playing cards and getting rowdy. There was a knock on the door.
“I’ve been getting a lot of complaints that it’s pretty loud,” a woman from the front desk said.
“And I wanted to say, ‘Well hey, the guy whose name is on the billboard is in here playing cards,’” Cox said.
But the men quieted down.
People need sleep at a hotel, after all. So nighttime means quiet time at the Steve Alford All-American Inn. Even if you happen to be Steve Alford.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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