How an Indiana freshman phenom is taking his whole town for a joyride

Photo: Corey Ohlenkamp, The Star Press

How an Indiana freshman phenom is taking his whole town for a joyride

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How an Indiana freshman phenom is taking his whole town for a joyride

HARTFORD CITY, Ind. – So, the kid.

He’s sitting in the coaches’ office at Blackford High School, sitting there with bangs on his face and ice on his knees. This is where I find him a few minutes after the ninth game of his high school career, a game that has drawn a crowd of roughly 2,000 from a town of 5,900. Something special is happening with Blackford basketball in Hartford City, a team and a town where for so long special had been missing, and it centers on the kid with the bangs, the ice.

His ninth high school game, he’s almost apologizing for it.

“I missed a lot of shots I should make,” is what he says.

“I’m glad we won, but I can play better,” is what he says.

His name is Luke Brown. He has just scored 35 points and handed out 11 assists. He is a high school freshman.

Here in Hartford City, something special is happening.

The Crowd

“Are you here to see the kid?”

It’s the guy sitting next to me. Looks 50, maybe 55 years old. We’re 15 rows above the Blackford bench. I nod.

“You’re in for a treat,” he says, and I get his name: Larry Henderson, a 1979 Blackford graduate.

The Class 3A Bruins are playing Class 2A Madison-Grant, which seems to have come to this gym 20 miles north of Muncie on State Road 3 with one goal: Shut down Luke Brown. Do the Argylls want to win? I’m sure they do, but it appears they’re more concerned with limiting the 5-11 Brown. According to MaxPreps.com, the kid is fourth in the state in scoring — in all classes — at 28.8 ppg, and is coming off a 48-point scoring binge five days earlier against Monroe Central.

EARLIER: 83-year-old coach and freshman phenom rejuvenating Indiana hoops team

MORE FROM INDIANA: Humble superstar Romeo Langford remains calm in the storm

The game is nearly five minutes old, and Luke Brown hasn’t taken a shot. Madison-Grant is throwing a box-and-one defense at him, but occasionally it’s a triangle-and-two, and the two freewheeling defenders are both covering Brown. Ever seen that before? Me neither. With unnatural vision and skill, Brown is creating for teammates and Blackford is leading 13-2.

Henderson leans into me and says: “He’s gonna get you, one way or the other. You don’t let him shoot, he’ll have 20 assists.”

Now Brown is dribbling in transition and pulling up 25 feet from the basket.

“There it goes … Boom!” Henderson bellows.

Brown taps his chest and points to the sky. Later he’ll tell me it’s because he admires Steph Curry and agrees with his favorite player that the glory should go to God, but for now I’m noticing something else: Brown lands on his heels when he runs back on defense, and he barely bends his knees. It looks like he’s running on stilts.

“He’s either hurt,” I’m telling Henderson, “or he runs funny.”

Around us, Blackford fans are listening. One of them is Steve Strahm, sitting next to Henderson.

“He has Osgood-Schlatter disease,” Strahm tells me, and Luke Brown’s father later confirms that his son does indeed have the common but temporary issue for growing young athletes, where the quadriceps pulls tightly on the kneecap and gets inflamed.

“I think he’s growing too fast,” Strahm says, and he’s about to start roaring. “A few weeks ago they introduced him at 5-9. Tonight they called him 5-11!”

“He has to ice his legs after games,” Strahm continues, and he knows this because the town knows this, because the town recognizes something special is happening here in Hartford City.

Rumors started to spread this summer, when Brown appeared at Blackford High’s open gym for pickup games. Brown isn’t from around here, had lived his whole life in Brownsburg — for years he attended Bethesda Christian School, and was planning to play for Plainfield High — but for reasons I’ll explain soon he enrolled at Blackford. This summer, the new kid from Brownsburg showed up for pickup games. Word spread through this town of 5,900.

“My kid’s on the JV,” says another parent sitting nearby, Holly Dunica, talking about her son Rydge. “He came home (this summer) and said: ‘This new kid is something. He’s fun to watch.’ And the junior high kids, it was like they all wanted (Luke’s) autograph.”

Meanwhile, on the court below us, Brown has the ball. The stilts come off when he has the ball.

“You’d never know he’s hurt when he …” Henderson is saying, but he pauses because Brown has the ball in transition. Brown loses his Madison-Grant defender by dribbling between his legs with his right hand and immediately going behind the back with his left. Now he’s rising and …

Boom!”

The coach

Blackford was looking for a coach. The team won a single game last year, snapping a 61-game losing streak that dated to 2014, and was 1-78 in its last 79 games. The school has been shrinking, as has interest among the kids, and the 49-year-old gym needed a facelift the athletic department couldn’t afford.

Jerry Hoover was looking for a team. Who’s Jerry Hoover? An 83-year-old man. Played at Purdue in the 1950s, tried his hand at farming, then got into coaching. Won a 1978 sectional at Ben Davis and has coached at eight high schools. Hadn’t coached in three years, not since leading the Logansport girls to semistate in 2014. Had interviewed all over the place since then. Couldn’t get a job.

Hoover called Blackford AD Tony Uggen last spring, gave his credentials, got an interview. He drove to Hartford City and laid out his plan, what Hoover calls “a package deal.” Hire me, Jerry Hoover was telling Uggen, and you’re also getting my son as an assistant (Don Hoover, who played at Morehead State) and his son as a player (J.D. Hoover, a 6-5 rising senior).

And Jerry Hoover told the Blackford AD about the rest of the package: a distant relative. A fifth-cousin. A skinny little eighth-grader from Brownsburg named Luke Brown. Hire me, Jerry Hoover was saying, and Luke Brown’s family will move to Hartford City.

What Jerry Hoover was saying, it sounded almost too good to be true. That’s what Tony Uggen is telling me before Blackford’s game against Madison-Grant. But he believed Hoover. He hired him.

Nine games later, the Blackford High athletic department is making money. Hartford City has always supported its basketball team, but all that losing had hurt attendance. Now, with the Bruins winning their first three games and reaching 8-1 after beating Madison-Grant, and with that high-scoring freshman drawing his share of gawkers, attendance has doubled. And the crowds get bigger by the game. Word is spreading.

Uggen tells me what he will do with the extra money: He’s going to replace the old banners that hang in the gym and tell the story of Blackford’s proud, if dormant, tradition. He’s also going to replace the four wooden backboards on the side of the court, folded up on game nights, with glass backboards. This is news to a man standing nearby.

“We’re getting glass?” the guy asks.

Uggen nods.

“It’s going to cost $4,000,” he says. “We can finally afford it.”

What’s happening here is special, and it’s not just the kid. It’s Jerry Hoover, who came to Blackford at its lowest point and could soon lead it to its highest. The Bruins have never won a regional, but anything seems possible now. Jerry Hoover has a four-year contract, the terms coinciding with Luke Brown’s eligibility, and the contract calls for his son Don to replace him. You know … if.

“I’m going to coach until I croak,” Jerry Hoover says, and he seems to be in great shape as he builds up Blackford basketball from the lowest levels. Back in August he spent lunch every day at local elementary and junior high schools, eating with the kids, drumming up interest. He organized evening meetings with youth coaches.

Hoover, whose D-One Basketball Camp enrollment has grown from 80 to more than 3,500 kids all over the Midwest in 30 years, set up a free local camp with his son Don in June. He also urged Blackford youth coaches to get their kids to his longer D-One team camps, held for three days at the University of St. Francis. Camp costs $260 per kid, lodging included. Blackford kids got in free.

In years past, coaches at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels were asked to limit their school roster to 12. After Hoover spent the summer raising interest, he insisted that rosters be expanded to 20. Uniforms were an issue: too old, too few.

“A week later,” says Brian Bade, eighth-grade coach at Blackford Junior High, “a sealed box arrived with 35 brand new uniforms supplied by the Hoovers. The sales slip was well over a thousand dollars.”

The town

Whatever is happening here, it’s bigger than basketball.

For years Hartford City was a farm town, founded in the 1830s atop all that limestone in what became known as the Trenton Gas Field. The Indiana gas boom of the late 19th century brought railroads and natural gas-using businesses to Hartford City, and the town rode that momentum into the 1960s.

But the wells gave out long ago, and soon farms were giving way to automation and consolidation, and Hartford City started to shrink. From a high of 8,207 according to the 1970 U.S. Census, population is down 25 percent at an estimated 5,920.

Bade, the eighth-grade coach and a 2001 Blackford graduate, went to Ball State and then IU’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. He returned to Hartford City to join his father, longtime judge Bruce Bade, in the Bade & Bade law firm on Main Street. Back in the day, back when Blackford had more than 1,000 students, Bruce Bade and Bill Morris were the radio voices of the Bruins baseball team.

Blackford High is down to 558 students. Brian Bade has seen the exodus, the slow drip that has diminished the school, and the town.

“They were leaving because they couldn’t stand the thought of their kids going through the misery of the high school program when (their kid) had so much potential,” Bade says. “When our best and brightest were leaving, the Hoovers and Browns said: ‘Hey, Blackford is good enough for us.’

“As a lifelong resident, I’ve watched my closest friends get good educations and leave town for great jobs and never look back,” Bade says. “Hartford is an easy place to leave and a tough place to stay. I can’t say how grateful I am that (the Hoover and Brown families) were willing to make that jump, because it’s turned around the spirit of the community.”

Something special, I tell you. It’s happening in Hartford City.

The kid

It’s not just Luke Brown. Let’s not put it all on one kid, which wouldn’t be fair to him or to the rest of a Blackford program that has gone from 1-78 from 2014-17 to 8-1 this season.

For example, J.D. Hoover. He’s new to the area too, but at the junior high team camp this summer he was attending all the games and learning all the kids’ names and cheering them on. When a player in middle school hit a rough personal patch a while back, it was J.D. who took him to lunch and was just … there. For the kid. Oh, and he’s averaging 19.1 points and 10.7 rebounds.

Blackford also is getting 9.9 points from sophomore Brandon Stroble, 6.8 rebounds from senior Tyler Cagle, and 3.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg and 1.1 assists from junior Mark White.

But, the kid.

College coaches in Indiana are aware of Luke Brown, of course. Purdue has had him on campus for an unofficial visit, and others are starting to gather film. There are plenty of highlight videos on the Internet, some of Brown scoring and calling him Steve Nash 2.0, but the video that brought me to Hartford City — the exact play that brought me here — showed Brown throwing a pass I’ve never seen in all my years writing about college and NBA basketball.

And he threw it in seventh grade:

The video shows Brown dribbling under his own basket and then threading a 75-foot underhanded bounce pass through traffic to a teammate for a layup. Oh, by all means, read that sentence again. And watch the video we embedded in the story. From memory, I can tell you the pass happens at the 26-second mark.

When I remind Brown of that pass, and ask him if he’s heard of a former LSU and NBA showman named Pete Maravich, he’s smiling.

“I’ve watched his instructional videos,” Brown says, and understand: This kid could be cocky. But he’s not, he’s just hungry.

“The gymnasium is his happy place,” says his mom, Amy Brown, a nurse at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital.

Luke was doing advanced things at an early age, Luke and his sister Avery both, things like catching balls thrown to them almost before they could walk. Avery, a second-team all-state volleyball pick last season at Brownsburg, is a 5-11 freshman outside hitter at Ball State. As for Luke, he was riding a skateboard at age 2½. And you’re right, that doesn’t sound possible.

“But he was,” Amy’s saying.

By age 9 Luke’s happiest spot was the basketball court at the Brownsburg Community Center, where he’d go with a Bethesda Christian grandpa named Jim Ridenour. Seeing something in the kid at Bethesda, Ridenour offered to take Luke to the gym to shoot. Whenever he wanted.

Amy is telling me that, and she’s laughing.

“It became two, three times a day,” she says.

Luke’s dad, Ted Brown, is telling me about a notebook he found in his car the other day, a notebook he knew nothing about. Turns out, Luke had been tracking his shots every day, every workout, in a binder. Luke’s goal, alone in a gym with Grandpa Ridenour, is making 84 of 100 shots behind the 3-point arc. He made 92 of 100 once. Luke left the binder in his dad’s car. Ted found it. Wasn’t surprised.

“He goes into the garage for ball-handling drills,” says Ted, CEO of orthopedic supply company Lantz Medical, “and he comes back dripping with sweat.”

The night I’m there, Luke Brown dribbles through traps and presses and triple-teams. He throws no-look passes and 70-foot baseball passes and barely-has-the-ball touch passes. He throws one pass I didn’t see, just heard 2,000 people gasp as I’m stupidly writing something on my notepad. As 5-10 Blackford junior Andrew Beckley is turning whatever Luke Brown just threw into a layup, I look at Steve Strahm, one of the Blackford fans I’ve been chatting with. He doesn’t tell me what I missed. He just smiles.

The night I’m there, the night he’s saying he didn’t shoot it so good, Luke Brown was 11-for-22 from the floor, 5-for-9 on 3-pointers.

Nine games into his high school career, he has been defended by a box-and-one, a triangle-and-two, full-court man-to-man and even by a team that doubled him every time he crossed the midcourt stripe. Nine games into his career he has 264 points and I’m asking him if he knows how many Damon Bailey scored at Bedford North Lawrence — 3,134, the state record for boys — and Luke Brown is saying no. He’s saying: “I don’t think about that.” He’s saying: “I just want to win the school’s first regional.”

Doctors say he will grow to 6-2 or 6-3. For now, Luke Brown is a 5-11, 140-pound freshman playing in pain and averaging 29.3 ppg and 7.0 assists and icing his knees and swallowing Ibuprofen. He is fourth in the state in scoring, he is playing for an 83-year-old coach who has turned a 1-78 loser into an 8-1 winner, and he is being cheered by a town that, after some harsh decades, now has a reason to believe.

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