NEW ALBANY, Ind. – With 2:22 remaining in Friday night’s blowout victory, New Albany coach Jim Shannon subbed out senior star Romeo Langford for the final time in the school’s gymnasium.
A sold-out crowd predictably erupted, just as they had pretty much all evening – during two different pregame ceremonies for Langford, during starting lineup introductions and for each of Langford’s 10 baskets.
Competitively, there wasn’t much suspense for New Albany in Friday’s 80-52 victory over Bedford North Lawrence. In their home finale, Langford and senior teammate Sean East combined for 55 points. Of those, a career-high 30 points were scored by East, who took advantage of BNL focusing on Langford to knock down eight 3-pointers.
Langford, in turn, scored a relatively quiet 25 points, his lowest total in the past 12 games.
But senior night at New Albany didn’t feel like it was for Langford as much as it was for New Albany itself. Seldom would you see so much civic pride in a teenager and high school student, but that’s what has happened in this town over the past four years.
“He’s kind of revived the spirit of basketball here,” said Celia Gregory, who in the third quarter began waiting in line with her daughter Emiline for Langford’s autograph after the game. “Basketball has always been a big deal, but it’s just been a really fun experience for the last four years.”
Gregory said she was a cheerleader in the 1990s when Chad Hunter “was a big deal.”
“But I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she added.
Indeed, Hunter is second all-time in New Albany’s history with 1,463 career points. Langford has 2,805.
That ranks fourth in Indiana high school basketball history. The state’s all-time leader, Damon Bailey (3,134 points), was in New Albany’s gym Friday night as an assistant coach for BNL, for which his son plays.
You see, Langford has stayed – when he didn’t have to do it.
He has routinely stayed after each game to sign autographs for an adoring public, doing so again Friday night.
“It is important,” Langford said. “I know these kids look up to me.”
Langford also stayed at New Albany High School for four seasons, sticking with a regular high school program when so many players of his five-star caliber have chosen the intensified competition of prep school basketball as preparation for the college level.
“It was well worth having to worry about it since seventh grade,” Shannon said. “In seventh grade, all I heard about was, ‘Well, he’s not coming to your school.’ In eighth grade, ‘Nah, I don’t think he’s going to New Albany.’ Every day. And then he came, and it was like, ‘Well, he’s not staying.’ Sophomore year, a great year, win the state: ‘Well, he won the state. He’s going to leave.’
“I mean, every year. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened. It very well could have. People were trying. I can assure you of that.”
As with other seniors, Langford’s parents joined him on the court during lengthy pregame ceremonies before the game. His father Tim Langford summarized the evening as “a lot of emotion” and then joined his son at a table set up for autographs in the hallway outside of New Albany’s locker room.
“Indiana basketball is the top of the class,” Tim Langford said. “And then New Albany fans, the whole state and the whole city, it’s an honor, just being here, and the fans appreciate him.”
Asked about his family opting against prep school, Mr. Langford replied that, “I’ve seen his growth. He didn’t stay at the same level as far as his play.”
“I think they enjoyed it here,” he said. “This is a special place. They had a great following. It’s not like we don’t practice. I mean, we practice. We work on skills. He got better being here. We worked him. I think they appreciated that. … You can go to a prep school and play in front of 300 people if you want to. You’re playing with some great athletes, but you ain’t playing in front of this every night: Standing ovations, crowds following you. It’s crazy.”
Nearly an hour after the gymnasium had started emptying out Friday night, the line for Langford’s autographs was still very much crazy. It snaked through the hallway, with hundreds of fans lined up with kids and photo requests.
At one point, Langford smiled for a picture was 9-month-old Joseph, whose father Nick Atkins said his wife’s family has had season tickets to New Albany games for 30 years.
“To be able to see a superstar like Romeo come through,” Atkins said, “it’s been pretty awesome. … These kids, they’re seeing a legend right here in the state of Indiana. For him to take time out for those kids, that’s going to make an impact on their lives.”