Around here, they wear purple shirts with gold letters proclaiming, “We Got Blackmon.” There is no need, apparently, for further explanation.
A generation ago, James Blackmon ruled in Marion. His duels with Anderson’s Troy Lewis and New Castle’s Steve Alford — the latter edging him for IndyStar Mr. Basketball in 1983 — are legendary. People here still swear the high-flying, high-scoring Marion Giant was the better high school player.
Call them biased. Call them homers. But life was good when Marion had Blackmon.
Now they have him again. But in 2014, as James Blackmon Jr. rekindles the memories in the same No. 24 jersey his father wore at Marion, “We Got Blackmon” takes on a larger, more inclusive meaning than it did three decades ago. This time “we” includes the Indiana University fan base, which sees an immediate need — as in, today — for his outside shooting and explosive scoring ability.
“I don’t doubt that I could play there right now,” Blackmon Jr. said. “They need that type of guy. That’s one of the biggest things I looked at in recruiting: going where they needed you the most.”
Home again at Indiana
This could have been a very different story had Blackmon Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps and committed to Kentucky.
It nearly happened.
Blackmon Jr. was just a few weeks into his freshman year at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers in September 2010 when he accepted a scholarship from coach Tom Crean, who was going into his third season of a rebuilding job at Indiana. Three weeks later, Tech freshman Trey Lyles also committed to the Hoosiers.
Lyles backed off his commitment prior to his junior year at Tech. A year later, the 6-10 standout signed with Kentucky. It appeared Blackmon Jr. could be headed down a similar path when he dropped a bombshell in August that he was re-opening his recruitment.
Despite proclamations publicly from the Blackmons — and privately to Crean — that he would still consider Indiana, it was widely assumed he was headed elsewhere, likely to Kentucky. Some fans even accused him of orchestrating the first commitment for good publicity.
But Crean told the Blackmons he understood the need for the family to visit other schools for a point of reference.
“He could have closed the door on us,” said Sailaja Blackmon, James Jr.’s mother. “We told James that was a risk he was taking. But give coach Crean credit — he continued to recruit him and James never ruled out Indiana.”
The night before he announced his commitment on ESPN, Blackmon Jr. had it narrowed to two schools: Indiana and Kentucky. It was 31 years earlier that his father had met with Indiana coach Bob Knight about signing with the Hoosiers. It was too late; Blackmon Sr. already had his mind made up on Kentucky.
His son, though, couldn’t shake the feeling that Indiana felt like home.
“The night before (the announcement), I still didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “But early the next day, I knew. I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
Locking up a major recruit like the 6-3 Blackmon, ranked No. 23 in the country in the 2014 class by Rivals.com and a McDonald’s All American, represented a major victory for Crean and his staff. It was also important from the standpoint of keeping in-state talent at home, after 2012 Mr. Basketball Gary Harris (Michigan State) and 2013 Mr. Basketball Zak Irvin (Michigan) signed with Big Ten Conference rivals.
“We really wanted him to be here, and we were willing to be in the fight,” Crean said when Blackmon Jr. signed. “We were willing to be in the fight, and that’s what it was because everybody else wanted him, too. He’s an outstanding player.
“But it helped the relationship continue to not only grow but to cement. It gave him a different perspective, and I think it made him, or helped him I should say, appreciate Indiana that much more and appreciate what it means to play in the state of Indiana because he is a young man from Indiana.”
Return to Marion
If there’s one man qualified to compare the similarities of James Blackmon Sr. and his oldest son, it’s Jim Brunner.
For more than 40 years, Brunner has been the radio voice of the Marion High School Giants. But as Brunner has watched Blackmon Jr. this season, it’s not his father that he sees.
“Senior was more like Dr. J in high school,” Brunner said, referring to Hall of Famer Julius Erving. “He would manufacture points with a steal and an exciting dunk and that sort of thing. He was a prolific scorer.
“But Junior, he’s more like (former Marion and Indiana star) Jay Edwards. If you asked before this year the best shooter ever at Marion, I’d say Jay Edwards. Now, it’s at least up for discussion.”
In Blackmon Jr.’s first game at Marion, he broke his dad’s single-game record with 54 points in a 102-42 win over Irvington. Earlier in the season, he surpassed Blackmon Sr.’s 1,897 career points. The moment passed without much chatter from son to father.
“He didn’t rub it in,” Blackmon Sr. said. “But I didn’t rub it in that I scored 52 against Anderson and he had 40.”
Blackmon Sr. actually burned Anderson for 50 points twice as a senior. He put up 50 in a regular-season game at Marion, then went for 52 in a memorable 89-87 double-overtime loss to Anderson in the state semifinals.
“I remember saying, ‘If Blackmon gets 50 on us again, there’s no way we win,’ ” said former Anderson coach Norm Held. “Then he got 52. But Troy Lewis had a heck of a game and somehow we won. Blackmon was a game-breaker. He was one of the best.”
Sailaja Blackmon has heard all of these stories before — multiple times. She grew up 380 miles away from Marion, in Pikeville, Ky., a pretty fair tennis player in high school. When the Blackmons came back to Marion the first time (the family later moved to Fort Wayne, after James Jr.’s third-grade year at Lakeview Christian School), Sailaja caught up quickly on Marion basketball history and her husband’s legacy.
“When James (Jr.) was about eight or nine, I’d go in the doctor’s lounge in Marion and hear all of the stories,” said Sailaja, who now works as a gynecologist in Fort Wayne. “I couldn’t believe they could remember the scores and all of the details of exactly what happened in these games. I never saw my husband play in high school, but it seems like I did.”
After coaching the junior varsity team at Marion for three years, Blackmon Sr. led Fort Wayne Bishop Luers to Class 2A state championships in 2008 and ’09. He coached Deshaun Thomas, the state’s third all-time scorer (3,018 points), during that era.
In May 2011, after Blackmon Jr.’s freshman year at Luers, it appeared the family was headed back to Marion. He initially accepted the job, then decided to stay put at Luers after talking it over further with his family.
When the opportunity came up again, two years later, the Blackmons felt the time was right.
“Coming back to Marion was a great opportunity,” Blackmon Jr. said. “The fans appreciate great basketball and it’s a lot of fun for me to play in an environment like this. It’s turned out to be a great decision.”
Marion folks can hang on to those “We Got Blackmon” T-shirts for at least a few more years.
James’ younger brother Vijay is a starting sophomore guard who has a scholarship offer from Indiana and plenty of Division I interest. Youngest brother Jalen, a fifth grader, is already blazing his own trail.
“I’ve never seen a fifth grader like him in terms of working out,” Blackmon Jr. said. “He’s at it every day, making 1,000 shots sometimes. He’s ahead of where we were in terms of ballhandling and shooting.”
Blackmon Jr. exudes a quiet confidence on the court, a trait that translates to his relationship with his younger brothers. They aren’t afraid to criticize one another, Sailaja said, but it often comes in the context of deeper discussions about basketball.
“Sometimes we have to separate them at night or they’ll sit there and talk forever,” Sailaja said. “The part as a mother I love to see is the respect they have for each other. They are all in it for each other. They want each other to do well.”
It hasn’t all been roses for Blackmon Jr. in high school. During a game against Tech late in his sophomore season, he landed awkwardly on his left knee. A trip to the doctor the following day confirmed a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Not only was his season over, but Blackmon Jr. missed the spring and summer as he recovered. He often showed up to games that summer still on crutches, an experience he said made him appreciate basketball even more.
“I’m probably most proud of him for how he handled that,” Sailaja Blackmon said. “I look back and remember thinking, ‘He’s a great kid becoming a great young man.’ He took some adversity and didn’t let it get him down. It made him stronger.”
Despite dealing with some unrelated discomfort to his left knee this season, Blackmon Jr. hasn’t skipped a beat. Going into this week’s four games, he was averaging 35.4 points while shooting 56 percent from the field and 46 percent from the 3-point line. He started the week with 2,211 career points to rank No. 15 all time and within realistic range of finishing in the top six or seven, depending on how far Marion can advance in the tournament.
He’s done it despite operating as the focal point of every opposing defense. In a hotly contested North Central Conference game on Jan. 31 at Richmond — a 57-53 loss — Blackmon Jr. was shadowed everywhere he went. He still scored 22 points, but it wasn’t enough.
“We wanted to get the ball out of his hands and limit him from getting his usual 38 or 40 points,” Richmond guard Joel Okafor said. “You have to make sure he’s taking really, really hard shots. But he even makes those sometimes.”
Blackmon Jr. is locked in a race for Mr. Basketball that will probably come down to Lyles, Park Tudor’s Trevon Bluiett and himself. It invokes memories of 1983, when Alford edged Blackmon Sr. for the award.
But Blackmon Jr., at least outwardly, isn’t dwelling on Mr. Basketball. Coaches and media vote for the honor, which ultimately leaves it out of his control. Of more pressing interest is leading Marion to its first state championship since 2000, when Zach Randolph led the Giants to the Class 4A title.
“That’s really the main thing I want to do,” Blackmon Jr. said. “The individual awards mean a lot, but to win a state championship would mean even more to me. And it would definitely mean a lot for Marion. This town would love it.”
Marion already loves Blackmon. They have the T-shirts to prove it.