Former Stars, Indiana University standout scored a record 3,134 points in high school and won 108 games in college
The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame had a spot reserved for Damon Bailey.
When the Class of 2016 was announced, Bailey’s name was first on the list to take his expected place alongside the state greats. The only thing keeping the Indiana basketball superstar and the state’s career scoring leader out was the mandatory 26-year waiting period between high school graduation and induction.
Bailey, the 1990 Mr. Basketball, is only the ninth player in Hall of Fame history to be elected in their first year of eligibility. That short list includes household names and heroes in Indiana lore: Steve Alford, Kent Benson, Larry Bird, Dave Colescott, Kyle Macy, George McGinnis, Rick Mount and Oscar Robertson.
“It’s not a surprise,” said former Bedford North Lawrence coach Dan Bush, a Hall of Fame honoree in 2000. “It’s an honor he earned. The biggest surprise would be if he wasn’t there.”
No Hall of Fame would be complete without Bailey, who scored a record 3,134 points and captivated the entire state – and even attracted national attention in the days before social media – during his career.
Before he played his first high school game, he was singled out in John Feinstein’s book A Season on the Brink, which chronicled a year with the Hoosiers and quoted IU coach Bob Knight’s assertion Bailey was ready to start as a junior-high player. He was named the best freshman in the nation by Sports Illustrated.
The constant barrage of media demands was intense. During the height of the hype, fans drove from across the Midwest to watch the Stars, and he was in such high demand that many offered to exchange IU tickets for BNL tickets.
While no officials records are kept, it’s estimated Bailey played before over 600,000 fans during his 110-game, four-year career. Most BNL road games during his junior and senior seasons were moved from the home court of the opponent to neutral sites with larger arenas. BNL played regular-season games at Market Square Arena, Hinkle Fieldhouse and Assembly Hall. He led the Stars to the 1990 state title before a world-record crowd of 41,046 in the Hoosier Dome.
He was a Hoosier legend before he could vote.
“I had no idea it would be as big as it was,” Bush said. “But to go through it, and handle it the way he did, the way the other players did, the way his family handled it, it’s amazing. There’s not many instances where that all could have happened. He was a joy to be around. Players of his caliber could be a little hard to handle, but he was never a problem. Not one time.”
His final place of honor among the elite was inevitable. Bailey might be the best ever, in terms of his high school impact and total body of work. That can be debated, but only a few are comparable. Two of his peers – Robertson and Bird – were his role models. Now he will stand beside them.
“To join an exclusive club, with those two guys in particular, is definitely an honor,” Bailey said. “Growing up, I tried to pattern my game after the way Larry played. He was someone that played the game the right way. He played with a tremendous amount of effort, he was very unselfish, he worked hard, he was able to get the most out of his ability.”
Bailey was the National Player of the Year and was named the High School Player of the Decade by USA Today.
His legacy is more than numbers, points or awards. He wants to be remembered for something simple.
“If there is one word I hope people remember me as a player, it’s a winner,” Bailey said. “It really didn’t matter what it was, whatever level I was playing, I did whatever I was asked to do to help our team win. Sometimes it was trying to score more points, sometimes it was getting the basketball to somebody else.
“For me, it was always about the outcome, always about winning. It wasn’t about how many points you scored or how flashy you looked. It was just about winning. If you win games, the individual recognition will come. If it’s deserved, you’ll get it if you win games. That needs to be the ultimate goal.”
BNL went 99-11, with three trips to the Final Four, during his four years. That carried on to Indiana University, where he graduated having won more games (108, including 11 NCAA tournament games) than any player in IU history.
“He was a winner,” Bush said. “He was more concerned with winning than anything. If he felt he needed to shoot more, he did that. But he knew he couldn’t do it by himself, so he made the extra effort to get people involved. He was all about winning.”
After a brief professional career, Bailey has remained involved in basketball. He coached at his alma mater (where the court is named in his honor) and guided the BNL girls to the 2014 Class 4-A state championship. He’s now an assistant coach with the Butler women’s program.
High school basketball fans have not forgotten the name.
“Any time you receive a prestigious honor, that you had a career that merits this type of recognition, it’s really kind of mind boggling,” Bailey said. “I never played the game to get this type of award. It makes you proud that you can sit back and know all the time and effort you put forth has been recognized.
“Any time you receive these types of honors, you definitely have to share them with teammates, with coaches, with parents. A lot of people had a hand in helping me become the best player I could become.”