INDIANAPOLIS — Not trying to be nosy, honest, but the guy next to me is talking kind of loud. We’re inside the gym at Southport High on Saturday, waiting for the most anticipated high school game of the regular season, and this guy is telling his buddy: “So this is what it feels like to be a fan. Haven’t done this in years.”
I turn my head. Hey, aren’t you …
“Chris Thomas,” he says, and now I’m shaking hands with the 2001 IndyStar Mr. Basketball from Pike, before he scored 2,195 points at Notre Dame. “I came here to see this game.”
It’s New Albany against North Central, No. 1 and No. 2 in the state. New Albany is the defending state champ. North Central has the leading candidate to win Mr. Basketball, UCLA-bound Kris Wilkes.
Oh, and there’s one more reason we are gathered here at Southport to witness the union of New Albany and North Central:
Southport has one of the biggest high school gyms in the country, a massive facility holding 7,124, and I’m wondering if it’s big enough for this circus.
All due respect to Wilkes and North Central, which might not lose a game this year, but Romeo Langford is the circus, the state’s best player since North Central’s Eric Gordon won Mr. Basketball in 2007, and one of the state’s biggest draws since Damon Bailey was Mr. Basketball at Bedford North Lawrence in 1990.
Langford has been the best player in the state, in any class, since he was a sophomore. He’s a junior now. He’ll be Mr. Basketball next year. These are facts.
It’s a circus everywhere he goes, and folks all over the country have tried to bring the circus to their gym. New Albany athletic director Don Unruh was telling me that the Bulldogs were invited to tournaments in Georgia and Ohio. Unruh doesn’t seem to know about the Christmas event in Florida, maybe because the New Albany coaching staff never told him. Because IHSAA teams can travel no farther than 600 miles for a game, New Albany coaches said to Florida what Unruh had said to Georgia and Ohio:
“We have loyal fans here,” Unruh says. “We want to have as many home games as possible.”
Before Langford showed up as a freshman averaging 17.6 ppg, New Albany averaged about 1,000 season tickets sold. This season? More like 2,700 season tickets. The facility holds 4,000 fans, and its first three home games sold out, sometimes days in advance. Unruh was saying the line to get inside starts forming 90 minutes before the junior varsity game.
“Everyone wants to play us,” Unruh was saying. “My phone rings non-stop. It gets pretty overwhelming. We could play four times a week if we wanted to.”
I take a stab at that math in my head, and tell Unruh: “You could have played 60 games this season?”
“Sounds about right,” he says.
So anyway, back to Saturday. This was a six-game event, with Castle playing Mount Vernon in the opener at noon. New Albany-North Central is set for 2 p.m., and by 1 the gym is half full. I leave the gym to find the event organizer, Scout.com national recruiting director Brian Snow, in a room down the hall. He’s telling me how big a draw New Albany was last year, and how excited he is to have the Bulldogs back this year.
So I ask: Does the gym have enough seats?
“Oh,” he says, “we’re not filling this place up.”
I head back to the gym. It’s filling up. It’s filling up fast.
Tip-off is still 45 minutes away.
This game, Romeo Langford and New Albany vs. Kris Wilkes and North Central, was supposed to be the last one of the night. But Fox Sports Indiana caught wind of it and asked Snow if they could televise it.
Sure, Snow said.
Would you move it, Snow was asked, to Bankers Life Fieldhouse?
No, he would not. Which was fine; If Romeo wouldn’t come to them, then they would come to Romeo. The teams agreed to move the game to 2 to accommodate TV. Chris Denari and Quinn Buckner called the game on Fox Sports Indiana. Maybe you saw it.
What you saw was a blowout. North Central is so big, so athletic, so deep, so scary. The Panthers blew out New Albany 84-60. Kris Wilkes scored 32 points, and he had plenty of help from Mateo Rivera, Emmanuel Little and D.J. Johnson.
Afterward, New Albany coach Jim Shannon was saying of North Central, “They might not lose all year.”
Romeo Langford? He had an off night. Wasn’t hitting shots like normal. Wasn’t exploding to the rim like normal. Then again, New Albany had played arch-rival Floyd Central on Friday night, literally 17 hours earlier, and then had to drive two hours north for this game.
And Romeo Langford still scored 30 points.
“He was the best player out there,” Shannon said. “The only reason it might not look like it is the supporting cast. When he gets to college and he’s surrounded by other great players, he’ll be even better than he is now. And he’s unbelievable now.”
He had some unbelievable moments Saturday. None was more ridiculous than the time he stood at least 35 feet from the basket – nearly standing on the huge block “S” at midcourt – and hoisted a jumper.
Chris Thomas, still sitting next to me, blurted out: “Damn!”
“Damn,” Thomas muttered.
Every year for five years, New Albany wrestling coach Eric Burres has gone to his boss, AD Don Unruh, and asked for a new mat. For five years, Unruh has had to tell him:
This year, when Burres asks for a new wrestling mat, Unruh will tell him:
Go get one.
Those 2,700 season tickets did that. So, Romeo did that.
“What’s happening this season will fund several other sports,” Unruh says. “And I mean, for years to come.”
Romeo makes money everywhere he goes. By tipoff of the New Albany game Saturday – five hours before the home team, Southport, was scheduled to play – the gym is full. People are standing around the concourse, leaning on the railing. Others are standing in the stairways at all four corners of the gym. At halftime I go find Brian Snow. Maybe I’m trying to gloat.
“Did you see …”
Snow interrupts me. He was wrong. As the event organizer, he’s thrilled about that.
“It’s more full than I’ve ever seen,” he says, smiling.
The kid behind it all, Romeo Langford, is unimpressed with himself or the spectacle that follows him.
“He’s so laid-back,” says his father, Tim Langford, “it’s crazy.”
Indeed, Romeo speaks so quietly I can barely hear him. It’s not loud after the game, outside the New Albany locker room, but after I ask him about the expectations to perform for all these people, I put my tape recorder an inch from his face. Standing an arm’s length away, I can’t hear him. But my tape recorder does.
“I guess it’s nice,” he said. “But I really don’t feel any pressure. I just play my game.”
Now come recruiting questions, and Romeo Langford shuts down. He doesn’t want to list schools. He’s seen the Indiana Hoosiers on TV, but that’s about all he’ll say. He’s not a rude kid, just quiet and private and so laid-back, it’s crazy.
The next game tips soon. It’s Cloverdale, featuring Butler recruit Cooper Neese, against Park Tudor. There are three more games after that, three more great games, and I leave Romeo and the crowd of reporters and walk back into the gym. The clock is ticking down. Five minutes to tip-off.
The place is barely one-fifth full.
The circus is over. Looks like everyone went home.