NEW ALBANY, Ind. – A 5-year-old boy in kindergarten here lost his mother to cancer last week.
He was greeted and consoled by family and community members during visitation at the funeral home Wednesday night, and he could not speak when his hero entered the room.
The boy stood and stared at Romeo Langford, the best high school shooting guard in the country. They spent time in silence together, a moment of light on an otherwise dark day.
Langford did not previously know the family or the boy. But he understood his significance in his community.
“I wanted to be there,” Langford said, “because if he looked up to me and he’s going through a hard time I can make his day better.”
Langford led New Albany (Ind.), a basketball program with decades of winning tradition, in almost every statistical category as a freshman. He guided the Bulldogs to a state title as a sophomore. He solidified himself as one of the nation’s best 2018 recruits as a junior, and is currently rated the No. 3 overall prospect in the class by 247Sports’ composite rankings.
The 6-foot-5, 190-pound star could have left and enrolled at a prep school to raise his national profile. As an honors student currently taking pre-calculus, he could have graduated early and jump-started his college career.
He’s New Albany, though. People here in this community situated along the Ohio River just miles north of Louisville have talked about his jump shot since he was in fifth grade. Everybody wondered for years what he could grow into and become on the basketball court. They’ve always known who he was away from it.
“Right now, he’s able to give back with his time and with his attitude,” New Albany High basketball coach Jim Shannon said. “At some point, maybe in the NBA, he might be able to give back in financial ways. It’s amazing how he touches people.”
Suzanne Ponder teaches English to 150 New Albany High juniors. “Think June 2018” is spelled on the bulletin board in her classroom, and she constantly reminds her students that college, the military or joining the workforce should motivate decisions made today.
“Or you can go to the NBA or any other top schools out there to play basketball,” Ponder said.
That’s for Langford, who is one of 33 students in fourth-period English. He says he prefers math because “With English or another subject you have to know the exact answer from memory. I like plugging in numbers and coming up with a different answer.”
Early in the semester, Ponder gave Langford a book about the high school career of Lebron James.
“He read it cover to cover,” she said.
After that, Langford came out of his shell. He began reading aloud to the class in accents of characters in selected stories, creating an engaging format to deliver literature to an overcrowded room buzzed from the recent lunch period.
This isn’t surprising because Langford is more than a Bulldogs basketball player. He’s a Bulldogs Scholar, a program for students committed to obtaining an academic honors diploma. Before his freshman year, he pledged to take honors and Advanced Placement classes, never get lower than a C-minus, have good attendance and exhibit good behavior.
“He comes in, sits down, does what he’s supposed to do,” Ponder said. “You would not know that he is being recruited by the best of the best.”
To that point, Ponder contends that Langford doesn’t turn heads when he walks the hallways. But Roy Williams did. The North Carolina basketball coach visited the high school three days after the Tar Heels won the national championship last month. And earlier this year, principal Michelle Ginkins bumped into Kentucky coach John Calipari during a fire drill.
“I guess most principals walk into their gym and that’s not who’s standing there,” Ginkins said.
Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Kansas coach Bill Self and assistants from Duke have visited. Shannon coordinates interactions at the school, and Tim Langford handles text messages and phone calls regarding his son’s basketball future.
The only thing about the recruiting process that bothers Romeo Langford is people constantly asking which school he’s going to pick.
“If I knew where I was going, you would know, too,” he said.
There is no timetable for his decision, but he easily describes what he’s looking for.
“The education aspect of it,” said Langford, who at one time wanted to major in engineering but is undecided. “If I do leave early, I want to be able to come back and finish school. And my relationship with the coach, if I can trust him, if my parents can trust him. If they’re going to treat me as one of their own.”
Previously, Tim Langford, who works for Humana, an insurance company based in Louisville, and Romeo practiced jump shots at the New Albany High School gym before 7 a.m. They don’t talk about basketball during morning phone conversations anymore.
“He asks me about my homework and if I did all of it,” Romeo Langford said. “My mom, she helps emphasize in a softer way what my dad has to say. They’re both the same, but my dad is louder than my mom.”
The specifics have faded about the last time Langford’s parents were mad at him. He was in middle school and what he did “was dumb, and mom wouldn’t let me hang out my friends after,” Langford said. Sabrina Langford, who works at Clark Memorial Hospital, doesn’t let her son buy violent video games, so he spends his free virtual reality time playing Madden (football) and NBA 2K (basketball).
There’s not much time for any other hobbies, Romeo Langford said. He wakes up every day at 6:15 a.m., school begins at 7:40 a.m. and he heads to Shannon’s office and then the gym after the final bell at 2:26 p.m. When the work is done, he catches a nap, completes his homework and returns to bed around 10:30 p.m.
The weekends are booked with AAU basketball events. He played in Atlanta and Dallas recently and this weekend he’ll be in Santa Barbara, California. He says he enjoys navigating through airports and likes being on airplanes. He sleeps through some flights and listens to music on others (he says he doesn’t have a favorite, but he has the most respect for Michael Jackson).
The AAU schedule, which he’ll continue through the summer, serves Langford on the court and off.
“I know I’m going to be able to see new places that I won’t normally be able to see,” he said. “… Now that I’m ranked as the best shooting guard, I don’t want people to show me up. I’ve got to live up to that. It’s a way that I can prove, because I’m playing against the guys ranked as high as me. If I’m doing good against them, then I’m obviously the best shooting guard.”
Gilkins laughed when asked if Langford had ever been sent to her office. Instead, she recalls astonishment when Langford appeared at a birthday party last year.
“You look up and it wasn’t Barney that showed up,” Gilkins said. “It was Romeo. He knew the family. He knew the kids. What sophomore in high school comes to a 6-year-old’s birthday party? Who does that?”
That happens frequently, according to Shannon, who is in his 19th year coaching the Bulldogs and 33rd overall. He first saw Langford dribble a basketball when he was in second grade.
“Every time I would see him he would count down the years until he would be coaching me,” Langford said. “It seemed like a long time when he was saying. Now I’m almost done playing for him.”
New Albany High basketball season-ticket sales grew to 2,700 last season and most games the 4,000-seat gym was filled to capacity, Shannon said. After every game, home, away, win or lose, Langford signed autographs and posed for pictures, sometimes for more than an hour.
When Langford dislocated his pinkie finger, fear spread through New Albany that he would miss the rest of the season. Gilkins’ 7-year-old son collapsed to the ground when she delivered the news. “I just died a little bit,” the little boy said.
Langford returned after missing only two games. If he plays in all 22 regular season games as a senior, he could break the Indiana state scoring record (held by Damon Bailey, with 3,134 points, since 1990). New Albany would need another deep run in the state playoffs and Langford would have to put up roughly 37 points a game.
That’s not something Langford is interested in talking about. Instead, he describes a feeling that winning the 2015 state title provided that he wants to recapture. It didn’t happen at the final buzzer or after a shot he made. It was the fan interaction in the days before games. It was people, some that he didn’t know, wishing him and his teammates the best.
The feeling he has is New Albany. This isn’t where he’s from. This is who he is.
“I can still remember it vividly,” he said. “Everybody was one. After we won, that just made it even better.”