CARMEL, Ind. – In a class of high schoolers playing basketball, nobody stands out much from the others. Nobody is allowed to run or dribble and only a select few can shoot, so it’s hard to make the flashy plays we’ve become accustomed to in the modern version of the sport. They’re playing under the original Naismith rules.
There are a couple Indiana Pacers T-shirts, some athletic gear and a green Boston Celtics jersey. They’re learning about basketball and Hoosier Hysteria history during University High School’s “January Term,” when regular classes are replaced by a hands-on, deep-dive into one topic.
The kid near half-court in the No. 9 Rajon Rondo threads has the blood of Indiana basketball royalty, but you wouldn’t know it by watching him play now.
Since fifth grade, soccer has been Jacob Alford’s game. But that doesn’t change much for him off the court.
Basketball is still his family’s claim to fame in this state and beyond — but especially here, and especially in New Castle. His grandfather, Sam Alford, took the Trojans to the final four in 1984. His uncle, Steve Alford, was IndyStar’s Mr. Basketball that year and went on to be an IU legend. Now he coaches at UCLA.
It’s the kind of history that his friends’ parents ask about when they pick him up to hang out with their kids. And the kind of history that makes the teacher of this particularly Indiana class swoon.
“It’s a little weird,” Jacob said with a laugh. “Because when I see Steve, it’s just my uncle. It’s just Steve. Grandpa is just Sam.”
That kind of anonymity doesn’t exist much anywhere else for Sam. Jacob says it doesn’t matter if it’s a restaurant or a store. It could be in Indiana or Iowa, where Steve coached the Hawkeyes, or a barbecue joint in Alabama.
“You could be anywhere in America,” Jacob said. “It’s impossible to go anywhere that he doesn’t know somebody.”
Sam downplayed his fame with a humble laugh. “I don’t know about that. I’ve just made a lot of friends around the state.”
Sam was a standout athlete at Washington High, then went to Franklin College where he played basketball, baseball, cross-country and, for good measure, tennis. He amassed a 452-245 record as an Indiana high school basketball coach, including that semistate title in 1983.
During his 20 years at New Castle, he coached his sons Sean — Jacob’s dad — and Steve. The latter led Indiana University to the 1987 national title and later started his coaching career at Manchester University in northern Indiana. He won a gold medal while at IU and played a few NBA seasons in between. (The Pacers were booed for selecting Reggie Miller instead of Alford 11th in 1987 draft.)
While Steve was building a legacy in Indiana, Jamie Owens was watching from Brown County High.
Owens, a photography teacher at University, is one of two teachers — along with girls basketball coach Justin Blanding — behind this basketball master class. He shoots IU games for a popular Hoosiers site in his free time. He’s been obsessed with IndyStar Mr. Basketball winners and single class basketball since, well, he can’t really pin it down.
But it probably has something to do with a little regret surrounding his own basketball carer. Coaches told him he wouldn’t get any playing time as a senior in 1992, so he became a manager for Brown County.
A year later he was at Ball State, enjoying pick-up games, and struggling to figure out why he gave up playing.
“That kind of bothered me,” he said. “I’ve always just loved high school sports.”
As for his love for basketball, Owens has distinct memories of going to high school games, then listening to IU games — when Steve was scoring 22 points per game for the Hoosiers — on the radio while driving home. That’s why he wanted to start this class when it came time to submit January-term pitches.
Before he gave up on playing, Owens idolized Steve’s basketball prowess. So the fact that he landed at University where two Alford boys went to school still blows him away.
And that one of them helped get Sam Alford on the line?
“That’s probably the coolest person I have in my phone,” Jamie said. “I mean, people that I idolize, I don’t know what I expected, but, Sam was nice.
“He would call me, he was checking on us.”
Sam offered to set up boxed lunches from a fried chicken restaurant where — of course — he knew someone. And he bought bottled waters for the University class when they came to New Castle for a tour of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
Last year, Sam wrapped up a two-year term as president of the Hall of Fame in his city. He’s still on the board of directors for the hall where, no joke, a pair of pants worn by his wife are part of the memorabilia on display.
He loves sharing Indiana high school hoops with anyone who will listen. So when Owens asked for his time and a tour of the hall, he was happy to help.
“Everyone grew up in class basketball,” Sam said, “so it’s a chance to show them what it was before, in the early days of basketball. The great days, the glory days — whatever you want to call them.”
Those glory days helped birth a generation of basketball junkies like Owens, who is now passing it on to his students. They play NBA 2K during class when they’re done playing under the original rules of basketball.
They’ve debated the best of all time — Owens swears it’s Michael Jordan, not LeBron James, though some of his students favor Stephen Curry. They’ve visited Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Pacers), Assembly Hall (IU), Worthen Arena (Ball State), the historic Hoosier Gym (Knightstown) and Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler).
It’s a class Sam Alford only wishes he could have taken in high school, if he wasn’t busy making history himself.
“I would love to have had a class like that,” he said. “I hope they took away a new perspective of how basketball used to be, of the way it grew up.”