INDIANAPOLIS – Football was an option. Oh, you bet it was. He was a tailback, and not the kind that gets the ball and runs away from people. No, the kind that ran over people. If you’ve seen him play basketball, you understand. He’s physical, and more than that he’s fearless, which is why we’re talking about football in the past tense.
Because he wasn’t afraid of basketball.
Wasn’t afraid of the whispers, the taunts, the shadow that follows him around the state. Around the country, even. There was the time in Virginia when …
Well, we’ll get to Virginia. Plenty of time left in this story. He’s still in high school, just a rising junior, carving out a path for himself in a sport synonymous in Indiana with his last name. Because his father was that good, that famous.
Guts? This kid has guts. He chose basketball, and then he went a step farther. He chose No. 22.
Same number worn at IU by Damon Bailey.
* * *
Four courts at Ben Davis High, a game on each one. Scores of the best underclassmen in Indiana are playing Monday in the 16th annual IBCA/IHSAA Top 100 Showcase, and I’m asking someone at the ticket table for help. See, I’ve never seen this kid before, never even seen his picture, but his name is Brayton Bailey and probably you’ve heard of his father and …
“He’s on Court 4,” the guy at the ticket table says. “You’ll recognize him.”
Same brownish-blonde hair. Same earnest face, like you’d see walking off a farm in Lawrence County. He’s a slightly smaller version of his father, slender, more angular. His shoulders are not as broad, his chest not as thick, but he’s just 17. Brayton Bailey isn’t finished growing, becoming whatever he will become.
But he’s good, very good, right now. All-Hoosiers Hills Conference as a freshman at Bedford North Lawrence, and again as a sophomore. Had a double-double in his first high school game, 12 points and 10 rebounds, and averaged 12 ppg that year. This past season he averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists as a sophomore. Smaller schools like Indiana Wesleyan are on him hardest, but Valparaiso is watching. Western Kentucky. Miami of Ohio. And he’s still filling out, this 6-0, 145-pound freshman now closer to 6-2, 180, working toward his father’s 6-3, 201-pound frame.
Damon Bailey scored 3,134 points at Bedford North Lawrence, most in state history, and as a senior won IndyStar Mr. Basketball and led the Stars to the 1990 state title game. A national high school record crowd of 41,046 filled the Hoosier Dome for his last high school game, and he scored 30 points, including his team’s final 11, rallying Bedford North Lawrence past Concord 63-60.
He scored 1,741 points at IU, eighth all-time, played on Bob Knight’s 1992 Final Four team and averaged 19.4 ppg as a senior. Knight, who started recruiting Bailey in eighth grade and famously called him “better than any guard we have right now,” introduced him at IU’s Senior Day like this:
“Think for a second how hard it might be to be an 18-year-old kid named Damon Bailey,” Knight said. “Was he a combination of Jack Armstrong, Superman, King Kong, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird? Was he a little of all of those things?”
“My dad wore it,” Brayton says of No. 22, “and I wanted to be like him ever since I was little.”
“I love basketball, and it’s a challenge,” he says. “I know people expect me to be like my dad, and I’m not my dad, I’m my own person. I think it’s a good challenge, and I like challenges. A last-second shot, I’m the one that wants to take it.”
Well, true. Earlier this season North Lawrence was playing No. 4 Floyd Central. The game went to overtime, where Floyd Central won, but in the final seconds of regulation it was Brayton Bailey who drove into the lane and pivoted for room and didn’t find any but scored anyway to force overtime. It was some kind of game, the kind they’re used to seeing on Damon Bailey Court.
* * *
This is what Brayton Bailey does: He makes the right play. He cuts, he screens, he moves the ball. He throws darts to teammates at the rim, and long, guided arcs to shooters in the corner. And he fights, rebounding against a bevy of 6-6 opponents in the second game I saw, losing one battle but regrouping and doing one of those swipe-blocks where he erases the shot in the same way a boxer’s left hook erases a chin.
“I’ve spent a lot of time telling him to take a shot,” his coach at Bedford North Lawrence, Matt Seifers, is saying by phone from Bedford. “You don’t tell kids that much anymore. His court vision and knowledge of the game are just unmatched. Once a college sees him play, the interest meter goes through the roof.”
In the crowd at Ben Davis, his father is blending in as well as Damon Bailey can at a gym in Indiana. A woman spots him, points him out to her husband, and comes over to ask if she can take their picture together. Of course she can. Damon smiles for the photo like the honor is his. Back to his seat, he’s surrounded by his daughters, Alexa and Loren, and wife Stacey. And that older couple to his right? Those are his parents, Wendell and Beverly.
I’m sitting with the family, asking Damon how Brayton has so adroitly handled the pressure of playing this sport in this state. Damon’s eyes never leave his son as he says thing after wonderful thing about parenting, hard work, humility, basketball.
“Ever since they were born, they’ve had those expectations,” Damon is saying of his three kids, all of whom played basketball. “It’s the way they grew up. We don’t know any different. It’s something put on them by outside people, but us internally, me and my wife, my mom and dad, we just enjoy watching our kids play.”
In front of us, Brayton Bailey is tossing a lob that 6-4 junior Tony Perkins of Lawrence North throws down at the rim.
“For us, we’ve just tried to teach them the right way to handle it,” Damon says. “There’s going to be a lot of good and a lot of bad that comes out of it. For every person that thinks you’re great, there’s going to be 10 people that think you’re not very good. That’s part of it, so just try to have fun playing the game. Basketball’s going to end for all of us at some point. It’s what you learn through the game that’s important.”
In front of us, Brayton is driving and finishing on the left side, using the rim to ward off 6-5 David Ejah of Fort Wayne Carroll.
“I’ve always told my kids: However good I was, and that can be debated, I don’t want them to be as good as me, I don’t want them to play like me,” Damon says. “I want Brayton to be the best player he can be, whatever that is. Whether you shoot it as well as anyone else, are as athletic, as big, I want you to go out and compete as hard as you can, and whatever happens, I’m going to be pretty happy as a parent.”
In front of us, Brayton is throwing a no-look pass to a teammate who misses a jumper. Brayton steals the outlet pass and throws another no-look pass, this one to Tony Perkins, who scores. Wait, what did Damon Bailey just say?
However good I was, and that can be debated …
Most celebrated high school player in our basketball state’s history, IU legend, All-American, and how good you were can be debated? For years I’ve heard Damon is humble like this, remarkable for someone so famous that a stranger once snuck onto his lawn to grab a few blades of grass, and it sure seems true. But I’m asking: Did you ever want to be cocky?
Damon’s smiling, nodding.
So why weren’t you? Why aren’t you?
“Those two,” he says, pointing past me, at his parents – I’m sitting between Damon and Beverly – and now he’s telling me a story.
“I’m in middle school,” Damon Bailey says. “Dad and I arguing, and he calls me a hot dog – ‘nobody likes a hot dog,’ this and that – and I say: ‘I do, with mustard and ketchup.’ My mom says: ‘Oh baby, you didn’t just say that.’
“We had a come-to-Jesus meeting with Dad. I think that’s what’s important, that you have strong people in your life that are there to keep everything in perspective.”
Which is what Damon does for his kids. Here’s a guy who scored nearly 5,000 points in high school and college, made the 1998 All-CBA first team but never stuck in the NBA: “And in my case,” he says of the absurdity of expectations, “that’s a failure.”
“In Brayton’s case,” Damon Bailey is saying of his only son, “if he doesn’t go to IU, if he doesn’t play professional basketball, he’s not a failure. That’s not fair.”
* * *
Brayton’s coach at Bedford North Lawrence, Matt Seifers, is telling me about two AAU tournaments. One was in Indianapolis a few years ago. Late in a close game, Brayton gets to the rim twice, draws contact, doesn’t get the call, doesn’t score. On the bench, Damon is assisting Seifers. He calls Brayton over, says quietly: “Why don’t you finish those shots?”
“Brayton just looks at him,” Seifers says, “walks back on the court and scores the next nine points and we end up winning.”
The other AAU tournament was a few years before that.
“I can’t get Damon out of the building after every game,” Seifers says. “Everyone wants a picture, an autograph. We’re not even in Indiana – this is Virginia – and I’m thinking: ‘This is unbelievable.’”
Brayton doesn’t remember that.
So does this: Opposing gyms using Brayton Bailey’s background as a bludgeon. At Jeffersonville, where Johnson Arena seats 5,306, someone started chanting: “Daddy’s shadow” – clap, clap, clap-clap-clap – “Daddy’s shadow!”
“I was trying not to pay attention,” Brayton says, “but I mean, it’s kind of hard when the whole gym is saying that.”
Now he’s really smiling. This kid? He loves it. It’s why he chose basketball over football. It’s why he wears No. 22. And it’s why, when he played last summer for former North Central star Eric Gordon’s AAU program, he chose to play with the older kids. He was 16, but played with the 17-year-olds.
“Just to see what it was like,” he says. “To give myself a challenge. If I can play with the 17s, I know I can play with my own age group. They’re bigger, stronger, faster. I was just challenging myself really.”
That’s a word – challenge – Brayton uses six times in 8½ minutes. How come? Why does he find these challenges and seek them out, running them over when he could just as easily run around them, or easier still, run away from them?
“I was just born with it,” Brayton Bailey says, and man is he smiling now. “I’m challenged every day with something, because I’m Damon’s son.”