INDIANAPOLIS – Let’s start here, with an idea where everyone better agree: Romeo Langford doesn’t owe Indiana anything. I’m talking the state, the university, the basketball program, you name it. When he chooses among Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt, he can make that choice free of debt. He owes us not a damn thing.
Now let’s move to an idea without consensus: He will choose IU, because he’s from New Albany and they’re the Hoosiers and he believes in Archie Miller. No, he’ll choose Kansas because Bill Self’s Jayhawks give him the best chance to win a national championship before he enters the 2019 NBA Draft. No, Vanderbilt. Because former Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew already has a recruiting class that will turn the Commodores around, and because Romeo wants to play with his buddy, incoming freshman point guard Darius Garland.
Finally, before we move forward in new and exotic directions, let’s make this clear: I hope he picks the Hoosiers. Maybe you’re not supposed to say that – or even think it – when you have this job, but it comes from a place of purity: Absolute self-interest.
Romeo-to-IU would be the state’s biggest recruiting story in years, and, um, I write stories for a living. Romeo going to Kansas or Vanderbilt would a huge story – also: the state’s biggest recruiting story in years – but then he’s gone and we’ll move on. Maybe I’m at his season opener in Nashville, Tenn., or Lawrence, Kan. Probably would be, come to think of it. But then it’s over.
Romeo in Bloomington? That’s some serious jelly-of-the-month-club stuff, the gift that keeps on giving the whole year. We’d swoon for an entire season over Romeo, who would be for the IU men’s team what Tyra Buss has been for four years for the IU women: The ambassador, the pied piper, the most popular player in program history (yes) for however long he stays.
Romeo here would be bigger than basketball, same as it was for Buss. For the IU women she became its all-time scoring leader, just as she did for the state of Illinois at Mt. Carmel High from 2011-14. She’s an amazing player, same as Romeo, but her over-the-top popularity comes from something else, something even better:
She’s an amazing person.
Same as Romeo.
At Kansas or Vanderbilt, they won’t know that. Well, they’d know it, but they wouldn’t know it or show it like we would in Indiana, with hundreds of fans – wouldn’t surprise me if it’s thousands of fans – staying long after each home game to visit with Romeo on the court. That’s what happened with Buss for four years, since her very first game in 2014. Adults, kids, locals and folks from Illinois … they just wanted a moment with Buss, and she gave them what they wanted: photos, autographs, a kind word, a smile. Her teammates were long gone. Where’s Tyra? Still at Assembly Hall, smiling for the camera.
That has been Romeo’s lot in life – some would call it a burden, but Romeo doesn’t seem to see it that way – since his sophomore season at New Albany, once fans understood just what they had. Romeo isn’t a great player in the sense that he’ll win Mr. Basketball, though he will unless the state’s coaches have lost their collective mind. He’s a generationally great player, on the Mount Rushmore of celebrated Indiana high school players alongside Robertson and Oden and Bailey and Mount and McGinnis.
To whom much is given … well, you know. Much is expected. For years fans have expected Romeo to give them a moment after every game – come on, Romeo, it’s just a moment (multiplied by hundreds) – and he gave it. Watched it myself after the 2018 Seymour Regional. Most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in a high school gym. And when it was over, more than an hour after the game ended, with the bus warming and teammates waiting and his family literally lying down in the empty bleachers, Romeo had the grace to give me a moment. Never wrote that story. Maybe someday.
Anyway: That would happen at IU, where this past season fans surrounded junior Juwan Morgan and senior Robert Johnson and those IU stars offered their time because they’re wonderful young men. They’ll still surround Morgan after games next season, but Romeo would be different because he’s an Indiana kid. At Kansas and Vanderbilt, they want Romeo. Here in Indiana, we need him.
Yeah, we. A fan of IU, me? Yes and no. This is my state, and on the macro-level I want my teams to do well. It makes for happy people in my state, and it makes for great stories in my newspaper. What kind of heartless robot wouldn’t care any how the teams around here do? Not me. Now on a micro-level, that’s different. Game by game, rooting, nah. Not me. There are some on press row though … yeesh.
So anyway, that’s me laying myself bare. Just as it makes me happy that Purdue basketball has won so much and done it with such great kids, just as it makes me happy that Butler’s Barry Collier keeps pulling coaching rabbits out of his hat, just as it makes me happy that Lilly King won that gold and Kevin Pritchard made that trade and Arike Ogunbowale hit those shots, it would make me happy if Romeo Langford chooses Indiana.
But let’s end this here, and indeed the end is coming. The first hours of the spring signing period are upon us. Any day now, Romeo will walk into the enormous gym at New Albany High, capacity 4,102 – expected crowd that day: 5,000-plus – and announce his school. If it’s IU, a state will rejoice. If it’s not …
Are you a parent? Maybe not now, maybe someday. For just a moment, if you can, see this not as a fan, but a parent. Romeo is a high school senior, a kid. Never mind that he’s a world-class basketball player right now, or that he carries himself with more poise and grace than the adults most of us – me included – see in our own mirror. He’s a kid, a teenager, and he gets to live his life the way he wants, not the way you or I want.
Romeo owes us nothing.
He’ll decide soon, and it will be over. Or maybe it will be just beginning. I hope that kid picks Indiana. That’s me being honest, but also selfish, unreasonable, unfair. It’s not about me. Not about you, either. This story is about a kid who carries the weight of a state on his shoulders, and knows it.
The weight’s almost gone, Romeo. Whatever you do, wherever you go, understand this: You’re not just a basketball player, a noun, a thing, performing for our pleasure. You’re one of the sweetest superstars this state will ever produce, and those of us who know it – and we are everywhere – just want you to be happy.