NEW ALBANY, Ind. – Charlie Bennett is a New Albany lifer. He was a freshman in 1955, met his wife in 1958, graduated in 1959 and was married in 1961.
He’s seen plenty of prolific players don a Bulldogs uniform. Harold Johnson, a member of the 1955 Final Four team. Jim Henry, a 1955 graduate and member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Sonny Wright, a member of the 1959 Final Four team.
“I guess I could keep throwing names at you…” he says.
But none have compared to what he’s seen in Romeo Langford.
“Never,” he said. “Never.”
Wednesday was the last time for Langford to take the floor at New Albany, when he played in the Junior-Senior All-Star game. He gave the fans a rousing final performance, scoring a game-high 26 points in a 111-101 win for the seniors.
And then, when he headed to the bench for the final time with 1:29 to play in the second half, it was the end of an era.
The New Albany community appreciates good basketball. More importantly, it appreciates good people.
Louise Ryland is a 1958 New Albany graduate, and she’s been coming to Bulldogs games for decades. She sits behind the basket on the far end of the court, in the second row on the left side. She sits with Warren Nash and Linda Popp, and they go to every game together, home and away.
Ask her where Langford ranks among the players she’s seen, and she immediately points up with a smile.
“Never seen anything like him,” she said. “We’d heard about him in grade school and middle school, and when he came to New Albany, we knew. We knew.”
But ask Ryland what stands out to her most about the Indiana commit, and basketball comes second.
“Everybody thinks he’s such a nice kid to go with his basketball ability,” she said.
Popp, sitting next to her, agrees.
“You don’t see kids play with this attitude,” she said. “He doesn’t get upset, and he rarely ever smiles. I’ve probably seen him smile more tonight than I’ve ever seen him smile.”
Bennett stands in a hallway outside the gym minutes before Langford and his teammates take the floor for warmups.
“He’ll stay here (after games) and sign autographs until he’s blue in the face,” he said. “He never turned anybody down. He’d probably be out here signing right now. I know he’s got a game in a few minutes….”
Standing behind him is Langford, in a blue warmup shirt, signing a poster for a young girl.
Langford isn’t one for many words.
“It was nice to play here one more time,” he said.
When asked if he had any emotions before the game thinking about playing on his home court for the last time, he was succinct.
Even to the end of his time as a Bulldog, he never changed.
“I like that about him,” Bennett said. “It’s not, ‘Look what I did.’”
Love for Langford transcends generations. During halftime of the girls game, the boys team is in an auxiliary gym signing autographs. Andy Scott is standing in line with his 7-year-old daughter Kaitlin. The New Albany resident is wearing a red IU jersey and candy stripe pants. His daughter is wearing a New Albany All-Stars t-shirt with an autograph on it. Ask who signed it, and she grins.
“Romeo,” she says.
“She’s a huge Romeo fan,” Scott said. “This is the first time she’s been able to meet some of the new IU recruits. We’ll get her acclimated to who she can cheer for next year on IU.”
There’s no shortage of opportunities for IU fans to see the future on display. There’s Robert Phinisee, Damezi Anderson and plenty of IU red in the crowd.
But tonight, one last time, is for Romeo.
Lynn Bradley walks up to the table where Langford is signing, and asks for a picture.
“I’m the only person in New Albany who doesn’t have a picture with you,” she tells him.
Bradley is from Michigan City, but moved to the area a few years ago. Her friends told her that she had to go see Langford. She did. The first time she came, she saw Rick Pitino in the stands watching.
“I said, ‘This guy is for real.’ He’s amazing,” she said. “He’s a joy to watch.
“And I got my picture.”
The New Albany community has always supported its basketball team. That was the case before Langford, and that will be the case now that he’s gone. But there’s no denying things will be different.
“You couldn’t even get a season ticket the last couple of years he played,” Ryland said. And I’ve never stood in line at Seymour as much as I did. You have to stand in line for two hours to get into a ballgame.”
So, what now?
“There won’t be as many people,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll fall off completely, but it won’t be like it is right now.”
Ryland admits that it’s sad to think that Langford won’t ever step foot on the New Albany court as a player again. But Popp sits next to her and reminds her that this isn’t goodbye. It’s ‘See you later.’
“He’s going to IU,” she said. “We can go up there.”