INDIANAPOLIS – This is what happens when a man coaches Romeo Langford for four years, and realizes his time is up: Jim Shannon subs out Langford late in the Indiana All-Stars’ 109-81 rout Saturday night of Kentucky, and a 58-year-old with a dozen sectional titles and 546 career victories starts biting his lip.
The tears are coming. Jim Shannon is not surprised. He has coached Romeo for four years at New Albany, seen him score more points than all but three players in Indiana schoolboy history, seen him win a state championship, seen him win IndyStar Mr. Basketball. Romeo Langford is the best player Jim Shannon will ever coach, but there is more here than that.
“I love the kid,” Shannon says, and this isn’t empty talk. If Romeo has a fault, nobody has found it in four years of looking. He’s quiet and humble and unselfish, and Shannon marvels at the way the kid has handled the pressure of being the best basketball player in this basketball state for three years, maybe even since he was a high school freshman.
On this night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, in the final game of one of the finest high school careers in state history, Romeo scores 22 points and grabs eight rebounds and hands out four assists and records three steals, leading his team of all-stars in each category. He scores his final two points on a pair of free throws for a 98-70 Indiana lead with 3:28 left, and his coach subs him out.
Here comes Romeo to the bench, and Shannon knows what his player will try to do.
“I knew he’d try to blow by me,” Shannon is telling me just off the court, moments after the game. “I’m the emotional one. He’s not emotional at all. So I grabbed him.”
Yes, he did. Shannon grabs Romeo and pulls him close and tells him: “I want you to know how special this has been. I love you.”
Romeo gives that little smile of his, tells his coach, “I love you too,” and slips away to the bench.
Shannon is staring at the court, but he’s not seeing anything out there. He’s biting his lip, harder, harder. His eyes are starting to water. Shannon takes in a big breath and blows it out. Hold it together, he’s telling himself.
This is what happens when the best players in the state get together for a series of postseason all-star games, most of them the biggest star from their hometown but all of them supporting actors to Romeo Langford’s leading man, and all of these overshadowed high school seniors see the final game come to an end with Romeo on the court being awarded Player of the Game:
They ignore him.
No, really. That’s what happened. Romeo’s at midcourt, being handed another trophy for his trophy case, and the rest of the Indiana All-Stars are huddled under one basket. They are not watching. They are not listening.
They are plotting.
The midcourt ceremony takes a good 90 seconds, Romeo out there smiling that little smile of his until it ends, and here they come — his All-Star teammates breaking their huddle and charging Romeo at midcourt, cheering and bouncing up and down and causing Romeo to break into a giant grin, so out of character for a person this stoic.
Romeo isn’t just a great player, although he is that and then some. On a court with future high-major college stars — Aaron Henry of Ben Davis is going to be special at Michigan State, Eric Hunter of Tindley is Purdue’s next great scoring guard after Carsen Edwards turns pro, and Mekhi Lairy of Evansville Bosse is going to dominate the MAC someday for Miami (Ohio) — Romeo is the best player by a large margin.
And he is one of the few guys playing the right way for the entire all-star game. In the beginning, yes, players are sharing the ball and hustling on defense. But as the blowout deepens and the time ticks away, this game erodes into typical all-star schlock. Only, not Romeo. Throughout the game he is throwing the ball ahead to teammates in transition rather than taking three more dribbles and dunking the damn thing. He slides his feet to absorb a charge under the basket. In his final minute he passes up an easy basket to throw it to Plainfield’s Gavin Bizeau, who misses the point-blank shot Romeo gives him.
After Romeo checks out of the game with 3½ minutes left, teammates lean in toward his seat. Eric Hunter drapes an arm around Romeo’s shoulders. Even on the bench he is the center of attention, and it is not just Romeo’s teammates who admire him.
Several of the Kentucky All-Stars try to linger near Romeo during the handshake line, but movement on both sides makes it impossible. Mickey Pearson, a 6-8 guard from John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown, Ky., averaged 25.5 points and 11 rebounds as a senior — fifth in the state — and has the best college destination (Saint Louis) on his team of Kentucky all-stars. But Pearson cannot even make eye contact with Romeo in the handshake line. Sees him coming, three or four players away, and looks away when the time comes to shake hands.
Romeo sees this, walks past Pearson, then turns and palms his bald head like a basketball. Pearson whips his head around and sees Romeo grinning that small grin. Now Pearson makes eye contact with Romeo and breaks into a smile.
This is what happens when the greatest high school player most of us will ever see checks out of his final game in high school: The crowd gives Romeo Langford a standing ovation.
For the better part of 40 minutes Romeo has been on the court, not because Jim Shannon is trying to run up the score but because he knows Romeo is the reason this crowd is so large. At 8,266 people, it is nearly 25 percent larger than previous years and dwarfs the crowd of 5,071 that was in this building for this game on this day exactly 10 years earlier. Shannon has had a front-row seat to the Romeo Show for four years, with crowds filling up gyms home and away hours before tipoff and then hanging around afterward to get Romeo’s autograph. Shannon knows why Bankers Life Fieldhouse was unusually electric Saturday night for a summer high school basketball game. He gives the people what they want, and what they want is Romeo.
And Romeo puts on a show. On Kentucky’s first shot of the game, he soars above everyone to grab the rebound and comes down dribbling, not stopping until he is 15 feet from the other basket and burying a jumper.
Romeo is a force of nature out there, an NBA athlete playing pickup ball with high school kids, and midway through the first half he makes eye contact with future IU teammate Robert Phinisee as Phinisee drives to the foul line. Romeo cuts along the baseline and Phinisee overhands a bounce bass through traffic that he grabs and throws down.
Later Romeo is sailing to the rim and leaping to catch a pass, redirecting the ball to Eric Hunter in the same motion, the first half of a breathtaking alley oop between future stars of IU and Purdue.
On defense Romeo is long and ominous with his effortless agility and 6-10 wingspan, lurking near Kentucky ballhandlers the way a great white lurks near tuna. He is credited with one blocked shot, appears to block two others, alters a handful more and records three steals. He is a 3,000-point scorer playing this way on defense in an all-star game, all the way to the final minutes, and the knowledgeable crowd is loving it.
And when Jim Shannon removes him with 3:28 left, biting his lip and blinking back tears as Romeo Langford leaves the court for the final time in high school, the crowd rises as one to send Romeo the same message his coach at New Albany is about to deliver:
We love you.