NEW ALBANY – The little kid in the Romeo Langford jersey couldn’t help himself. Romeo had just announced his commitment to play basketball for the Indiana Hoosiers, and more than 2,500 people at the New Albany High gym were cheering and a few of them were sobbing and even the New Albany coach, Jim Shannon, was rubbing tears from his eyes.
And all this emotion and excitement, it’s just too much for the little kid. His name is Alton Niemeier. He’s 6 years old, the son of the principal at Slate Run Elementary a few miles up the road, and this is Romeo we’re talking about here. Around the state, around the country, he’s a name, a concept, a star. Around New Albany? He’s Romeo, nicest guy in the world, signs every autograph and poses for every picture and does it all with that shy smile.
Romeo is standing on the stage, wearing the IU hat he had pulled from the podium, flanked by hats from his other two finalists – Kansas and Vanderbilt – and the crowd is erupting and Romeo is waiting for the noise to stop and it isn’t stopping and this kid, this little boy named Alton, he breaks free from his family and sprints out of the crowd, onto the court and up to the stage. Romeo remembers Alton, recognizes him, even knows his name because that’s the kind of young man Romeo is, and he sees Alton coming and he breaks into a huge smile and leans down from the stage, way down, to slap palms.
That’s how it ends, and that’s how it begins: The best high school basketball player our basketball state has produced in decades will stay home for college. He will go to IU. His high school coach is crying and his mom is clapping and Alton is dancing back to his family, beaming, because that’s his buddy up on the stage. That’s Romeo.
The red IU sash was in his jacket pocket, but Romeo Langford’s father kept it hidden. Like everything else about Romeo’s college decision, Tim Langford kept this close to the vest.
In an era where there are no secrets anymore, where ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski literally tweets out NBA draft picks two or three selections before they are announced, the Langford family kept us in the dark. And by us, I mean: everybody. Even Langford’s high school coach, Jim Shannon, didn’t find out until a few minutes before the ceremony.
Coaches of the colleges involved at the end always know before the announcement, but not this time. Shortly before the ceremony began, friends of mine on two of the three coaching staffs involved didn’t know which way Romeo would go.
“In normal circumstances,” one coach was telling me, “it doesn’t happen this way. But this isn’t exactly normal.”
No, it’s not. The ceremony was set to begin at 7 p.m. Doors opened to the public at 6. The line began forming at 2:36 p.m., when Melissa Bostock set up a chair at the gym door. Bostock is a graduate of New Albany High, class of 1995, but she’s here for dual purposes. She’s wearing an IU hat and an IU shirt, just like almost everyone else in a line that goes down the steps and across the school’s front lawn, makes a right turn on Vincennes Street and then another right on McCaffry Drive, where it disappears in the distance under a bright afternoon sun.
It’s a sea of red here – New Albany red, IU red – and across the lawn and down Vincennes and around the corner onto McCaffry, way down McCaffry, is a young man named Ben Smith. He’s 18, a junior at Scottsburg High School about 30 miles away, where the rival crowd lined up for an hour the last time New Albany played there to get Romeo’s autograph.
“It’s that way everywhere we go,” Jim Shannon is telling me, himself an Anderson kid and a longtime IU fan dating to the days of Bob Knight, which is why this was so emotional for him as well. “But at Scottsburg it was longer than usual. I remember that.”
And this kid Ben Smith, he’s in line on Monday. Went to high school, then caught a ride to New Albany to watch Romeo pick – he hoped – his beloved Hoosiers. Smith couldn’t drive himself, you understand. He’s been a quadriplegic since he was 14 months old, when that car seat saved his life but couldn’t save his spinal cord during a crash. It couldn’t be easy for him to get here, I’m suggesting.
“Had to come,” Ben’s telling me. “For Romeo, and for IU.”
Back at the front of the line, past all those folks in red, I’m asking Bostock if she’s seen anyone wearing Kansas or Vanderbilt colors. She makes a face and wishes a pitiable fate upon anyone who would dare.
“If someone like that tries to show up here,” she sneers, “they can go to Floyd Central. There’s nothing here for you.”