Romeo Langford: Indiana’s Revenant

I love Tennessee. But, I wasn’t born here and I didn’t grow up here. So, I can never be a Tennessean. I will always be a Hoosier, in more ways than one. And I’m cool with that. I grew up on two farms in two of the most “Hoosier” places imaginable. Connersville, Indiana and Liberty, Indiana. Factory and farm towns with a combined city limit populations of about 15,000 people. These towns have seen steep economic decline in the past 10 years and if you go to college, statistically you don’t move back. The factories in Connersville and Richmond are gone and unless you are born into a farming family you probably don’t even have the opportunity to farm if you wanted to. There just aren’t a lot of jobs and, to be honest, it’s not a very exciting place. The big city in eastern Indiana is Richmond, population 35,664. They have a shopping mall and just a few years ago got an Olive Garden. For you Memphians, imagine rural West Tennessee. Now, take away the delta culture and recreational activity that the Mississippi River provides and add stoical Midwesterners and snow. That’s where I grew up. It’s a special type of boring. Like solitary confinement in SuperMaxx. I mean come on, Jason Aldean wrote a song called “Fly Over States” that references Indiana in the chorus. It’s really no surprise that lots of people leave Indiana after they graduate from high school. But on April 30, 2018, Romeo Langford, the most talked about high-school Hoosier in easily twenty years, decided to stay in Indiana, giving a largely insignificant state its identity and pride back.

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First, let’s address that identity. I’ve poked fun at the less than glamorous nature of my home state, but our identity is basketball. I will put our hoops up with ANYBODY. Per capita, we got more talent than New York City and we’re more fanatical than Kentucky. The talent post will have to come another day but trust me, it’s extensive. Shawn Kemp, from Elkhart, Indiana, is one of the best athletes to ever play in the NBA and few consider him to be a top 10 all-time Indiana high school basketball player. But that’s subjective. I’ll stick to some crazy objective statistics to explain just how much basketball means to Indiana.

Nine of the ten largest high school basketball arenas in the world are in Indiana. I know what you’re thinking, “You mean gyms. High Schools don’t have arenas.” No, I mean arenas. And they aren’t in Indy. They are in rural farm and factory towns. Let’s focus on the top 4. All over 8,000 in seating capacity. All located in towns with populations less than 40,000. For reference purposes, Cameron Indoor Stadium seats 9,314.

The crown jewel sits in an eastern Indiana factory town, New Castle, Indiana. New Castle Fieldhouse has a seating capacity of 9,325. According to the most recent census, New Castle’s population is estimated at 17,426. So, at capacity this town’s HIGH SCHOOL basketball arena encompasses 53.5% of the town’s population. Most Friday nights, it’s full.

East Chicago, Indiana, a factory town in north west Indiana, population 28,418, boasts the John A. Barratto Athletic Center with a capacity of 8,296. When full, 29% of the town’s population fills the seats.

Seymour, Indiana, a farm town in southern Indiana, population 19,384 has a high school arena that seats 8,110 – 41.8% of the town’s population.

Remember Richmond, Indiana? The Tiernan Center also has an 8,110 seating capacity. A paltry 22.7% of the town’s population.  I was privileged to play as a visiting opponent in this gym and in New Castle’s gym growing up. They aren’t fudging the numbers. They are every bit that big.

All this pales in comparison to the craziest attendance statistic of them all. Indiana has the largest crowd to ever watch a high school basketball game. In 1990, 41,000 packed the then Hoosier Dome, later renamed the RCA Dome, home of the Indianapolis Colts, to watch Damon Bailey’s Bedford North Lawrence High School play in the state championship game. By comparison, in 1990 UNLV beat Duke in the NCAA National Championship game in front of 17,675. If half of the people stayed home from the Indiana high school basketball championship that year they would have still beat the NCAA championship gate by 2,825.

I’m sorry Ashley Judd and Big Blue Nation, y’all got nothing on that. The closest thing I can think of is Texas High School football, but consider how big most of the towns that house those massive stadiums are. Famed Ratliff Stadium of Friday Night Lights is in Odessa, Texas population 117,871. Even with its massive 19,302 seat capacity, that’s only 16.3% of the town’s population. Also, Texas, has 28.3 million people, and with its unique history and diverse demographics, it is a significant state in American culture. Indiana has 6.6 million people and has well . . . corn and basketball.

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This brings me to pride. I am also a literally a “Hoosier” because I graduated from IU in 2011. It has been my basketball team since birth. Big Orange Football all the way in the fall and, although I love Rick Barnes and the Vols, when it comes to hoops, I am a Hoosier. My dad was a student manager for a young Bobby Knight in 1971 at IU. He didn’t graduate but growing up there was only one team in the Logue house. The Hoosiers.  I’ll say it . . . the pride of Indiana is the Indiana University Hoosier’s basketball team. Get mad Boilers and Bulldogs, I don’t care and, frankly, no one else in America cares, either. It’s right there in the name . . . Indiana Hoosiers. It’s our state name and nickname for God’s sake. Since I’ve left Indiana no matter where I go when the, “where are you from” conversation with strangers starts I always get the same response when I say, “Indiana.”

“Oh, IU basketball,”or “Bobby Knight.”

Not Brad Stevens. Not Gordon Hayward. Not Gene Keady. Not Glen “Big Dog” Robinson. They specifically say Indiana University or the General because THAT IS INDIANA BASKETBALL. Butler and Purdue, you don’t have any championships. Frankly, after failing to capitalize on Brad Stevens, Butler, and Purdue well, being Purdue in March, my money say’s you never will. If IU gave each of you one of our championships, we’d still have triple the championships you do because we have five. The 1976 Hoosiers are the last undefeated team in NCAA history. The 1975 Hoosiers lost 1 game, by the way, and most will tell you they were better than the 1976 team. The only person in NCAA history who has simultaneously won more games and rings than the General is Coach K. And who mentored Coach K? That’s right, the General. Coached him at Army and gave him his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at IU. When Coach K went into the Hall of Fame, guess who inducted him? Bobby Knight.

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But here’s the problem: that’s all past tense. IU hasn’t won a title in my lifetime and since we fired the General in 2000, rightfully or not, it’s never been the same. We’ve made one Final Four since Bobby left and it was with Knight’s players. First, there was nice guy, but very average coach, Mike Davis. Davis missed the NCAA tourney, before Tom Crean an unthinkable thing at IU, and got fired. Then there was Kelvin Sampson, who had off the court issues that damaged Indiana Basketball. We had to fire him and hired Tom Crean, who had on the court issues that damaged Indiana Basketball. Where to start with Dwight Shrute and Tom Arnold’s lovechild coaching my beloved Hoosiers? Think Vols football after Fulmer. All that history and pride but losing to everyone. Hopefully, I can write a piece about Pruitt changing that some day. Not only did Crean embarrass the state with his weirdness and incompetence, but he either quit recruiting the state or players knew better than to play for him. Thus, taking our pride. IU couldn’t get Indiana High School basketball players to go to IU. Remember the Plumlees at Duke? Indiana boys. Gary Harris at Michigan State and Glen Robinson III at Michigan?  Indiana. Marquis Teague at UK? You guessed it, Indiana. I won’t pin Oden and Conley at Ohio State on Crean because that was early Sampson, but you get the point. The studs left the state.

And why would they come? Would you play for a guy who was confused in the Sweet 16 when Syracuse played a 2-3 zone? Would you play for a guy who had his team cut down the nets for clinching a SHARE of the conference championship AFTER LOSING ON SENIOR NIGHT? Would you play for a guy who missed the tournament more times in his 9 year career than Knight did in his 29 year career at I.U.?

Then, we started losing to I.P.F.W. and Butler and he was finally fired. We got Archie Miller and finally, we got a coach. Archie’s first team was Crean’s left overs because he couldn’t recruit a full year. They stunk, but Archie called them out for playing the game wrong all the time, coached them up, and most importantly, promised to reclaim the state.     

That meant one name and one name alone. Romeo Langford. The most talked about player in the state of Indiana at any level for the past 4 years. AND I MEAN ANY LEVEL. Including the Pacers. Romeo has been a first name celebrity in Indiana since he scored 50 points as a sophomore in the semi-state. He scored 3,000 points in his high school career. He scored 40 points with an injured shooting wrist once.

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There are videos of little kids in Indiana freaking out when they get his high school jersey for Christmas. Not an Oladipo or Lebron jersey, but a high school kid’s jersey. There were hour long lines after his high school games for autographs. Everyone knew someone who knew someone at UK that swore Romeo’s momma loved Cal. No no, it was she hated Cal and loved Self. Scratch that, his best buddy is Darius Garland who signed with Vandy, but he had fun in Bloomington so we’re good right?!

There were restaurant marques throughout the state imploring Romeo to go to IU and Hoosier chants at every home and away game he played in his senior year. For the last month in Indiana, Google search autocorrect filled in “Romeo Langford Decision” ahead of “Romeo and Juliet.” On April 29, 2018, the Pacers pushed Lebron to Game 7 and around the state the only thing significant about that night was that in 24 hours Romeo would maybe pick IU. There was a roughly three hour wait to get into the ceremony in New Albany, Indiana, and 85 media correspondents covered the event. I’ll be honest, I doubt Pence got 85 media correspondents in Indy when he announced he was running with Trump. Then there was a long drawn out speech, which included Romeo’s preacher comparing him to Abraham Lincoln. I mean completely reasonable — he’s already the most famous Romeo. Finally . . . he put on the IU hat. IU’s biggest win in 16 years. We’ll only get him for 1 year and he might not hang a banner, but the Indiana I left is finally Indiana again.

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Romeo Langford decision: How the superstar fits at Kansas, Indiana, and Vanderbilt

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