Hoosier with a hot hand

Steve Alford's sharpshooting has Indiana back on a winning track
January 06, 1986

Steve Alford, Indiana's 6'2" junior guard, can do no wrong in Hoosier eyes. Oh, sure, if Alford arrived for a game sporting an earring, whistled Dixie during the national anthem, launched a dozen air balls from 25 feet out and clanged two free throws to seal a one-point Indiana loss, there might be muttering. And he would probably have to do without the standing ovation the Assembly Hall faithful always accord him. At the very least, they would cut it short.

But this is an unlikely scenario for Alford (pronounced All-ford). After all, his shot selection is superb, witness his .566 percentage from the field this year. And it's unlikely that he could miss two foul shots in one game—he has missed only three all season in 43 trips to the line. As for that earring...well, has anyone ever looked more the part of the all-American boy than Steve Alford?

When play was stopped late in the first half of a recent Indiana home game, an 86-65 clinic given Iowa State, the P.A. announcer intoned, "The foul is on Steve Alford, his first." The crowd, starved for chances to express affection for its hero, rained gentle applause down on him—for committing a personal foul! Alford finished with 24 points, and, needless to say, received his standing ovation.

It's easy to love a winner, and Assembly Hall, home of the 8-2 Hoosiers, is a more loving place this season than last. The 1984-85 bunch lost 10 of its last 14 regular-season games. Coming off the high of coaching the U.S. team to a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, Bob Knight suffered the worst of his 14 seasons with the Hoosiers. He threw one player off the squad and went through countless lineup changes. And on one memorable occasion he grabbed a chair and treated fans to his imitation of Al Oerter.

With 11 of the same bodies, Knight is winning big this year. He is not doing it with mirrors, or height—this is the shortest Hoosier team in 22 years. Junior center Daryl Thomas, all of 6'7", perfected a new move or three over the summer during the team's 39-day around-the-world tour and is scoring 17 points per game. Rick Calloway, a freshman sensation at forward, is averaging 15.6.

But the big difference, to hear the team tell it, is simply a renewed commitment to Bob's Brand of Ball: the death-before-dishonor, man-to-man defense; the patient, in-the-passing-game-we-trust offense; and the constant repetition of that old Knight platitude—The Team Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts (and don't you parts forget it).

Says Alford, who with the rest of the squad reported to Assembly Hall on Christmas Day for not one but two practices, "We just don't want to go through another season like that."

Alford's modesty—he is also equal parts trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, etc.—prevents him from making too explicit the connection between the superb season he and the Hoosiers are enjoying. For the third straight year he is the team's leading scorer, averaging 22.4 points per game. But Alford's outside shooting has always been in the Torrid Zone. His biggest improvement this season has come in two areas that Knight has hounded him about: defense and movement without the ball.

"I've been a lot better this year than I was the previous two," says Alford. "I came out of high school a natural shooter off the dribble. Now I'm giving up the ball, running off screens, reading my man defensively, just playing the game at a higher level of intelligence."

During games, at least—Indiana practices are closed—it is rare to hear Knight muster the decibels or flash the eye lightning for Alford that he does for other Hoosiers. "I've had my share," says Alford, smiling.

Has it been worth it, enduring the fulminations of the foremost ogreachiever in the game? "The bottom line is I came to Indiana because of Coach Knight," says Alford. "He, more than any other coach, or individual, could get the most out of me. He doesn't want me to be just a shooter, he wants me to become a complete player. He's taught me to think the game, to compensate for the size and quickness and jumping ability I give up to others by outthinking them."

Environment, as much as heredity, fueled Alford's basketball success. His father, Sam, one of the state's most respected high school coaches, had 3-year-old Steve as a guest on the team bench. When Steve was in the fifth grade, the family moved from Martinsville, near Bloomington, to New Castle (pop. 20,000), 40 miles east of Indianapolis. Do the locals there take their hoops seriously? Well, the high school gym seats 9,250.

"He became a complete gym rat," recalls his father. "He was in there morning, afternoon and night."

Steve's basketball résumé reads like this: age nine, state free-throw shooting champ; age 18, Indiana Mr. Basketball (the state's rough equivalent of canonization); age 19, MVP of IU's team, the first freshman to win the award; starter and youngest member of '84 Olympic gold medalists. In Indiana, Alford is what small boys hope to grow up to be. Old men see in him the best qualities they choose to remember about themselves.

Alford tasted his first boos in the ninth grade, when his father put him in varsity games. Three years later he averaged 37 points a game, scoring 57 in one, and sank 286 of 303 free throws, for a better percentage than any NBA player that season. Said his father, "I couldn't win. When he was a freshman I was booed every time I put him in. When he was a senior I was booed when I took him out."

Dissatisfied with Alford's defense last year, Knight sat him for 40 minutes of an 11-point loss to Illinois. The backlash was statewide; Knight's own mother was among the disaffected.

Indiana's first loss this season, by five points to Kentucky, came with Alford benched by the NCAA for having appeared, fully clothed, as Mr. February in an IU sorority's charity calendar. By posing, Mr. February had violated an NCAA bylaw that prohibits a player from allowing his name or picture to be used for commercial purposes.

The ruling struck some as overly zealous, but, said the NCAA's eligibility committee, justice is blind. "Blind she is," as Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley once remarked, "an' deef an' dumb an' has a wooden leg."

All the hubbub only further endeared Alford to his public—if that is possible. With the season he and Indiana are having, Alford needs good ink about as much as he needs to mousse his hair, which is always maddeningly perfect and apparently self-grooming. When he graduates next year, Alford will have been First Team All-Coif four years running.

From Mr. February, of course, we expect nothing less.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOAlford's deadly when he has the ball, but on Knight's court he must also play without it.

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