To anyone who has spent time in a gym shooting a basketball, there is nothing quite like hanging the net. It isn't easy to hang the net. It can be done only from a certain part of the floor, with a shot arched just so, garnished with precisely the right backspin. But when a jump shooter has traced that transcendental trajectory from the deep corner and caused the bottom of the net to lap up over the far side of the rim and tangle there, he has found the game's sweet spot. Hang the net enough times, and you could end up hanging the moon.
Steve Alford never let one of his countless private workouts end without hanging the net, and that is one of the reasons he found himself cutting the net in the Louisiana Superdome after his Indiana Hoosiers beat Syracuse 74-73 for the NCAA title. That is also why Tanya Frost, his high school sweetheart, didn't think anything of it when she stopped by the gym at New Castle High last summer and found a stepladder under one basket. Steve had been working out, and Tanya figured the net was tangled up but good.
"She walked in, and I told her I couldn't go on with my workout with the net like that," Alford recalls. "She likes to help any way she can, so...."
"So, I climbed up the ladder," is how Tanya tells it. "I started yanking at the net, but it was stuck. So I went up one more step, and I saw the engagement ring in a box on the back of the rim.
April 12, 1987
"It was perfect."
Also, you're thinking, a little perverse. But Alford has passed virtually every milestone in his life in some basketball arena. He learned to count as a three-year-old by watching the numbers tick off the scoreboard in Monroe City, Ind., where his dad, Sam, coached the high school team. When Sam moved up to Martinsville, his players would stash little Steve in an empty locker before practice. By the time the Alfords settled in New Castle (pop. 18,000, gym cap. 9,250) a dozen years ago, Steve had surrendered his adolescence to the game.
He wore out net after net—"I'd go through six or seven every summer," he says—and before Tanya came along, the patience of quite a few high school girls. Dad, can I have the keys to the gym tonight?" A lot of kids told me I was missing out on a lot of fun," Alford says. "But where was Jaws II going to help me down the road?"
The boy has a point. It wasn't going to help him pump-fake Tark the Shark's souped-up guards into Lake Pontchartrain and bury jumpers and leaners that would beat UNLV in the semifinals. Nor was it going to help him bottom out seven three-pointers in the championship game, four in the first half with the Hoosiers trailing Syracuse and about to be blown out.
And if he had squandered his Saturday nights at the movies, Alford wouldn't have been stuffing strands of net into his own little box with a ring—a championship ring—in it last week. That was an exquisite moment in particular for Sam and Sharan Alford, who had watched Steve grow up trying to toss Ping-Pong balls into Pringle's cans and had packed him off to Indiana coach Bob Knight's basketball camp at the age of nine. A great shooter himself in his day, Sam cut a simple deal with Steve: Shoot till you miss, father goes first. "He was always playing mind games with me as a kid," says Steve, who was to meet the master of the mind game in college. "I might have to rebound 40 or 50 of his free throws before I could shoot."
While Sam moved through coaching jobs as if they were military postings, Steve tagged along like a basketball brat. Along the way he missed only two of his dad's games, once when he had chicken pox, and once when he made the regionals of the Elks Club free-throw shooting contest. He finally played for his dad in New Castle, but he is still disappointed about the team's quarterfinal loss to Connersville in the 1983 state tournament. With that loss in mind, he gave the gold medal he won as a member of Knight's U.S. Olympic team to his dad in a tearful ceremony at the high school shortly after the 1984 Games. "Basically, Steve Alford owns New Castle," says Dan Dakich, Steve's former Indiana teammate and now a graduate assistant to Knight. "Basically, he owns all of Indiana."
"He's hard to believe," says Tanya, who's training in Munster, Ind., to be a physical therapist. "Everybody talks about his hair, his all-American image, how mothers would want him to marry their daughter. Everybody thinks he's so perfect. Well, that's a pretty accurate image. That's exactly what he is."
Actually, Alford is an utterly imperfect athlete. Small for a major-college guard, slow without any compensatory quickness and strong only because he ate and flexed himself up to 185 pounds from 150 as a freshman, he owes his success to repetition and work. In his workouts Alford will pick a spot on the floor and take 10 shots. If he doesn't make eight, he'll punish himself with fingertip push-ups or wind sprints.
He punished himself after averaging barely a point a game as a high school freshman and then averaged 18.7 the next season. He punished himself after scoring only four points in the Dapper Dan classic for high school seniors and then started immediately at Indiana, and won his Olympic gold the following summer. He punished himself after his disappointing sophomore season and Indiana's tournament loss to Cleveland State last March and then averaged 22 points and was among the national leaders in three-point accuracy this year.
Knight has often said, "I coach against the game." One of Alford's great accomplishments this season has been to learn to play against the game. A win over Illinois in late January was the final lesson. "I prepared all week to go against Steve Bardo," he says. "Then [Doug] Altenberger took me, and I only scored 10 points. From that point on, it wasn't worth preparing for individuals. If you do things the way you can, if you're able to read the screens, it shouldn't matter who's guarding you."
Alford is the Evelyn Wood of screen-reading. He follows one of Knight's dicta, "Be hard to guard," as he slaloms through and around teammates' picks. "He's gotten more out of his abilities offensively than anybody I've seen play college basketball," says Knight. "He's about as good a scorer for being strictly a jump shooter as I've ever seen. He's scored more than 2,400 points that way, and that's incredible, considering he doesn't get any tip-ins, drives or dunks."
Alford's two straight missed free throws against UNLV were so rare that he can tell you when he last committed the sin. (Six years ago. At Anderson. Down one. Five seconds to go.) His form at the foul line is so workmanlike, so routine, that it inspired the famous mantra from the Assembly Hall crowd—"Socks, shorts, 1-2-3 swish"—that made its way onto T-shirts and buttons. Before releasing a free throw, Alford tells himself, "Soft over the front edge of the rim." People swear that they can see his lips move.
Even without a state championship, Alford's other crowns—"Mr. Basketball," the gold medal, the NCAA title-have secured his status as an Indiana legend, the high prince of Hoosier Hysteria. There remains some debate over the origin of the term hoosier, though it probably came from Samuel Hoosier, a canal builder on the Ohio River during the early 19th century whose Indiana laborers were admired for their industry. Work is woven into the state's 10-foot culture, too. Half-court pickup games in most states are played "Make it, take it"—you score, and you keep possession. Not so in Hoosierland, where it's understood that every scorer will turn around and play defense. Basketball players in Indiana expect a little suffering.
And so Alford endured myriad punishments. Without his passing up the Super Bowl, because he had missed a few free throws the night before and felt the Sunday evening would be best spent at Assembly Hall; without Knight's impulsively banishing him from practice time after time for such transgressions as looking at him the wrong way; without the ludicrous, one-game, NCAA-imposed suspension in his junior year for lending his name and photograph to a sorority calendar that raised funds for handicapped girls—without all this, Indiana does not win.
It is only fitting that a martyred violator of an NCAA rule—"An absolute farce," Alford describes the calendar fiasco today—took another NCAA rule, the three-point shot, and followed it faithfully 107 times this season. "If I had to sit out a game to win a national championship," he says, "that's fine with me."
But Alford's greatest act of self-flagellation was deciding in the first place to play for Knight. No player has experienced more of the man's black moods and manipulations. Alford has actually spent six seasons under him, if you include the 17 games with the '84 Olympic team and the Hoosiers' 18-game trip overseas two summers ago. "Steve was incredibly mature as a freshman," Dakich remembers. "He was getting thrown out of practice then. If Coach respects you and knows you can handle it, he'll do that. When I was a freshman, only Randy Wittman and Ted Kitchel, the seniors, were thrown out."
"Dad threw me out of practice a lot of times to prove a point to his players," Steve says. "That may be the hardest thing, taking punishment for something somebody else did. But I'm a leader, and my teammates are supposed to learn from that.
"Many times in the last four years when I've been kicked out, I'd get emotional. But every time I think I'm right and he's wrong, I look at the film, and it's amazing. He's right and I'm wrong."
Knight, who calls Alford "the little sonofabitch," says he will miss him: "If you were married to Miss America and she walked out, how would you feel?"
For his part, Alford will always appreciate Knight. "There's nothing in the way of pressure or intensity the world can throw at me now that I haven't already seen," he says. But he won't exactly miss him. "Even though I helped win a national championship for him, I could walk into his office tomorrow, and he'd say something to put himself up here"—Alford gestures above his head—"and me down here"—he lowers his hand. "But that's where he feels he has to be. And look what he's helped do for me."
Will everyone please take out their copies of A Season on the Brink, the banned-by-Bob No. 1 best-seller about Knight and Indiana basketball? Certainly you 1986-87 Hoosiers have yours, too, hidden away in dresser drawers. Turn to page 19. There Knight berates Alford's defense. On page 37, he rips his work habits. On page 65, he trashes his leadership ability, telling him he couldn't "lead a whore into bed."
Knight is half right: You can't believe everything you see in print. Alford can play a little defense. He has worked his way into the first round of the NBA draft and is the second-leading scorer in Big Ten history. As for leadership, he has shown that he can lead a team as far as it can be led.
The long winter is over. After six seasons and 159 games, it is April now, springtime for a guy who can't jump. This is Hoosier Wisteria.