You've probably read the book, or seen the movie, or read the book and seen the movie. If you haven't, odds are some other tentacle of the mass media has apprised you of who Damon Bailey is and where he's from. Somewhere along the line you may have even asked: Is this Indiana schoolboy hero ever going to be able to put hard covers and big screen behind him, and go on unencumbered to college and the rest of his life?
First, the book. If you're a blackguard in a Stephen King novel or a soon-to-be-offed double agent sprung from Robert Ludlum's imagination, making a cameo appearance in a No. 1 bestseller is relatively painless. You don't have to stroll self-consciously through the halls of a high school afterward. But Bailey, the eighth-grade basketball player introduced in John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink, was real-life flesh and blood. He was 14 very delicate years old, and right there, in a million-odd copies of this book about Indiana coach Bob Knight, were the words of no less a judge of basketball talent than Knight himself: "Damon Bailey," the mentor told his assistants, "is better than any guard we have right now. I don't mean potentially better, I mean better today."
One of those assistants, Ron Felling, joined his boss for a drive down to see Bailey play one night. "To be so ecstatic about an eighth-grader was just out of character for coach," says Felling now. "So I was kind of non-chalanting it. I said, 'I can see the headline now: DAMON BAILEY TO ATTEND IU; WILL CHOOSE HIGH SCHOOL LATER.' "
November 19, 1990
It has all come to pass. As if scripted, Bailey is a freshman at Indiana this season, after a storied high school career at Bedford North Lawrence High near his home, the southern Indiana hamlet of Heltonville. Despite his rather ordinary dimensions (6'3" and 193 pounds), Bailey will probably be one of those rare Division I greenhorns known as "impact" freshmen. Knight's assessment of Damon as being "better than any guard we have right now" presumably still stands, because Bailey is better than he was in 1986, and last season's Indiana team was only 18-11 primarily because of erratic backcourt play. More than once last season, after his young Hoosiers squandered late opportunities with poor play, Knight told the press, "Gentlemen, just wait. We won't have that problem next year." Bailey's name was never explicitly mentioned, but it hardly had to be.
For all his volatile insistence on having things his own way, Knight believes in an offense that invests enormous amounts of individual freedom in his players. The scheme consists of an elaborate series of passes, cuts and screens away from the ball, with scoring opportunities likely to arise not from one particular movement, but from a plexus of many. Thus an Indiana player makes all sorts of judgments during a game, with both the success of the offense and Knight's mood resting on their wisdom. What so distinguishes Bailey, and prompted the comments Knight made nearly five years ago, is the way Bailey instinctively makes these judgments unerringly. "Coach saw his overall presence and court awareness," says Felling. "Damon did things effortlessly. He was just so far ahead of everybody in giving the ball up and seeing the flow."
Felling didn't disagree with Knight about Bailey's extraordinary talent. It's just that after hearing his boss's initial evaluation and finally seeing the youngster play, Felling believed that Bailey could use a little seasoning. He shared his feeling with another Hoosier assistant, Royce Waltman. "I think," Felling said, "the mentor has slipped a cog."
Then there's the movie: School in the provinces goes to Indianapolis and wins state title against great odds thanks to sublime performance by a wondrous natural. People living vicariously through team are thrilled. Warm glow ensues.
Hoosiers isn't about Bailey. It doesn't even make oblique mention of him. Yet the script of Bedford North Lawrence's 1989-90 season deviates only slightly from that of the fictitious Hickory High. There was the crowning 63-60 win over Elkhart's Concord High at the Hoosier Dome in front of 41,046 people, including the film's screenwriter. And there was Bailey, like his celluloid counterpart, Jimmy Chitwood, scoring the winning points at the end of the game.
Bailey had 11 points—all on free throws—over the game's final 2½ minutes as the Stars beat the emphatic favorite from Elkhart, an upstate, big-city team that hadn't lost all season and was perfectly cast in the role of the heavy. Hollywood would have loved how Bailey went up into the stands afterward to kiss his parents and how he handled an interviewer's question about what awaited him at Indiana. Here it seemed as if Bailey stepped out of his body for an instant and saw himself just as the entire state did: as a shared treasure, ready to be passed on to the man in Bloomington. "Now," said Bailey, "I'm his boy."
"BNL had a lot in common with Hickory," says Bailey, who first saw Hoosiers in Bloomington with his steady, former BNL cheerleader Stacey Ikerd, and has since watched the video at least four more times. "Not because we're a small school. We're one of the biggest in the state. But we had nobody over 6'3", and no one thought we could win it. The greatest thrill in winning was proving to people that we could. We didn't walk out on the floor and scare anybody. We just had a lot of heart."
When the championship game was over on that raw March night, the defeated Concord coach, Jim Hahn, said, "This is the final chapter in the Damon Bailey story."
Hahn is wrong, of course. It's neither the final chapter nor the final reel, not at age 18.
In most states, high school basketball exists for high school students—for those who play, as well as for those who share classes with them. In Indiana, however, adults claim the game as their own. To them it is an elixir. "Some people watch a tape of the final every night," says Bedford North Lawrence point guard Dwayne Curry. "They have the thing memorized. They'll say 'Oh, he's gonna miss this one' or 'He'll make that one.' Makes them feel young again, I guess." The people of north Lawrence County found in Bailey someone not for the other boys to look up to but for men to look back at as their middles thicken and thatches thin.
They're people like Randall Fleetwood, the custodian at Heltonville Elementary, who opened the gym every morning at 5:30 so Bailey could run sprints and hone his jump shot in purposeful solitude before heading off to the high school. And Cam Anderson, the Heltonville principal, who has placed protective acetate over the corner of his desk that Bailey autographed. "We could be the only elementary school in the country that has breakaway rims," says Anderson. "But one shot could make a difference in the state finals, and with Damon working out here and all, we just thought it would help. It felt kind of funny putting up breakaways, but Bonehead offered to pay half the cost."
Heltonville boasts no ne'er-do-well like Shooter, Dennis Hopper's character in Hoosiers, but Larry (Bonehead) Faubion does a passable impersonation. Faced with one of those myriad on-court judgments that Bailey renders so well, Faubion earned his nickname in high school by always seeming to choose wrong. Today he owns a convenience store, which, except for the funeral parlor, is the only commercial concern in Heltonville, an unincorporated community of 250 people on Highway 58, about eight miles northeast of Bedford.
Bonehead's store is where the men congregate in the mornings and talk hoops, except for the few minutes that Damon, having finished his morning workout, would come by for his usual breakfast of a ham salad sandwich. Then, as a courtesy, the men would talk about other things. Unless Damon wanted to talk hoops.
At one end of town, where 58 meets Highway 446, a slick-looking sign says WELCOME TO HELTONVILLE/PROUD HOME OF DAMON BAILEY. No one knows how it got there, although Anderson says, "Lot of us think Bonehead was responsible."
Bailey grew up toward the other end of town, about a mile out the Bartlettsville Road. He is now Heltonville's celebrity ward, just as Salinger and Solzhenitsyn are protected by the denizens of their little New England towns. "Every now and then people come through and ask where he lives," says Anderson. "If anyone tells, the whole community comes down on him."
Bailey's parents—Wendell is director of transportation for the school district, and Beverly works for Indiana National Bank—set everything in motion when Damon was an infant by making sure he had a ball in his crib. Wendell had been a pretty good player at Heltonville High in the late '60s, and he would take Damon along when he played in adult rec leagues. As a result, remembers Bonehead, "Damon could shoot layups when he was five or six years old."
By third grade Bailey was a starter on the sixth-grade team, and he never lost a game as a seventh- or eighth-grader. The next season he was promoted to the high school varsity, which some of the upperclassmen resented. But coach Dan Bush put trouble to rest on the first day of practice. "He's gonna play," Bush said, "and anyone who doesn't want to play with a freshman can leave now."
Bailey's play soon justified the coach's faith. Judged by Indiana high school standards, which are pretty stout, Bailey was unprecedentedly good. He scored 3,134 career points, the most in state history. He's the first player in Indiana to be named first-team All-State four times, and last season he was named Mr. Basketball.
Physically, Bailey is the next stage in the evolution of the small-town Indiana hero. Start with Steve Alford. Then make him slightly bigger and a little sturdier and give him a 39-inch vertical leap. Still, questions about Bailey's ability arise because his game doesn't reduce readily to a simple descriptive phrase—he isn't a shooter on the order of Rick Mount, a triple-threat a la Oscar Robertson or an outsized all-arounder like Larry Bird. For that reason, there's concern in some quarters that he might wind up like Dan Palombizio or Delray Brooks, each a former Indiana Mr. Basketball who went on to become a Big Ten disappointment.
As he begins his freshman year in Bloomington—where he's sharing an apartment with teammate Pat Knight, you-know-who's son—Bailey, too, is concerned about how good he is. "I feel I have to prove myself again," he says. "The two times I've worked hardest were between eighth grade and my freshman year, and over this past summer."
His post-high school career began inauspiciously enough. In late April at the McDonald's Derby Classic in Louisville, Bailey went 1 for 7, scoring only seven points in 22 minutes. In that game no one gave up the ball or got back on defense, and his purist's sensibilities were offended. Rumor has it that, disgusted, he asked to come out for the final 10 minutes.
But at the Olympic Festival in Minneapolis in July, he got untracked with the help of Ohio State sophomore Jimmy Jackson, a teammate on the North squad. In the gold medal game against the South, Bailey led all scorers, making seven of nine shots, including all five of his three-pointers, and had four assists, three rebounds and two steals in a 121-120 loss. "Coach, the kid is for real," Jackson told Ohio State coach Randy Ayers upon returning to Columbus. "He's a great team player."
"I really don't know how good he is," says Bobby Knight, "because I haven't seen him play at the college level yet." That's the closest the mentor has come to minimizing expectations of a youngster who, without having played so much as a game, is a preseason second-team All-Big Ten selection. Indeed, Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote thinks Knight is calculatedly maximizing expectations. "Some people think Bobby's putting more pressure on the kid, but I think he's taking pressure off him," says Heathcote. "Anybody who's skeptical will probably hesitate the more they hear about how high Bobby is on him."
The high praise could lead to the same jealousy that his high school coach had to quash four years ago. But Bailey isn't concerned about being seen as Knight's pet. "Coach Knight's never going to have a pet," he says. "I'm not coming in here for four years expecting to be patted on the back the whole time. It's up to me to get the job done."
So it will soon no longer be enough to say, "I read the book," for the book is stacked in piles on remainder tables; nor will it be enough to say, "I saw the movie," for Hoosiers is already a quaint offering on late-night pay cable. No, on Nov. 23 we will be obliged to turn our attention to the little Hawaiian community of Lahaina, a sort of Heltonville-by-the-Sea, where Indiana plays Northeastern in the first round of the Maui Classic. Starting then, and over the next four years, you can judge for yourself whether the mentor, upon first seeing an eighth-grade kid play in some backwater junior high gym not so long ago, slipped a cog. Or whether, as is more likely, his mind only shifted into some higher, clairvoyant gear.