KRAVITZ: Langford leaves Indiana high school basketball with one, last memory

Romeo Langford dunks during the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star game in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. (WTHR Photo / Ben Reiff)
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Bob Kravitz

By now, the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star series is a bit of an anachronism, a once-great summer event that has become something of an afterthought in Indiana and has been generally ignored altogether in Kentucky. That crowd of more than 8,000 at Saturday's 109-81 Indiana victory over Kentucky? That was a one-off, a Romeo Langford-inspired crowd, with a huge delegation coming up from New Albany to see Langford before he heads to Bloomington Tuesday to start his new life.

Anachronism or no, it's still very much worthwhile, and it was worthwhile this summer to see the prized IU recruit, Langford, along with two other Hoosiers recruits, Damezi Anderson and Robert Phinisee. (For Purdue fans, there was Tindley graduate Eric Hunter, who scored 12 points in just 16 minutes. Watch this kid; he's going to be good, really good, while playing for Matt Painter in West Lafayette).

Honestly, I wanted to write about Phinisee, the point guard from McCutcheon High School, or Anderson, the South Bend Riley forward who rushed to Saturday's game so he could walk in his high school's graduation ceremonies. (It helps to have a last name that starts with 'A.') Phinisee, though, was just 1-of-5 for three points along with three assists. Anderson had a better night, finishing with 10 points and six rebounds.

This, though, was all about Langford, just as it always is, just as you imagine it will continue to be once he gets to Bloomington and starts gracing the Hoosier program. One night after a shocking Indiana loss at Bellarmine, Langford rebounded from a spotty performance by scoring 22 points (16 in the first half) with eight rebounds and four assists. And afterward, he was the usual Langford, signing autographs for everybody until he was shooed off the court by the All-Star game media relations man.

It was a joyride, all 13 players contributing in one way or another, until late in the game when Langford went up for a massive slam dunk, only to get hacked by Kentucky's Markelo Sullivan and falling hard to the floor with 3:28 remaining in a blowout. Somewhere in Bloomington, Archie Miller's stomach was in his throat.

The truth is, Langford didn't have to participate in this game, and nobody would have blamed him if he'd said, "Why risk injury in a post-season All-Star game that barely resonates any longer?" Shoot, we've seen draft-worthy college football players blow off bowl games with their own teams. We've seen top high schoolers eschew this series, for one reason or another. But Langford played. And he led. And when he came off the court for the final time, he hugged New Albany and Indiana All-Star coach Jim Shannon, then slapped hands with all his teammates before playfully, gently slapping Ben Davis' Aaron Henry across the face.

Then he smiled.

It's not often that Langford, owner of a great poker face, smiles in public.

He had good reason. Indiana wanted to avoid an ignominious second straight loss this weekend, something that hasn't happened since 1986. Indiana had won 17 straight games in this series before Friday's loss in Kentucky. Shannon knew all about the history, having been tipped off by one of his assistants.

"We didn't want to be that guy," he said.

This was not a Kentucky team that should have belonged on the same court with the Indiana players, but they did Friday, and they won. Kentucky didn't have a single power-5 recruit on its roster. Indiana is loaded with players heading to IU, Purdue, Michigan State and other notable Division I programs.

"I think we underestimated Kentucky's talent (Friday night)," Shannon said. "They played with a chip on their shoulder."

Chances are, the crowds will be diminished next year and in the years to come, at least until another mega-star like Langford comes along and brings an entire town with him. Back in a simpler time, the All Star series was a centerpiece to the Indiana summertime. Who will ever forget George McGinnis going off for 52 points and 31 rebounds after a Kentucky player was quoted as calling him "overrated"? At halftime, I had the privilege of talking to former Purdue and Terre Haute Garfield star Terry Dischinger, who flew in from Portland for this game and told me stories of his time as an All-Star.

It's not what it used to be, just like the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn't what it used to be, when the crowds descended upon the place for practice and qualifying. It still has its place, though. Because it's basketball. Because it's Indiana. It would be a shame to see this series go the way of one-class basketball, but time marches on, and tastes evolve.

"I grew up in the era of 60's, 70's, 80's basketball when that was about the only thing to do," Shannon said. "We didn't have computers. We didn't have cell phones. We had basketball in Indiana; that's all we had. So yeah, I remember all the greats who've ever played. So the oral tradition should be passed onto these kids so they understand what it's meant. It's important that we understand the significance of the Indiana-Kentucky series and all the greats who've played in it."

Langford was – is – one of the greats.

Now he goes to Bloomington, where he has a chance to grow his legend and achieve his NBA dreams.

Just like Saturday's game, it will be a joy to watch.

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