KRAVITZ: Romeo Langford is an Indiana all-timer, both on and off the basketball court

WTHR image by Ben Reiff
Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - This is Romeo Langford’s reality. They want a selfie. They want an autograph. They want a minute – “honest, just a second of your time.’’ They want, they want, they want – mostly, college basketball coaches want him – and media mopes like me want him, pulling him aside for a 10-minute interview, the WTHR camera focused in his face.

They want him because everywhere he goes, whether it’s in Southern Indiana, down near his campus at New Albany, or up here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where his team beat a game but overmatched Silver Creek Saturday, he is The Show. He is not just the best basketball player in the state and one of the top five or six basketball players in the country, he is a historic figure here in Indiana, the State of Basketball.

On a day when his coach, Jim Shannon, noted that Langford lacked a “pep in his step’’ after having played rival Jeffersonville one night earlier, all the senior did was score the most casual 35 points you ever saw, not to mention bypassing James Blackmon, Jr., for 10th on the state’s all-time scoring list. By the time the season ends, and a lot depends on how deep the Bulldogs go in the state tournament, he will surely bypass No. 9 Alan Henderson, No. 8 Billy Shepherd, No. 7 Cooper Neese, No. 6 Trevon Bluiett, No. 5 Rick Mount and No. 4 Brody Boyd. He will also take a run at No. 3 Deshaun Thomas, No. 2 Marion Pierce and yes, No. 1 Damon Bailey, although he’s got to put up obscene numbers to catch Bailey.

“I was just standing here thinking, `Yeah, well, he was OK today,’ ‘’ Shannon said. Then he smiled. “ `Yeah, just OK, right?’ What did he have?’’

Thirty-five points.

“Yeah,’’ he said, grinning at the absurdity of it all, “just OK.’’

When you’re that good at basketball, you become royalty in this state. When you’re that good, they run a pre-game taped segment during which J.R. Holmes, the legendary, long-time coach at Bloomington South, says you are right there with the greatest Indiana high school players who’ve ever lived – yes, we’re talking about Oscar Robertson, George McGinnis and Larry Bird. When you’re that good, everybody wants a piece of you, a minute here or a minute there, a selfie, an autograph.

Here, though, is what makes Langford so special, and it has nothing to do with his NBA shooting range, his athleticism and his ability to play the game the right way: He is nonplussed by all of this. All this attention, all the glad handing, all the recruiting pitches…”I honestly enjoy it,’’ he said. How about the recruiting, which is now winding down as he’s limited his choices to IU, Vanderbilt and Kansas? Surely, that’s been a bit of a nightmare. Has it ever been too much?

“No, not really,’’ he said.

See, it’s been this way since he was a bitty little kid running around and dominating opponents in grade school. This has been his reality, the only reality he knows, since he was very young – much like Lebron James and other basketball prodigies. There are two choices: Allow it to become an annoyance or embrace it fully, and Langford has embraced it fully, and done so without letting it all rush to his head.

“He’s handled it as well as any human being can handle it, especially as an 18-year-old,’’ Shannon said. “The pressure, the limelight, the accolades, everybody knowing who he is – that’s not easy for anybody and certainly not a young kid. But his parents are very grounded people and they’ve kept him grounded. He’s done a great job through all of this.’’

Saturday marked the first time I’ve seen him play in person, and even on a day when his coach said he was a bit tired from the previous night’s game, even on a day when Silver Creek was doing everything it could to confuse Langford and take him out of the offense, he dropped (ho-hum) 35 points, or three points above his season scoring average. He did it from distance. He did it by driving the ball, at one point turning the corner on two Silver Creek defenders and slamming it. He did it from every conceivable spot on the floor.

This, though, is what I liked most about his game: He played the right way. He made the right pass to the right teammate. Throw a trap at him, he goes over the trap and finds the open man. If there’s selfishness in his game, it was not at all apparent.

“Sometimes I want him to be more selfish,’’ Shannon said.

There’s this, too: In an age where style seems to mean almost as much as substance, Langford plays the game on an even emotional keel. There are no histrionics, no fist pumps, so shimmies, no nothing. The whole game, I saw him change his facial expression one time, when he was called for a charge and a wry smile creased his face, if just for a nanosecond. That was it. He does not play the game for the show of it, nor does he play with a sense of entitlement. He just plays the game, shows respect for the game.

There’s a cool intensity there.

“I’ll tell you what: The last four years, having that special of an individual five miles down the road, we played really good today and he was just really great,’’ Silver Creek coach Brandon Hoffman said. “The thing that separates him is, while we all respect his talent and athleticism and all the rest of it, it’s his character and the way he conducts himself on the court. He never gets rattled. He never shows people up on the court. You can never tell if he’s playing well or playing poorly.’’

After the game, I spent roughly 10 minutes talking to Langford, and he did something that too few big-time athletes do: He made eye contact. He doesn’t know me from Adam, but he was engaged, answered the questions quietly and intelligently. How many thousands of times has he been asked about when he will make his college decision and what the timeline looks like? Honestly, after the Jeffersonville game, the late night and then the early morning coming up to Indianapolis, the kid just wants to get some shut-eye, but he patiently looks at me and looks at the camera and does his thing.

Because this is Romeo Langford’s reality, the only reality he’s ever known.

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