KRAVITZ: Romeo Langford selects IU, and the New Albany community celebrates his decision

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Bob Kravitz

NEW ALBANY, Ind. (WTHR) — The first hearty souls arrived at 2:36 in the afternoon. They were friends of Romeo Langford’s family. They were fans of one of the greatest players Indiana high school basketball ever has produced. They were a second-grade teacher who had Langford as a student at Mt. Tabor Elementary, and a basketball coach who couldn’t help but notice he had a prodigy on his hands when Langford was in fourth grade.

As school let out, the line of fans lengthened, all of them here to hear the decision of a very talented 18-year-old whose national recruitment has been the subject of endless and mostly empty speculation. Remember all the rumors? He was going to Duke. And then he was going to Kentucky. Then, North Carolina. A friend of a friend whose father cuts Langford’s hair swears he’s going to Vanderbilt. The guy at the Dairy Queen insists he overheard one of Langford’s friends say Kansas. The guy at the Pizza Hut knows – I mean, absolutely KNOWS – he’s staying home at IU.

As Team WTHR was driving down here, I noted an Indianapolis Star story that pointed to the fact that Langford wore sequined red loafers to the Star’s awards ceremony. Hmmmm, red loafers. Did that mean IU red? Or were these like Dorothy’s red shoes in “The Wizard of Oz,’’ a clear shout-out to Kansas? Or was this a smokescreen to chase everybody off the scent?

All of it for a mega-talented 18-year-old who will likely spend just one year at his chosen college before bolting for the NBA.

Only in Indiana. Or, to be more precise, Kentuckiana.

Two-and-a-half hours before the announcement, New Albany basketball coach Jim Shannon was standing in the team’s gym, the same one that was filled every night to watch the fourth-leading scorer in Indiana history. He was waiting to do a live shot with a local TV station. Media? They were everywhere, 85 credentialed media, cameras and cellphone and reporter’s notebooks, all waiting and wondering.

“I’m not going to ask you where he’s going,’’ I told Shannon. “But do you know?’’

He shook his head.

“I’ve got an inkling, but I don’t know,’’ he said. “He’s supposed to tell me here in a little while but I’m not sure I want him to tell me. Maybe it’s best to find out along with everybody else.’’

MORE: Indiana's Mr. Basketball staying home to play for Hoosiers

I’ll be honest: I tend to be cynical about these sorts of things, finding it a little off-putting that so many adults are waiting with bated breath to learn whether the local basketball star is going to their school. In fact, I’ve studiously avoided these events throughout my career, choosing not to take part in the unhealthy deification of young athletes. No wonder they grow up with such a sense of entitlement; they’ve been golden children since the moment they showed an ability to handle a basketball. How do they grow up with a sense of normalcy and perspective? Honestly, I’d rather dig ditches than cover recruiting or anything tangentially related to this strange Kabuki dance.

And yet, there was something nice and something sweet about this because it wasn’t just a Langford story or an IU story, it was a community story. New Albany is relatively close to Louisville, but it’s not generally viewed as a Louisville suburb. It’s its own entity, a smallish town in scenic Southern Indiana. All you had to do was talk to the people who stood in line for hours and hours to witness this event – and yes, it was an event, a Cecil B. deMille production that included a full house in the New Albany gymnasium and a boatload of media, some of them streaming the decision live. What you heard on line, though, were stories about Langford’s goodness, about the way he gave back and continues to give back to a community that has enjoyed him for all four years. A lot of young men would have bolted for prep school; Langford chose to stay home, and now, these people in line, many of them wearing Hoosiers’ gear, were hoping he’d stay home again.

Cathy Stoner, who was about 10th in line outside door 5 at the New Albany gymnasium, taught Langford in second grade at Mt. Tabor Elementary.

“He’s given so much to the community and he’s such a great role model,’’ she said. “We started watching him because of what he did on the basketball court, but then it was about what he wasn’t doing; not doing the bragging, the show-boating, how composed and humble he was, and that’s when the real magic started. We love him.’’

Adam Ruddell was his fourth-grade basketball coach. “Even back then, he already had a fadeaway,’’ he said. “And he ran the floor like a gazelle, just the way he does now. I told everybody in town how good he was. I mean, really good. He’s handled this whole process like a grown man. His parents have done a great job keeping him grounded. Most kids in his position are talking trash and telling people how good they are, but he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t have to. His game does the talking.’’

As most of the Western World knows by now, Langford reached for the crimson IU hat, setting off a celebration in a gymnasium filled with folks wearing IU gear. (One poor soul showed up in a Vanderbilt jersey and was summarily booed). And just like that, Archie Miller had turned IU into a national player, making good on his promise to build a fence around the state of Indiana.

Now the clock starts running on Miller, who enjoyed a honeymoon as the program made the uneasy transition from Tom Crean. A year ago, the Hoosiers won just 16 games, lost in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and received no post-season invitations. Now there will be expectations, especially with a recruiting class that was ranked among the nation’s top 25 classes even before Langford made his selection. Now…watch out. With Juwan Morgan likely returning, with Devonte Green and De’Ron Davis and the improving Justin Smith and others, the Hoosiers are back in the game in the Big Ten and even nationally.

When Crean ran the program, he successfully recruited Yogi Ferrell and Cody Zeller, two program-altering talents. Now Miller has his program-changing guy. Langford, as everybody knows by now, is the fourth-leading scorer in Indiana history, rated the No. 6 recruit in the nation, and is one day removed from easily having won Mr. Basketball. He averaged 35.5 points and 9.9 rebounds as a senior. Now he’s “taking his talents’’ to Bloomington. For how long? Probably a year. Truth is, he would have been a first-round NBA draft choice if he’d had that option. Enjoy him while you’ve got him.

After the announcement, Langford was mobbed by reporters. Meanwhile, his father, Tim, stood off to the side and beamed like any proud father would in his position. Give Romeo and his family great credit for having maintained their sanity and dignity throughout this long process. They handled things like pros, gave Romeo the time and space he needed to make an independent decision.

“I’m very happy for Romeo,’’ Tim said. “He made this decision for all the right reasons. This is another big step in his journey. He can see himself in Coach Miller’s offense and like he told me the other night, he wants that ball in his hands. It has been a long process. As we went along, he analyzed who was leaving the schools and who was coming back. And I think that helped him make the decision. I just wanted to make sure everything ran smoothly and was done the correct way. We enjoyed the process. Any one of the three schools would have been fine with us. We just want him to be happy.’’

Was the whole thing over the top? Sure it was. But it’s 2018. Everything is a grand production. There were cheerleaders. There was the school’s pep band. There was music and a Langford highlight video. There were speakers and then, finally, after about a half hour that felt like forever, Langford began to reach for the Vanderbilt cap – gasp! – and then moved his right hand to the cap in the middle.

IU.

And the fans went nuts.

The cynics will say it’s all too much for an 18-year-old, that it says something less-than-appealing about fans and media who live and die with the whims of a teenager. This young man, though, has given everything he has, on and off the court, to the community and the state, and he desperately wanted to share his news – his good news – with the folks who’ve supported him from the beginning. He wanted his moment and he got it, and he made a whole lot of people happy along the way.

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