MARION – People stop James Blackmon Jr. almost every day and talk about his dad and the Marion Giants and the good old days. They want those days back.
Blackmon Jr. aims to please.
The first thing he did for his first and last year at Marion High School was put on a new version of his dad's No.24 jersey, which hangs on the championship wall of Marion's Bill Green Arena, honored if not quite retired. Blackmon Jr. wore No.2 at Bishop Luers for three years before his coach/father pulled up stakes for a new job at dad's old school.
“I considered (wearing) 1 or 24, and that's what I went with because my dad wore it and I think that's what everyone wanted to see,” Blackmon Jr. said.
Blackmon Jr. likes to give the people what they want. That's why he stops and listens when the old stories surface. You have to remember, his father James Blackmon Sr. has his name all over the Marion record books. For now, anyway. Blackmon Jr. scored 54 points in a game earlier this season to break dad's 31-year-old record of 52.
“There's really not a day that goes by without hearing comparisons with me and my dad or just hearing about how he played and how it was back then,” Blackmon Jr. said. “Almost every day, I hear about when he played. I just listen to it. I already know the story and what they're going to say. But everyone has a different way of telling it, so it's fun.”
The return of Blackmon – father and sons (Vijay is a sophomore) – has sparked renewed interest in Marion basketball that had been dormant for four straight losing seasons.
Season ticket sales have doubled, attendance in the 7,500-seat arena has increased to around 4,000 on most nights and close to capacity for bigger conference games. The Giants are 11-4 after beating Blackhawk Christian 79-62 on Friday, and conjuring hopes of a potential postseason run.
“Everyone's been real welcoming,” Blackmon Jr. said. “The city and the school have been real excited to see the basketball change in one year. I think we made a big change and everyone's excited to see what happens in the postseason.”
The past forever hovers over Marion. Seven state championship banners hang on the gym wall, alongside jerseys of honored players with instantly recognizable names such as Randolph, Edwards, Jones and Colescott. And Blackmon, of course.
“We were down to about 500 season tickets last year,” Marion athletic director Greg Peden said. “Now we're up over 1,000. Of course, that pales in comparison to '85, '86 and '87. At one time, we had 5,000 season ticket holders, which is amazing.
“You need to understand, too, the city took a dip economically when a lot of factories and businesses left. There's not that many people with that kind of money anymore.”
During hard times, Marion could always turn to its high school basketball team as a pick-me-up, which is why recent years have been so tough. Marion went 9-13, 8-12, 9-12 and 10-13 the last four seasons.
Peden, a former Northrop boys coach, felt that pain. He's a Marion alumnus who played for both Jack Colescott and Green, graduating in 1971.
“(Basketball) is a real point of pride for people in the community,” Peden said. “The last few years with the basketball program falling on hard times was really difficult for some people to take. James coming back and bringing his two sons with him, and Reggie Jones transferring back from Richmond, that's three kids with Division I potential. That can make you pretty good in basketball pretty quick.”
The great thing for Marion is that it regained one of its favorite sons to coach the team while also essentially putting some of his same skills back in the uniform.
Blackmon Jr. was recently named to the McDonald's All-American team. He's headed to Indiana University next season. He's one of the most known high school players in the country, not just Indiana.
Yet with all the accolades and the pressure ahead as an IU recruit, there's some heavy weight of responsibility in restoring Marion to relevance as a basketball power in one season.
"(James Jr. and Vijay) are starting to understand the tradition of Marion basketball and how important it is and how people rally around it," Blackmon Sr. said. "You see the people in the stands. That's proof."
Those fans come to see the Giants win, and to see the Blackmons shine, too.
“I wouldn't say it's pressure,” Blackmon Jr. said. “It's fun for me, looking at the tradition and history they have here with my dad and lot of other players here. It's something I want to live up to. There have been a lot of expectations for me, so every night I just want to go out and prove them right.”
In the win over Blackhawk on Friday, Blackmon Jr. scored 19 of his Marion's 40 points in the first half, capped by a buzzer-beating three-pointer. He finished with 26, as the Giants pulled away from Blackhawk with a more inside-oriented attack. Vijay Blackmon finished with 17 points.
It's a credit to Blackmon Jr.'s maturity as a player that he's forcing the action less but still making his presence felt.
Marion didn't offer Blackmon Sr. the job as head coach simply because he would bring his own star players for instant offense. But it has been a nice bonus. The result, says Marion principal Lennon Brown, is “we're seeing faces in our gym that we haven't seen for a while.”
“The banners they have up there, the state titles, that's our goal, we want to get a state championship,” Blackmon Jr. said. “The numbers up there – my dad, Zach Randolph, the other players up there, I want to be up there, too. We're just going to work hard every day and try to make that happen.”
Marion fans are coming back in search of the good old days, or at least something reminiscent.