REGGIE HAYES: Romeo Langford and Indiana University hype can’t hold a candle to Damon Bailey saga

Damon Bailey, right, with Indiana University teammates Chris Reynolds and Greg Graham during the 1993 season. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

Romeo Langford is no Damon Bailey.

I’m not talking about their talents as basketball players, which are/were considerable in both cases. I’m talking about hype. I’m talking about fans’ obsession. I’m talking about mythology.

Romeo-mania doesn’t hold a candle to Damon-mania.

The reason is simple: There was a mystery (and myth) to Damon. There’s no mystery to Romeo and, hence, no myth.

You have to remember, Bailey’s emergence as part of Indiana folklore started in large part because of a book. You remember books, right? And this book came in the pre-social media age. You maybe got an excerpt in the newspaper. But you had to physically go pick up a copy to read it. Yet the story spread wide, far and fast.

“A Season on the Brink,” by John Feinstein was the book every IU fan had to read in 1986, a chronicle of Indiana University’s 1985-86 season and coach Bob Knight, with nothing held back. It was an inside look, and there, on page 232, was the creation of the Damon Bailey phenomenon.

Feinstein quoted Knight telling his assistants, after watching Bailey play an eighth-grade game: “Damon Bailey is better than any guard we have right now. I don’t mean potentially better. I mean better today.”

Knight’s assistants weren’t as enamored with Bailey, but IU fans didn’t notice that. The play of Bailey had already earned word-of-mouth hype. Mention in the “Knight book,” as it was commonly called, spiked interest to unimagined levels.

Bailey-mania was off and running. Sports Illustrated labeled him the best freshman in the country before he’d played a high school game, at a time when there weren’t regular rankings of players that young. His games at Bedford North Lawrence High School were standing room only and sometimes moved to larger college venues.

As it became apparent Bailey would end up at IU, fans assumed Bailey was destined to be the next Larry Bird, unless he was better.

Do some of the same things apply to Langford? Some do. Sold-out games. National attention. Hype. But it’s such a different world we live in today.

If you want to see Langford play, it’s a click away. You can go online, conduct a simple search and watch a video. That wasn’t possible for Bailey.

Because most people didn’t have the opportunity to watch Bailey play in person, the hype grew about his talent. Langford’s play is there to see. He’s an outstanding player. As a presumed one-and-done college player, his pro potential is far beyond that of Bailey, who spent time with the CBA’s Fort Wayne Fury but didn’t reach a career in the NBA.

But, again, there’s little mystery to Langford’s game.

By the time Bailey played in the Indiana state championship game as a senior, curiosity reached a fever pitch and 41,046 fans packed the Hoosier Dome to see Bedford North Lawrence beat Concord. The end of Indiana single-class basketball a few years later sealed the fact that record won’t be broken.

The only area where Langford-mania has an edge on Bailey-mania is in keeping fans waiting for his college choice. Bailey was on board with IU early in his high school career. Langford’s choice is coming Monday, in the spring of his senior year.

Some say Langford is destined for IU since he’s having a public announcement at his high school in New Albany, where most of those in attendance will be IU fans. But that might be reading too much into it. Why wouldn’t he announce his decision at his high school, regardless of his choice?

If Langford chooses IU, he’ll be celebrated like no recruit in recent memory.

He’ll still be no Bailey.

Bailey’s time was so much more loaded with intrigue, from his small-school origins to “A Season on the Brink” to the overriding presence of Knight in his prime as Indiana coach.

Bailey was a terrific college player by the time he was a senior, and he handled the pressure as well as anyone ever could. IU was 108-25 in his four years and appeared in the 1992 Final Four. But he couldn’t live up to the hype. The outside standards were set by fantasy, not reality.

Damon-mania was born of mystery and mixed with myth, with a few facts thrown in. Romeo-mania was born of fact and transparency, with only the mystery of his college choice thrown in.

Langford’s profile resembles just about every other big-time, potential one-and-done high school player. Bailey’s story and the hype around it remains one of a kind.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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