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Eighth-grade wonder

Eighth-grade wonder

Dana Hunsinger Benbow, dana.benbow@indystar.com

A car pulled up slowly to Damon Bailey’s house and stopped. It was late at night, too late for visitors.

His dad crept up to the picture window and peeked out into the darkness to see what these uninvited guests had come for.

Three people got out of the car, walked a few feet into the yard and each grabbed a handful of grass then got back into the car and drove off. These strangers had gotten what they had come for. Grass snatched from the yard of Damon Bailey.

They had a piece of an icon.

It’s been 25 years since Bailey was that teenage, cult-like sports hero in southern Indiana.

A quarter of a century since 41,046 people crammed into the Hoosier Dome to watch Bailey play his final high school basketball game.

Twenty-five years since he scored the last 11 points in the Indiana state championship game to lead Bedford North Lawrence to a title over an undefeated Concord team his senior year.

Yet, no one really knows – no one except Bailey – what it was like to be that teenager who everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of. Even if all they could get were a few blades of grass from his yard.

“It was definitely crazy times. A lot of odd things went on,” said Bailey, 43. “It’s kind of mind blowing as a 15- or 16-year-old, when you’ve got adults coming up and wanting your autograph.”

That Bailey managed to stay grounded amid all the hysteria that had built up around him is nothing short of remarkable.

“The beauty of it was the way he handled it,” said Dan Bush, Bailey’s high school coach. “He was a solid kid. Nothing seemed to faze him.”

Nothing fazed him, it appeared to those on the outside, but Bailey remembers looking in the mirror back in those days, thinking, “Am I really this great?”

“As a kid, it’s hard not to get the big head,” Bailey said, “with everybody telling you how great you are.”

But his parents weren’t about to let that happen. Bailey said they taught him to block out the outside noise.

“They told me, ‘You’re never as good as your biggest supporter thinks you are and you’re also never as bad as your biggest critic thinks you are,'” Bailey said. “You are probably somewhere there in the middle.”

But Bailey wasn’t in the middle. Bailey was better than the middle. People knew that even

before he was a high school phenomenon.

Eighth-grade wonder

Bailey came on the basketball scene as a toddler. At men’s leagues around town where his dad played, he would wait for timeouts, toddle onto the court and shoot. Sometimes, he could get the ball to the basket. Sometimes, he couldn’t. It didn’t matter. He was shooting.

By elementary school, people knew Bailey was going to be something big.

And by junior high, a mere fresh-faced 14-year-old, he had catapulted to that icon status. It came after Indiana University coach Bob Knight showed up at one of Bailey’s games in 1986. To recruit him as an eighth-grader.

Bailey had no idea at all. Not even an inkling when he headed to the gym for his game that Knight would be there to watch.

His junior high gym seated about 1,000 people and it always filled up – since Bailey was playing.

“It was packed and always a little bit crazy,” said Bailey. “But when someone of coach Knight’s stature walks in, it takes it to a whole different level.”

Bailey was on the court warming up when he suddenly realized the IU coach was there. And he knew he was there to watch him.

Nervous? Bailey says he was no more nervous than any other game.

“The pressure in those types of situations that people put on you? For me, nobody wanted me to be better than I wanted me to be,” he said. “Nobody expected more out of me than I did.”

After the final buzzer sounded, Knight told his assistant coaches: “Damon Bailey is better than any guard we have right now. I don’t mean potentially better. I mean better today.”

And as Knight spoke those words, someone was listening.

It was author John Feinstein, who was covering Knight and his 1985-86 IU team for his book, “A Season on the Brink.” The book ended up being a national best-seller. Knight’s quote about Bailey was in that book.

Bailey’s legend took off.

‘He was like a rock star’

But when it came time for high school, people wondered: Would Bailey live up to all the hype?

“His freshman year,” Bush said, “he was even better than I had anticipated.”

Bailey’s “coming out party,” as Bush calls it, happened in a game early his freshman year. Bedford was playing Bloomington South, ranked third in the state.

“He erupted,” Bush said. “He hit 14 of 15 shots from the floor, had 37 points and we beat them.”

That early game set the tone for Bailey’s high school career. He would amaze his fans, his coach and his teammates game after game.

The hype, his superhero status, would only burgeon.

News helicopters, not just local news helicopters, but helicopters from national sports outlets, would fly in and land on the high school baseball fields for games.

Getting a ticket to see Bailey play was nearly impossible. Regular season games were moved to Hinkle Fieldhouse or Assembly Hall to accommodate the crowds.

“He was like a rock star,” Feinstein has said of Bailey.

Teenage girls swooned. Little kids clamored to get near him. Adults rushed to his side for autographs.

And, as Bailey’s coach, Bush felt the pressure, too. Life became a constant interview with reporters from all over America.

“Oh my, all hours of the day and night,” said Bush, who was also a teacher at Bedford. “They called me right in the middle of class and wanted to talk. They’d have to call me back after school, after practice. Usually, it was 10 or 11 at night every night before I got things wrapped up.”

And as Bush was wrapping up interviews, Bailey was already in bed. He had an early morning wake-up call, a self-imposed wake-up call in the wee hours of the morning before his school day started.

That is how Bailey lived up to the hype.

“I wasn’t extremely tall and I wasn’t that athletic,” Bailey said. “However good I was can be debated, but I always knew as a player the thing that I could control was how hard I worked.”

So, as his senior year of basketball approached – and still without a state title – Bailey would get up in the morning before school and head to his old elementary school gym. And he would shoot.

A school janitor would rebound for him. By 7:30 a.m., Bailey would have a 3-mile run in, 100 free throws and countless other shots. He would eat a ham salad sandwich and head off to school.

“For me, if there was any other player out there that was as good as I was, the only way to catch them or be better than them was to outwork them,” he said.

And, yes. The work paid off.

A packed house

It was 1990, 25 years ago, when Bailey and his team walked into the Hoosier Dome to take on Concord in the state finals.

More than 41,000 fans were there to watch Bailey play his final high school game.

“I can remember walking up from the dressing room and walking over to the bench and looking up in the stands and not seeing an empty seat,” Bush said. “And I thought to myself, ‘This will never happen again.'”

Bailey, on the other hand, was used to playing sold-out games.

“It’s very cliche for athletes to say it’s just another game,” Bailey said. “And once the game starts, it’s like you are just out there by yourself. But that is true. That’s the way I and my teammates looked at it.”

But as the game neared the end, with two and a half minutes left, Bedford was down by six points.

Bush said, with any other team, with any other squad that didn’t have Bailey on it, he would have thought the game was over.

“But for some reason, I felt like we still had a very good chance,” he said. “The team, they knew they had to get Damon the ball. And, generally, when Damon had the ball good things happened.”

Happen they did.

Bailey scored the final 11 points of that game to lead Bedford to a state title. It was a fairy-tale ending for a kid everyone wanted a fairy-tale ending for.

All 41,046 fans cheered for the Indiana hero.

“Looking back, it’s probably something that is really mind blowing,” Bailey said. “If you were to tell the younger generation today or people that weren’t around during that time that there were 41,000 people at a high school basketball game, I’m not sure anybody would believe you.”

But, of course, it wasn’t just any basketball game. It was a game starring Damon Bailey.

Follow Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow.

DAMON BAILEY’S HONORS

Third-team All-AmericanAP (1994)

Big Ten Freshman of the Year (1991)

Mr. Basketball USA (1990)

Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award (1990)

USA Today High School Player of the Year (1990)

AP Indiana All-Century high school basketball team

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