Alford folded his arms. "Well," he said. "It's not a feeling. It's reality."
The crisis of the first week of Big Ten play had been weathered. Indiana won six of its next seven games, and Knight's mood improved. It was so good, in fact, that he began checking on reports he had been hearing about a player named Damon Bailey.
Damon Bailey was an eighth-grader. He would be old enough to enroll in college in the fall of 1990, when Knight would turn 50. Knight had heard that Bailey was a gifted young guard, a player already turning heads at the age of 14. With Indiana playing well and coaching being fun again, Knight was interested in Damon Bailey. Maybe, he told his friend Bob Hammel, the veteran sports editor for the Bloomington Herald-Telephone, they should drive down to Shawswick (about 30 miles south of Bloomington) and look at this kid.
One evening they did. Knight's presence in the tiny junior high school gym caused something of a sensation. But Knight didn't even notice. He came back like a love-struck teenager, starry-eyed over what he had seen. "Damon Bailey," Knight told his assistants, "is better than any guard we have right now. I don't mean potentially better, I mean better today."
When Knight spoke of guards, he wasn't talking about Alford. He thought of Alford less as a guard than as a shooter. To Knight, a guard was a creator. Damon Bailey, Knight seemed to think, he was the Creator.
The assistants were, to put it mildly, skeptical. They knew that it was Knight's way to exaggerate. They cornered Hammel and tried to find out what he thought. "He's pretty good," was all Hammel would say. But every time poor Winston Morgan or Robinson screwed up in practice, Knight seemed about ready to put in a phone call to the NCAA to find out if eighth-graders could be made eligible.
Knight had talked about Damon Bailey so much that it became a running joke among the players and coaches. When someone made an extraordinary play, the comment was, "That's good. Almost as good as Damon." Larry Bird was a great player. How great? "Almost as great as Damon."
The night before the Indiana-Ohio State game, Knight had told Fred Taylor, who had been the Ohio State coach when Knight played there in the early '60s, all about Damon Bailey. Taylor was skeptical. He began listing other phenoms that Knight had been head, over heels in love with. No, Knight insisted, this was different. Another expedition was arranged. Knight would play chauffeur for three of his friends. A second car would carry assistants Waltman and Ron Felling. Knight led the way, speeding down the back roads of southern Indiana toward Shawswick. When a third car suddenly appeared, cutting between Knight and his followers, Waltman drew back in mock terror. "Oh my god," he cried. "It must be the Purdue staff. They're trying to beat us to Damon."
In the back seat, Felling was having a great time. "Yeah, I can see it now," he said. "Tomorrow's paper will have a headline BAILEY SIGNS WITH INDIANA; WILL CHOOSE HIGH SCHOOL LATER.