"BNL had a lot in common with Hickory," says Bailey, who first saw Hoosiers in Bloomington with his steady, former BNL cheerleader Stacey Ikerd, and has since watched the video at least four more times. "Not because we're a small school. We're one of the biggest in the state. But we had nobody over 6'3", and no one thought we could win it. The greatest thrill in winning was proving to people that we could. We didn't walk out on the floor and scare anybody. We just had a lot of heart."
When the championship game was over on that raw March night, the defeated Concord coach, Jim Hahn, said, "This is the final chapter in the Damon Bailey story."
Hahn is wrong, of course. It's neither the final chapter nor the final reel, not at age 18.
In most states, high school basketball exists for high school students—for those who play, as well as for those who share classes with them. In Indiana, however, adults claim the game as their own. To them it is an elixir. "Some people watch a tape of the final every night," says Bedford North Lawrence point guard Dwayne Curry. "They have the thing memorized. They'll say 'Oh, he's gonna miss this one' or 'He'll make that one.' Makes them feel young again, I guess." The people of north Lawrence County found in Bailey someone not for the other boys to look up to but for men to look back at as their middles thicken and thatches thin.
They're people like Randall Fleetwood, the custodian at Heltonville Elementary, who opened the gym every morning at 5:30 so Bailey could run sprints and hone his jump shot in purposeful solitude before heading off to the high school. And Cam Anderson, the Heltonville principal, who has placed protective acetate over the corner of his desk that Bailey autographed. "We could be the only elementary school in the country that has breakaway rims," says Anderson. "But one shot could make a difference in the state finals, and with Damon working out here and all, we just thought it would help. It felt kind of funny putting up breakaways, but Bonehead offered to pay half the cost."
Heltonville boasts no ne'er-do-well like Shooter, Dennis Hopper's character in Hoosiers, but Larry (Bonehead) Faubion does a passable impersonation. Faced with one of those myriad on-court judgments that Bailey renders so well, Faubion earned his nickname in high school by always seeming to choose wrong. Today he owns a convenience store, which, except for the funeral parlor, is the only commercial concern in Heltonville, an unincorporated community of 250 people on Highway 58, about eight miles northeast of Bedford.
Bonehead's store is where the men congregate in the mornings and talk hoops, except for the few minutes that Damon, having finished his morning workout, would come by for his usual breakfast of a ham salad sandwich. Then, as a courtesy, the men would talk about other things. Unless Damon wanted to talk hoops.
At one end of town, where 58 meets Highway 446, a slick-looking sign says WELCOME TO HELTONVILLE/PROUD HOME OF DAMON BAILEY. No one knows how it got there, although Anderson says, "Lot of us think Bonehead was responsible."
Bailey grew up toward the other end of town, about a mile out the Bartlettsville Road. He is now Heltonville's celebrity ward, just as Salinger and Solzhenitsyn are protected by the denizens of their little New England towns. "Every now and then people come through and ask where he lives," says Anderson. "If anyone tells, the whole community comes down on him."
Bailey's parents—Wendell is director of transportation for the school district, and Beverly works for Indiana National Bank—set everything in motion when Damon was an infant by making sure he had a ball in his crib. Wendell had been a pretty good player at Heltonville High in the late '60s, and he would take Damon along when he played in adult rec leagues. As a result, remembers Bonehead, "Damon could shoot layups when he was five or six years old."