By third grade Bailey was a starter on the sixth-grade team, and he never lost a game as a seventh- or eighth-grader. The next season he was promoted to the high school varsity, which some of the upperclassmen resented. But coach Dan Bush put trouble to rest on the first day of practice. "He's gonna play," Bush said, "and anyone who doesn't want to play with a freshman can leave now."
Bailey's play soon justified the coach's faith. Judged by Indiana high school standards, which are pretty stout, Bailey was unprecedentedly good. He scored 3,134 career points, the most in state history. He's the first player in Indiana to be named first-team All-State four times, and last season he was named Mr. Basketball.
Physically, Bailey is the next stage in the evolution of the small-town Indiana hero. Start with Steve Alford. Then make him slightly bigger and a little sturdier and give him a 39-inch vertical leap. Still, questions about Bailey's ability arise because his game doesn't reduce readily to a simple descriptive phrase—he isn't a shooter on the order of Rick Mount, a triple-threat a la Oscar Robertson or an outsized all-arounder like Larry Bird. For that reason, there's concern in some quarters that he might wind up like Dan Palombizio or Delray Brooks, each a former Indiana Mr. Basketball who went on to become a Big Ten disappointment.
As he begins his freshman year in Bloomington—where he's sharing an apartment with teammate Pat Knight, you-know-who's son—Bailey, too, is concerned about how good he is. "I feel I have to prove myself again," he says. "The two times I've worked hardest were between eighth grade and my freshman year, and over this past summer."
His post-high school career began inauspiciously enough. In late April at the McDonald's Derby Classic in Louisville, Bailey went 1 for 7, scoring only seven points in 22 minutes. In that game no one gave up the ball or got back on defense, and his purist's sensibilities were offended. Rumor has it that, disgusted, he asked to come out for the final 10 minutes.
But at the Olympic Festival in Minneapolis in July, he got untracked with the help of Ohio State sophomore Jimmy Jackson, a teammate on the North squad. In the gold medal game against the South, Bailey led all scorers, making seven of nine shots, including all five of his three-pointers, and had four assists, three rebounds and two steals in a 121-120 loss. "Coach, the kid is for real," Jackson told Ohio State coach Randy Ayers upon returning to Columbus. "He's a great team player."
"I really don't know how good he is," says Bobby Knight, "because I haven't seen him play at the college level yet." That's the closest the mentor has come to minimizing expectations of a youngster who, without having played so much as a game, is a preseason second-team All-Big Ten selection. Indeed, Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote thinks Knight is calculatedly maximizing expectations. "Some people think Bobby's putting more pressure on the kid, but I think he's taking pressure off him," says Heathcote. "Anybody who's skeptical will probably hesitate the more they hear about how high Bobby is on him."
The high praise could lead to the same jealousy that his high school coach had to quash four years ago. But Bailey isn't concerned about being seen as Knight's pet. "Coach Knight's never going to have a pet," he says. "I'm not coming in here for four years expecting to be patted on the back the whole time. It's up to me to get the job done."
So it will soon no longer be enough to say, "I read the book," for the book is stacked in piles on remainder tables; nor will it be enough to say, "I saw the movie," for Hoosiers is already a quaint offering on late-night pay cable. No, on Nov. 23 we will be obliged to turn our attention to the little Hawaiian community of Lahaina, a sort of Heltonville-by-the-Sea, where Indiana plays Northeastern in the first round of the Maui Classic. Starting then, and over the next four years, you can judge for yourself whether the mentor, upon first seeing an eighth-grade kid play in some backwater junior high gym not so long ago, slipped a cog. Or whether, as is more likely, his mind only shifted into some higher, clairvoyant gear.