You've probably read the book, or seen the movie, or read the book and seen the movie. If you haven't, odds are some other tentacle of the mass media has apprised you of who Damon Bailey is and where he's from. Somewhere along the line you may have even asked: Is this Indiana schoolboy hero ever going to be able to put hard covers and big screen behind him, and go on unencumbered to college and the rest of his life?
First, the book. If you're a blackguard in a Stephen King novel or a soon-to-be-offed double agent sprung from Robert Ludlum's imagination, making a cameo appearance in a No. 1 bestseller is relatively painless. You don't have to stroll self-consciously through the halls of a high school afterward. But Bailey, the eighth-grade basketball player introduced in John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink, was real-life flesh and blood. He was 14 very delicate years old, and right there, in a million-odd copies of this book about Indiana coach Bob Knight, were the words of no less a judge of basketball talent than Knight himself: "Damon Bailey," the mentor told his assistants, "is better than any guard we have right now. I don't mean potentially better, I mean better today."
One of those assistants, Ron Felling, joined his boss for a drive down to see Bailey play one night. "To be so ecstatic about an eighth-grader was just out of character for coach," says Felling now. "So I was kind of non-chalanting it. I said, 'I can see the headline now: DAMON BAILEY TO ATTEND IU; WILL CHOOSE HIGH SCHOOL LATER.' "
It has all come to pass. As if scripted, Bailey is a freshman at Indiana this season, after a storied high school career at Bedford North Lawrence High near his home, the southern Indiana hamlet of Heltonville. Despite his rather ordinary dimensions (6'3" and 193 pounds), Bailey will probably be one of those rare Division I greenhorns known as "impact" freshmen. Knight's assessment of Damon as being "better than any guard we have right now" presumably still stands, because Bailey is better than he was in 1986, and last season's Indiana team was only 18-11 primarily because of erratic backcourt play. More than once last season, after his young Hoosiers squandered late opportunities with poor play, Knight told the press, "Gentlemen, just wait. We won't have that problem next year." Bailey's name was never explicitly mentioned, but it hardly had to be.
For all his volatile insistence on having things his own way, Knight believes in an offense that invests enormous amounts of individual freedom in his players. The scheme consists of an elaborate series of passes, cuts and screens away from the ball, with scoring opportunities likely to arise not from one particular movement, but from a plexus of many. Thus an Indiana player makes all sorts of judgments during a game, with both the success of the offense and Knight's mood resting on their wisdom. What so distinguishes Bailey, and prompted the comments Knight made nearly five years ago, is the way Bailey instinctively makes these judgments unerringly. "Coach saw his overall presence and court awareness," says Felling. "Damon did things effortlessly. He was just so far ahead of everybody in giving the ball up and seeing the flow."
Felling didn't disagree with Knight about Bailey's extraordinary talent. It's just that after hearing his boss's initial evaluation and finally seeing the youngster play, Felling believed that Bailey could use a little seasoning. He shared his feeling with another Hoosier assistant, Royce Waltman. "I think," Felling said, "the mentor has slipped a cog."
Then there's the movie: School in the provinces goes to Indianapolis and wins state title against great odds thanks to sublime performance by a wondrous natural. People living vicariously through team are thrilled. Warm glow ensues.
Hoosiers isn't about Bailey. It doesn't even make oblique mention of him. Yet the script of Bedford North Lawrence's 1989-90 season deviates only slightly from that of the fictitious Hickory High. There was the crowning 63-60 win over Elkhart's Concord High at the Hoosier Dome in front of 41,046 people, including the film's screenwriter. And there was Bailey, like his celluloid counterpart, Jimmy Chitwood, scoring the winning points at the end of the game.
Bailey had 11 points—all on free throws—over the game's final 2½ minutes as the Stars beat the emphatic favorite from Elkhart, an upstate, big-city team that hadn't lost all season and was perfectly cast in the role of the heavy. Hollywood would have loved how Bailey went up into the stands afterward to kiss his parents and how he handled an interviewer's question about what awaited him at Indiana. Here it seemed as if Bailey stepped out of his body for an instant and saw himself just as the entire state did: as a shared treasure, ready to be passed on to the man in Bloomington. "Now," said Bailey, "I'm his boy."