The mythic schoolboy basketball hero in Indiana has a few unalterable characteristics: Feathery jumper. Ironclad grasp of fundamentals. Small-town upbringing. Uncommon passing vision. And, yes, a pale complexion.
Thus, Larry Bird and Steve Alford are in. Oscar Robertson and Shawn Kemp are out. But there is also a dark side to being anointed as the Hoosier State’s “Great White Hype,” as Scott Skiles and Damon Bailey can readily attest.
Skiles burnished his legend in 1982, leading his Plymouth Pilgrims through the celebrated one-class Indiana High School Sports Association tournament. Skiles averaged 28.8 points per game in his senior season, but his last performance would be his finest.
Plymouth totaled only 894 students, making it the smallest school to play for an Indiana title since the fabled Milan team from 1954 (which inspired “Hoosiers"). The Pilgrims, an apt name for an all-white squad, would face powerhouse Panthers from Gary Roosevelt at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Making it an Indiana University sociologist’s dream matchup, Roosevelt didn’t have a white face in its layup line.
Predictably, Roosevelt pushed the pace in the first quarter and the announcers made sure to note how Plymouth looked gassed. The Panthers could never pull away, leaving an opening for Skiles to assume his destiny.
Skiles pumped in 16 points in the fourth quarter and his 23-footer at the buzzer appeared to be off the mark to the right before curving and settling into the net to force overtime. Skiles would dominate the two overtime periods, finishing with 39 points in a 75-74 victory.
However, Skiles eschewed the standard path of Indiana prep legends. He chose Jud Heathcote and Michigan State over The General and Indiana. Many in Indiana viewed this decision as treasonous. Skiles seemed to veer out of control after he crossed over the border, notching three arrests and spending 15 days in the clink. The scrappy player’s scrapes with the law only strengthened Skiles’ detractors, who declared that they didn’t want such a player on any state school anyway.
Bailey didn’t have Skiles’ rough edges, but their games were similar. Both had workmanlike moves inside and outside and an ability to take over when needed. The main difference between the two players was that Bailey had been performing under intense pressure since he was a middle schooler.
Bobby Knight had recruited Bailey in the seventh grade and the hype escalated from there. By the time Bailey’s Bedford North Lawrence team reached the 1990 championship game, Indiana fans were at a fever pitch. IHSSA officials were forced to move the game against Concord to the Hoosier Dome, where 41,046 fans decided to check out a high school basketball game.
Bailey didn’t disappoint, dropping 30 points in Bedford North Lawrence’s 63-60 victory. He scored his team’s last 11 points. The hype was real and, unlike Skiles, Bailey would stay true to his roots and play for Knight at Indiana, where Hoosiers fans undoubtedly knew they would win NCAA titles in each of Bailey’s four seasons.
Maybe Bailey wishes he would have taken the Skiles exit out of state. The myth and the hype would threaten to overwhelm Bailey. He battled through injuries and, despite scoring 1,741 points at IU, it was never enough as the Hoosiers only made it to one Final Four during Bailey’s years at the school.
Skiles made it past his struggles, playing 10 seasons in the NBA before becoming a coach in the league. But because he played at Michigan State, Skiles is somewhat forgotten in the conversation about great Indiana prep players.
Bailey was drafted in the second round by the Indiana Pacers in 1994. But he never played a minute for his home state’s NBA team, another disappointment to the fans who had anointed Bailey as the next Larry Bird.