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'Kind of like Abraham Lincoln' - Is Romeo Langford the Great Emancipator of Indiana basketball?

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NEW ALBANY, Ind. — The line outside New Albany High School began forming at 2:36 p.m. Monday.

“The buses left,” said Melissa Bostock, “and I pulled on up.”

Slightly less than 3 ½ hours later, after baking in the sun and eating McDonald’s that was delivered to her at the front of the line, Bostock and a horde of others waiting outside the school were let in the gym. They were here for what Bostock dubbed “RoMania”: Local hero basketball star Romeo Langford was announcing his college decision. His finalists were Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt, but only one result was expected and only one result would be happily received.

Bostock, a 1995 New Albany graduate who used to do laundry in the same apartment complex with Romeo when he was a middle schooler, wore an Indiana T-shirt. So did her daughter, Jasmine. Next to them in line was a man wearing the candy-striped warmup pants the Hoosiers made iconic. And so on it went, down to the corner of Vincennes and McCaffry, and then up the block, a carnival of cream-and-crimson apparel that snaked past a line of satellite trucks and other TV vehicles.

This was basically an Indiana home game, with a gym that seats more than 4,000 about 80 percent full with people wearing IU gear. A kid wearing a Vanderbilt jersey came in and was booed. A woman Kansas fan received similar treatment later.

Yet as brassy as Langford would have to be to tell this crowd he was going elsewhere, doubt gnawed at some of those in line.

“I’ve got this little part back here that says Vandy,” Bostock said, pointing at the back of her head. “I keep smacking it, hoping it will go away.”

After letting the fans into the gym at 6 p.m. ET, the program began at 6:50. At about 7:30, after a shamelessly excessive program that included a preacher comparing Langford to Abraham Lincoln, the kid’s near-canonization for a willingness to sign autographs and Romeo’s father demanding a standing ovation for his son, we got down to business.

Langford finally told everyone what they wanted to hear. What many of them needed to hear. And what triggered an ecstatic roar.

Romeo will be a Hoosier.

The nation’s No. 6 senior according to Rivals.com becomes the first Indiana Mr. Basketball since Cody Zeller in 2011 to become a Hoosier, a fact that is part and parcel of a five-time national championship program’s slide from elite status in recent years. Too many stars have gone too many other places, a significant reason why Tom Crean was fired last year and Archie Miller’s first season was a 16-15 slog.

The 6-foot-5 shooting guard may be a one-and-done collegian, not on campus long enough to do for Indiana what Steve Alford and Isiah Thomas and Quinn Buckner once did. But he will help immediately and he may augur a return to prominence for the program.

After plenty of ceremonial pomp, Romeo Langford put an Indiana hat to commit to the Hoosies. (AP)
After plenty of ceremonial pomp, Romeo Langford put an Indiana hat to commit to the Hoosies. (AP)

Miller has signed four four-star prospects for 2018-19. Adding the five-star Langford late should provide an immediate impact on Indiana’s place in the Big Ten pecking order. In the bigger picture, this re-establishes the Hoosiers’ primacy with the top in-state players.

“He is this generation’s Oscar Robertson or Damon Bailey,” said New Albany coach Jim Shannon, citing two of the all-time greats from Indiana. Indeed, Langford gave chase to Bailey’s all-time career scoring record before finishing fourth in state annals, with 3,002 points.

Those are regal names to be placed alongside, and those comparisons only heighten the expectations placed on a quiet, stoic teenager. The entire production Monday night only served to further aggrandize someone with a lot of proving left to do. This was Americana at its best and worst.

A town of about 36,000 embraced its native son, celebrated his accomplishments and sent him off with an outsized show of affection. The mayor showed up. The school board showed up. Cheerleaders, pep band, people who knew Romeo at Mount Tabor Elementary School and beyond.

All that was cool.

But the indulgent nature of the event was decidedly less cool. Tim Langford, Romeo’s dad, used many first-person pronouns (“I believe in doing it my way”) when talking about what was supposed to be his son’s decision. He wasn’t exactly LaVar Ball, but Tim Langford certainly seemed to be exerting his influence on the proceedings.

All things considered, this announcement was thematically apt. It served as a microcosm of Langford’s entire decision-making process — a protracted, over-the-top exercise that went on too long.

The announcement was 30 seconds of news preceded by 45 minutes of pomp. The college choice itself stretched on five months after Langford cut his list of finalists to three. The fact that all of this played out the way it did — with a breathless media audience and live streams aplenty — is symptomatic of what ails college basketball.

Turning teenagers into brands, swooned over by shoe companies and agents and coaches and media members, can warp reality and invite excess. When things get really crazy, the FBI takes notice.

Not that Langford is caught up in that, to the best of anyone’s knowledge. But it’s worth noting that Adidas, the shoe company at the center of the federal investigation of college hoops, basically built an AAU team especially for Romeo last spring.

They named it Twenty Two Vision. (Twenty-two has been Langford’s AAU jersey number, is part of his Twitter handle, @YeahYeah_22, and also is the number he wanted to wear at New Albany but it was taken by a senior.)

Adidas outfits Indiana. And Kansas. And Louisville, which was in the mix for Langford before being implicated in the federal probe that blew up the program last September. That could all be coincidence.

Here’s what seems less coincidental: In early April, Twenty Two Vision announced on its Twitter account that it will not field an AAU team in 2018. Langford’s AAU playing days are over, by the way.

None of this, of course, bothered the thousands of Indiana fans who were waiting and hoping for this to happen. They got their man, even if it’s not for long. Romeo Langford is an Indiana Mr. Basketball and an Indiana Hoosier, and Melissa Bostock’s long vigil outside the school was worth it in the end.

New Albany coach Jim Shannon announced the jersey retirement of Romeo Langford during his commitment ceremony on Monday. (AP)
New Albany coach Jim Shannon announced the jersey retirement of Romeo Langford during his commitment ceremony on Monday. (AP)

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