Lost in the legend of Steve Alford: The other Indiana star who disappeared

Yahoo Sports

NEW CASTLE, Ind. – You enter at the top, and Hoosier Hysteria sprawls before you. This is the sunken treasure of Indiana high school basketball.

New Castle Fieldhouse sits below ground level, a massive artifact from the grandiose glory days when small-town basketball was larger than life. It opened in 1959 and is still the largest high school gym in the world, with a listed capacity of 9,325. That’s more than half the current population of this dwindling post-industrial city.

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The Fieldhouse remains stubbornly untainted by modernity – vast in scale but resolutely minimalist in design. The parquet floor is surrounded by row after row of dark, unadorned wooden bleachers. There is no chairback seating, no handrails, no creature comfort of any kind.

It is a purist’s playground. A gym rat’s haven.

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The most celebrated New Castle gym rat was Steve Alford, the archetypal Indiana sharpshooter whose dad, Sam, coached the Trojans for 20 years. Alford’s exploits filled the biggest of all high-school arenas past capacity – they added temporary bleachers up top for his most important games, regularly swelling attendance beyond 10,000.

Steve Alford starred at New Castle long before he became UCLA’s head coach.
Steve Alford starred at New Castle long before he became UCLA’s head coach.

But Steve Alford was hardly the only New Castle gym rat whose life moved to the beat of a bouncing basketball. Among those who followed his famous footsteps was another coach’s son, another kid who had a key to the Castle to shoot anytime day or night, a tough little guard Steve knew from birth and used to babysit. His name is Brandon Miller.

They are two sons of New Castle who shared a cavernous gym and a common path. Until it forked.

Today, Steve Alford is the millionaire coach of the No. 8-ranked team in America, UCLA. On the 30th anniversary of Alford leading Indiana to the national championship as a player, he will try to do it again as the coach of the Bruins – and with his son, Bryce, one of the star players. His life has been a nearly unbroken line of success and adulation, with basketball as the connective tissue from one stage to the next.

Today, Brandon Miller is a ghost. He’s home in New Castle, about 35 miles east of Indianapolis, trying to reconstruct a life that veered off the path taken by his idol, Alford. Outside of family and a very few friends, he is neither seen nor heard from.

Like his role model, Miller became a star at New Castle – he played one year under Sam Alford and then under his own father, Roger Miller, who was promoted after being Sam’s assistant. Brandon played one year for Steve Alford at Southwest Missouri State, helping the Bears on a Cinderella run to the 1999 NCAA tournament Sweet 16. When Alford left for Iowa, Miller transferred to his home state to play at Butler – he teamed in the backcourt with childhood friend and New Castle teammate Darnell Archey to lead the Bulldogs to a Cinderella Sweet 16 of their own in 2003.

Brandon Miller followed in Alford’s footsteps at New Castle.
Brandon Miller followed in Alford’s footsteps at New Castle.

Also like Alford, Miller went into coaching. He rose through the ranks as an assistant and at age 34 was named the head coach at his alma mater in the summer of 2013, when Brad Stevens left for the Boston Celtics. Losing Stevens after two incredible Final Four runs was a blow, but everyone agreed that Miller could sustain what Stevens built. He was universally viewed as a rising star in the profession.

Miller’s star dimmed quickly. Before the start of his second season as coach at Butler, he took a leave of absence for personal reasons that to this day remain undisclosed. About three months later, the leave became permanent.

Butler moved on. Miller disappeared.

He stopped taking calls from concerned colleagues and friends – the Alford family included. (Sam Alford and Roger Miller have been and remain very close.) Visitors who went to see Brandon didn’t get past the front door. Interview requests have been unanimously turned down. The few who have intimate knowledge of Miller’s struggles do not discuss them beyond vague generalities.

His departure from Butler was the second time Brandon left basketball for personal reasons. He resigned in 2011 from an assistant job under Thad Matta, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family, then returned to college coaching after a year away.

The absence has been longer and more private this time.

A lot of people in basketball, from the NBA to high schools, love and support Miller. So do the people of New Castle, who become animated at the mention of Steve Alford but more guarded at the mention of Brandon Miller.

They are protective of him. They hope for the best. They remain concerned.

“It’s a work in progress,” Roger Miller told Yahoo Sports last month. “He’s still working to get better. It’s been a long struggle, but we’re hopeful that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Will he ever coach again? That’s a complete unknown, and for the time being unimportant.

“I just want him to be totally healthy and back to being Brandon,” Steve Alford said. “He’s such a great guy from a great family, I just want the best for him.”

The paths of these two sons of New Castle may never again converge.

As you drive north on Indiana State Road 3 into town, the hotel sits on the right. For as little as $60 per night – small-town, Middle America pricing – you can stay at the Steve Alford All-American Inn and step into a shrine to the guy who once wore No. 12 for the Trojans.

Alford memorabilia is everywhere, from the giant sneaker out front painted in UCLA blue and gold to framed jerseys and pictures and trophies inside. Every uniform Alford ever wore, from New Castle to Indiana University to the Olympics to the NBA, is somewhere in the hotel.

Owner Kenny Cox was a New Castle teammate of Alford’s and then an assistant at his first coaching stop, Division III Manchester, which is about two hours north of their hometown. Cox originally followed Alford to Southwest Missouri State, then returned home to go into business.

Steve Alford’s former New Castle teammate, Kenny Cox, is the owner of the Steve Alford All-American Inn.
Steve Alford’s former New Castle teammate, Kenny Cox, is the owner of the Steve Alford All-American Inn.

That eventually led to hotel ownership. Alford had said he wanted some business tie to New Castle, and Cox suggested a hotel. Alford went along with it, as long as there were basketball hoops in the parking lot.

There are two of them, with glass backboards, close to the Steak ‘n Shake next door. They once had a basketball clinic in the lot.

“A little piece of heaven,” Steve Alford cracked, about New Castle and the hotel that bears his name.

Cox bills it as the only basketball-themed hotel in the world. He certainly picked the right town for it.

In many ways, New Castle is the epicenter of Hoosier Hysteria. In a state with 13 high school gyms that seat 7,000 or more, the Fieldhouse is king. And right next door is the shrine to the entire enterprise, the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

The exhibits there go back to the very beginning of the phenomenon, when Crawfordsville beat Lebanon 24-17 in 1911. The initial tournaments, staged in Bloomington by an IU booster group, must have been utter mayhem: 38 teams played the entire tourney in two days in 1913, with Wingate High winning seven games to capture the title. Then the teams were served a nine-course dinner “replete with punch, ice cream and Roman Candles,” according to one newspaper account.

From 1926-28, a muscular boy led the Martinsville Artesians to three straight title games. His name was John Wooden. He has his own exhibit at the Hall of Fame.

More than 40 years later, Sam Alford became the head coach at John Wooden’s alma mater. He had enough success there to attract the attention of a bigger school, New Castle, in the mighty North Central Conference. But he had one sell job to do at home.

“I was a fourth grader and I didn’t want to move,” Steve Alford recalled. “Then dad took me to that gym and I was done. I had to play there.”

Steve played there all the time. He tagged along with his dad at first, then acquired his own key to the gym and was there at all hours, honing one of the great shooting strokes in Indiana history.

One Fieldhouse ritual that never wavered: Alford’s last shot before leaving the gym had to be from the corner. He wouldn’t depart until he not only swished it, but swished it so pure that the net flew up and hung on the rim. That’s how you could tell Steve Alford had been there.

“I have great memories of working out there at 6 in the morning and at midnight, and all times in between,” Steve said.

In later years, his girlfriend sometimes shagged rebounds for him in the Fieldhouse. Steve met Tanya Frost in fifth grade – she was part of the neighborhood gang that got together to play kick the can and freeze tag and, of course, shoot baskets in someone’s driveway.

After years as pals, Steve and Tanya began dating. She was a cheerleader at New Castle. He was the star guard. At a time when the prevailing teenage dream in town was to run through the Fieldhouse tunnel wearing green and white, they were high school royalty.

By his junior and senior seasons, Steve Alford had become a phenomenon in a state that was flush with elite-level college talent. He broke school records belonging to the preceding New Castle superstar, Kent Benson, who went on to star on Indiana’s undefeated 1976 national championship team.

Benson had been a big deal. Alford became a bigger deal. Fans flocked to the Fieldhouse in the early 1980s to see him duel with Scott Hicks, who would go to Notre Dame, or James Blackmon, who would play at Kentucky.

That’s when the extra bleachers were brought in, and attendance swelled to five figures. Fans made pilgrimages from everywhere in Indiana to see those games.

“It was loud and sweaty and awesome,” Tanya recalled. “It shaped who we are as Hoosiers.”

Said Roger Miller: “This is a small town, and that’s what everybody lived for.”

New Castle Fieldhouse opened in 1959 and is still the largest high school gym in the world.
New Castle Fieldhouse opened in 1959 and is still the largest high school gym in the world.

Father and son Alford never won a state title – during the single-class halcyon dates of the Indiana high school tournament, just one school was fortunate enough to call itself state champ. But after averaging 37 points and shooting 94 percent from the foul line as a senior, Steve was on his way to bigger things at IU.

There was the Olympic gold medal in 1984, on a team coached by Bob Knight. Then there was the national title in ’87. And in between, late in the summer of ’86, there was one more legendary Alford moment in the Fieldhouse.

He was shooting. Tanya was rebounding. Steve swished his last shot and hung the net, then made up some lame excuse why he couldn’t get it down. He brought out a ladder and asked Tanya to climb it and fix the net.

On the heel of the rim was a diamond ring.

Where else would the two get engaged?

“It was romantic to us,” Tanya said, “if basketball was involved.”

Among the throngs who packed those wooden Fieldhouse bleachers to see Steve Alford shoot was young Brandon Miller. His babysitter had become a hero.

The Alford and Miller families were basically intertwined, starting with the patriarchs sharing a coaching office at New Castle High. Tanya remembers that one of her first dates with Steve was to attend Brandon’s 5-year-old birthday party. And Sam Alford employed young elementary-aged Brandon as a ringer at his summer basketball camps.

When introducing ball-handling drills, Sam would bring out Brandon to demonstrate the drills, then challenge any teenage camper to beat the kid dribbling two balls at once downcourt. Nobody ever could. Sam would pay Brandon in hot dogs.

Much as Steve Alford had as a kid, Brandon and his older brother, Scott, lived in the gym. Brandon was so driven to become a basketball standout that he started doing agility drills, sit-ups and pushups as a 9-year-old.

“He was a good example of an Indiana gym rat,” Sam Alford said of Brandon.

He became very good at a young age, but there was competition in town by the name of Darnell Archey. By age 9, they were waging pitched battles against each other.

Now an assistant coach at South Alabama, Archey still vividly recalls the Optimist League battles he had with Brandon Miller. Archey’s Citizens State Bank team went 17-0 in fifth grade and was 13-0 in sixth grade when they ran into Miller’s Smith Jewelers team.

“I fouled out with two minutes to play and we were up six,” Archey said. “Brandon scored eight straight to beat us. I remember looking forward to seventh grade, when I wouldn’t have to play against him.

“How competitive those fifth- and sixth-grade games were was what made us who we were in high school and college.”

They were standouts in high school, but not on the Alford Mr. Basketball level. Archey went to Butler, while Miller committed to Southwest Missouri as a high school sophomore and never wavered.

Roger Miller took Brandon to Springfield, Mo., to visit the Alfords that summer without any expectations. When Steve unexpectedly turned it into a recruiting pitch and offered him a scholarship, the Millers said that they would talk about it and get back to him.

“Really, there wasn’t much to talk about,” Roger recalled. “He committed pretty fast. Some coaches said Alford had him since he was swinging on the swing set.”

After that one Sweet 16 season, though, Alford upgraded to Iowa and Miller came home to Butler, joining Archey. Alford said not encouraging the 5-foot-11, modestly athletic Miller to join him in Iowa City was one of the biggest mistakes of his career.

Butler guard Brandon Miller walks through well-wishers outside Hinkle Fieldhouse on his way to the team bus in 2003. (AP)
Butler guard Brandon Miller walks through well-wishers outside Hinkle Fieldhouse on his way to the team bus in 2003. (AP)

Miller immediately became the starting point guard at Butler and helped them to the 2001 NCAA tournament, where the Bulldogs beat Wake Forest. Two years later, in the NCAA tournament in Birmingham, Miller and Archey teamed up for their “One Shining Moment.”

In the opening round, Miller hit a floater in the lane with 6.2 seconds to upset No. 5 seed Mississippi State. Two days later, Miller coolly handled fourth-seeded Louisville’s withering full-court pressure and found Archey for 3-point shots. Brandon later said he was prepared for it by a demanding 2-on-1 dribbling drill Sam Alford taught him at New Castle.

When Archey got the ball in shooting position, he was deadly. During college he broke the NCAA consecutive made free-throw record set by none other than Steve Alford, and he was money from 3-pont range as well. Against Louisville, the frail shooting guard buried eight of the nine he attempted, and Butler made the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1962.

“I’d just stand there and wait for the ball to come to me,” Archey said. “Brandon did all the work. If I was just a sliver open, he would get it to me.”

That run, as much as anything, was the beginning of Butler’s ascension to power-program status. Archey and Miller, two undersized kids from New Castle, have as much ownership of that as any Bulldogs.

After the victory over Louisville, two basketball dads spilled out of the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in search of a celebration. All Roger Miller and Dennis Archey could find was a White Castle, which was just fine.

In a postscript that is just so Butler, the two fathers remain best friends to this day. Their families vacationed together in Hawaii last year. And if you walk into the Hall of Fame on a random weekday afternoon, there they are – two retirees who volunteer a couple of days a week to give tours.

Between visitors at the Hall, they will talk as long as you care to listen about basketball and other sports. They’ll solve the world’s problems, gently needle each other, and often reminisce about great moments in Hoosier Hysteria.

They light up when discussing their kids’ playing days, memories growing fonder with every retelling.

Like his son, Dennis Archey has his picture on the wall in the Fieldhouse – he was a star wrestler at New Castle in the 1960s. He wound up a youth league basketball coach, and he coached AAU teams with Darnell and Brandon as his backcourt.

He still coaches youth basketball. Among the players he works with is Roger Miller’s grandson and Brandon’s son, Mason.

“He’s going to be a tough little cookie,” Dennis said.

Just like his dad. Yet when the conversation turns to Brandon, the parental worry lines become evident on Roger Miller’s face. Reminiscing is easy and fun; discussing the present is a bit more delicate.

“Eventually, he will have a story to tell,” Roger says.

“It’s going to be a great story,” Dennis adds supportively.

Roger nods.

“Hopefully,” he says, “with a happy ending.”

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