Romeo Langford scored 39 points to lead the Bulldogs past Trayce Jackson-Davis and Center Grove in Saturday's 4A regional final at Seymour.
SEYMOUR – Picture this: Romeo Langford is holding a baby and smiling for the baby’s mom, who is holding a cellphone and taking a photo. Now picture this: Romeo is signing the wheelchair of a 58-year-old New Albany fan with cerebral palsy named Tim LaDuke. Now picture this: Romeo is signing the front of a kid’s shirt. And the back of another kid’s shirt. Then someone’s cellphone. And now a dollar bill.
Now imagine this: This is how Romeo celebrated winning the Class 4A regional title Saturday night. This is how he spent more than an hour after scoring 39 points to lead New Albany past Center Grove 69-56, while his teammates were cutting down a net and mingling with classmates and then finally sitting down and just watching as Romeo signs more autographs, holds more babies, smiles more smiles.
IHSAA basketball regional finals roundup: Photos, stats, scores, highlights
What is being asked of Romeo Langford, it boggles the mind. Off the court, I’m saying. On the court? Well, yes, New Albany asks so much of him there as well. At 6-5, Romeo is the biggest player on the team but also its most skilled, which means he’s the guy who breaks the press and hits the 3-pointers and grabs 13 rebounds and scores on the low block. Even with a player as dominant as 6-8 junior power forward Trayce Jackson-Davis scoring 24 points, Center Grove was never going to beat New Albany. Hell, for much of Saturday night Center Grove was struggling to outscore Romeo. That’s how good he was. And is.
But off the court, well, this must be what Damon Bailey experienced when he was becoming a state icon, not to mention the state’s all-time scoring leader, at Bedford North Lawrence in 1990. Damon Bailey personified what we call Hoosier Hysteria. And now, so does Romeo Langford.
For 65 minutes he signed autographs on Saturday night, after playing his second game in nine hours, while teammates were cutting the net from one rim and almost finishing off the other before New Albany AD Don Unruh gently pulled him away from the throng of fans and led him to the ladder — where the throng followed. Standing there with scissors in one hand and pieces of the net in the other, Romeo was beseeched by dozens of tiny hands, reaching up for whatever he could bestow upon them.
At one point three middle-school boys were clamoring for a picture and bickering among themselves. All three wanted to be part of the photo, part of Romeo, but someone had to take the damn thing. Finally one of them pointed at the Jackson County Sheriff’s deputy who was serving as Romeo’s de facto body guard, and the deputy smiled and beckoned for the cellphone. The deputy’s name is Charlie Murphy. After he took the picture and gave back the phone, surrounded by 75 or 100 fans wanting a piece of this high school senior almost an hour after the game, I asked him: Have you ever seen anything like this?
“No,” Charlie Murphy tells me. “This is crazy.”
But then he remembers something.
“Well, last year,” he says, referring to the Class 4A regional that was held here at Seymour. “With him.”
Murphy is pointing at Romeo.
This state has great players every year, mega-Division I recruits like Greg Oden and Eric Gordon and Kris Wilkes and all those Zeller brothers, but Indiana hasn’t had a phenomenon like this since Damon Bailey. Langford is the state’s best high school player in years, maybe since Glenn Robinson way back in 1991, and he bolsters that magnificent game with that magical name — Romeo — and a gentle persona that has young mothers handing their babies to him as he stands in his sweaty basketball uniform. And on top of all that, he has patience and maturity bordering on the mystical for a kid his age.
Again: He signed autographs and smiled for cameras for 65 minutes on Saturday night, climbing down from the ladder after snipping the net and returning to the throng, not the locker room, because there were several hundred fans still waiting. One of them, George South, is a 48-year-old from Seymour who collects sports memorabilia. He had Romeo sign a baseball he plans to have mounted, and he had Romeo sign a small piece of cardboard he plans to frame, and then George South will put those together with the rest of his Mount Rushmore of sports signatures back home:
Mickey Mantle. Nolan Ryan. Don Larsen. And now, Romeo Langford.
“I’m not doing this for monetary gain,” South was telling me. “I wanted his signature just for me.”
The New Albany Bulldogs advance to the regional finals, beat Bloomington South 65-45.
I look back at Romeo, and he’s posing for a picture with two small boys. The kids’ father can’t figure out how to get all the faces in the frame — Romeo is so tall, and his boys are so short — so he gestures for Romeo to bend down. Lower … lower …
Romeo is doing the limbo, smiling all the way, and then smiles again when the dad says: Thank you.
More than 45 minutes after the game has ended, the crowd around Romeo is so large that Laurie Striegel has given up on getting a picture. She’s 48, and she has to get going — she works with Pamela Jones at the Volunteers of America satellite office in New Albany, and they need to get wheelchair-bound Bulldogs fan Tim LaDuke back home — but she wants her brush with greatness, too.
Striegel pushes gently into the crowd — closer, closer — and reaches out a hand and … there. She’s done it. Her hand brushes against Romeo’s arm, and Striegel says softly to nobody in particular: “I just had to touch him.”
I’m following Striegel out of the gym, walking with her and Jones as they wheel LaDuke toward the parking lot, and asking her: Why?
“I just wanted to see if he’s real,” she says of Romeo Langford.
“I think so.”