In the basketball-crazed state of Indiana, Damon Bailey created more headlines than any high school player in the state’s history during his remarkable career. Bailey’s career scoring mark of 3,134 points remains the state record today, and he capped his fairy-tale career by leading Bedford North Lawrence High School to the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) state title before 41,046 fans at the Hoosier Dome in 1990. Bailey was Mr. Basketball in Indiana in 1990, and he was a McDonald’s All-American and the consensus National Player of the Year. Bailey was a four-year starter at Indiana University and led his team to the 1992 NCAA Final Four. On June 30, Bailey will be inducted into the NFHS National High School Hall of Fame.
Question: Growing up in basketball-crazed Indiana, when did you first realize that you were seriously interested in basketball?
Bailey: I was fortunate living in a small town. My father and his buddies played pick-up games when I was young, so I was introduced to the game very early. I had always played here locally in Bedford and had some success. When I was nine years old, there was a gentleman by the name of Tom “Red” Taylor who coached an AAU team out of Indianapolis called Municipal Gardens. He came, watched me in a tournament and asked me to play for them. We played in what was then the AAU national tournament. We won and I was named MVP. I think it was at that point that it kind of hit me that I’m decent at basketball and, if I continue to work at it and improve, I might have a chance to do something with it. Finding success at a relatively young age helped with the drive to put the work into it to get better.
Question: As an eighth-grader, you burst onto the national scene when you were initially recruited by legendary Indiana University coach Bob Knight. What was it like handling those expectations at that age in Indiana?
Bailey: As an eighth-grade kid, when you have someone like Coach Knight come watch you play and have him say the things that he said to me, it’s awfully easy to get a big head and think you’re a lot better than what you really are. I had strong parents who were able to keep all of that in check for me and really put things in perspective about where I was at that point – telling me, although I may be good, I need to continue to work and improve in order to get to the highest level; I can’t just sit around and think about how good I may be. In today’s world, getting that kind of attention isn’t uncommon. Back then – before social media and all that – it was something that was very rare.
Question: The 1990 IHSAA state basketball championship drew what’s widely recognized as a national record 41,046 fans. In your shoes, what was that setting like to be a part of?
Bailey: Looking back on it now, it’s unbelievable. At that time – and I tell people this, but I don’t know that anybody really believes me – it was just another game. I had grown up in that spotlight. It had happened for me at such an early age that, quite honestly, it was just part of my life. All throughout my high school career, we were used to playing in front of a lot of people and sold out gyms or arenas. Being in Indiana, there are a lot of gyms that have anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000, or even 8,000 seats, so a lot of our games were moved to larger venues to fit everyone. Some of our games were moved to Indiana University’s Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana State University’s Hulman Center in Terre Haute or Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Ever since I got into high school, our gym in Bedford held about 6,300 people and it was always full and sold out. Playing in that type of atmosphere was something we had gotten accustomed to. The year before, our state championship game was in Market Square Arena and the attendance was close to 20,000. To add another 20,000 onto that is simply a huge number, but to us it was another game in front of a lot of people.
Question: In the leadup to that championship, you consistently experienced sellouts in your gym at Bedford North Lawrence. As a player, what did you learn in those moments? What was the significance to you having those experiences?
Bailey: Being older now, it’s something that I have a different perspective on. Even going back to my middle school days, I had a middle school gym that held 700 to 800 people and it was packed. Growing up in Indiana, that’s just the way it was. I just assumed that’s the way it was everywhere. Looking back on it now, it’s just amazing and, quite honestly, it’s something that I don’t think will ever be duplicated because the world has changed. We’re all busier, have a lot going on and going to high school games isn’t as much a priority as it once was. We’re coming up on the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star Game. I was fortunate to have a daughter on the Indiana All-Star Team a few years ago, and I got a son on the junior all-star team here. That whole thing is not what it once was. Again, for those of us who grew up in that era, it’s kind of sad because there’s not as many of those stories about those like me or the Richie Farmers of the world out of Kentucky.
Question: To date, your 3,134 points in high school remain a record for the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). What does that accomplishment mean to you?
Bailey: It’s a record that I’m very proud of. In the past few years, there’s been some guys who have been close. I think it’s a record that will be broken. The game has changed to where it’s played faster. In the state of Indiana, by going to class basketball, some people are going to get more opportunities to break that from a games standpoint. I was fortunate to be able to come in as a freshman, play and contribute at a very high level. Our teams also had a tremendous amount of success. I think we played 110 games in my high school career and there were only five or six additional games I could’ve played in because of how far we went in the tournament every year. I came as close to maxing out a total number of games as I could. The record is something that I’m proud of but I don’t think it defines me as a player.
Question: How did you go about reinforcing multisport participation to your kids?
Bailey: I think athletics in general are something all kids should be involved in, especially at an early age. Athletics teach a lot of life lessons that are very good later in life. It’s a small percentage of people who are going to make a living in athletics. I think sometimes we as parents lose sight of that because we think our kids are going to play in the MLB, NBA or NFL. My kids played multiple sports growing up. We introduced them to soccer, baseball, softball, football – my kids played all of them. Once they got to the middle school and high school levels, they got to the point that their true love for basketball made it to where they wanted to devote their time to it. It wasn’t something that I forced on them. Had they wanted to play a different sport, I would have been very supportive of that. The one thing that I’ll admit to doing is that I made them play sports because of their benefits.
Question: What did you learn by experiencing any hardships as a college student-athlete or at the professional level that student- athletes today could find value in?
Bailey: I’ve always said that the high school level is the highest and purest level of sports. At that point, you’re playing a game strictly for the love of the game with your friends, and your community also has some involvement in that. If you have success, as we’ve been able to experience in Bedford, that community involvement helps bring it together and is something special. At the collegiate and professional level, it’s a job. I don’t care what anybody says, even though you’re not getting paid at the collegiate level, it’s still a job. You’re getting an education and certain expectations are placed on you. I think that’s also when a lot of people just get burnt out on the game. You’re no longer doing it out of love, but rather because you have to. That’s one of the great things about kids playing multiple sports because it’s a way to have fun in many different areas at the high school level. It’s something where you’re just enjoying playing with friends. Although there are some expectations, they’re not the same as they are at those next levels.
Question: Having coached your daughters at the high school and collegiate levels, what was it like crossing over into women’s athletics and, not only experiencing success, but even winning a state championship with them?
Bailey: It was a lot of fun. I tell people today that I would much rather coach girls than boys. The girls game has gotten so much better. The kids’ athleticism and skill is increasing. For me, they play the way I grew up playing basketball, and, in quotation marks, “playing it the right way,” because the boys game has become very individualized. It’s become “give me the ball and get out of the way.” The girls game isn’t to that style, yet. As a coach, I thought I could have much more of an impact at the girls level because they play the way I was accustomed to, which goes back to idolizing Larry Bird, and his playing style of sharing the ball, working hard and putting the team first. That has been my experience with the girls game, and I enjoyed it immensely. I coach my son’s team now. I enjoy that but the kids have a different mindset – not that it’s right or wrong – but for me has been an adjustment
Cody Porter is a graphic arts/communications assistant in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department.