Whatever Happened to Indiana’s Damon Bailey?
For all the constant change and upheaval, college basketball is cyclical in nature.
Indiana has the look of a national title contender this season. The fifth-ranked Hoosiers ran their record to 15–1 on Saturday thanks to Cody Zeller, a homegrown 7-footer whose all-around game makes Indiana residents misty-eyed.
It’s a familiar refrain in comparison to what was transpiring two decades ago in Bloomington. Only then it was a sweet-shooting guard from nearby Bedford, IN, named Damon Bailey who held his home state in thrall while keeping the Hoosiers atop the college basketball landscape.
At Indiana, the 6-foot-3 Bailey made it to one Final Four (1992), one Elite Eight (1993) and two Sweet Sixteens (1991 and 1994). He was the 1991 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and nearly 20 years after graduating, he is still seventh on the Hoosiers’ all-time scoring list (1,741).
Then, after four years at the center of the college basketball universe, Bailey seemed to disappear. Knee injuries prevented him from ever suiting up in the NBA, although he did spend five years playing in the CBA and France. When the 2000s rolled around, Bailey’s playing career was done.
Bailey’s cult status among Hoosiers fans has never truly waned. Yet there’s no need to tread far off the beaten path to find him. He’s back in the place where “The Legend of Damon Bailey” truly began.
Bedford is a small, south central Indiana town of 13,413 in Lawrence County — one county over from where Larry Bird grew up in French Lick. At 1101 12th Street, you’ll find Hawkins Bailey Warehouse, a maintenance supply company that sells lubricants, grease, filters, coolant, fuel conditioner, batteries and other equipment for off-highway equipment and highway trucks.
Bailey co-founded the Warehouse in 1994 — the year he graduated from IU — with Randy Hawkins. He is still the company’s co-owner. Bailey did not respond to requests for an interview.
There’s something quintessentially, small-town Indiana about Bailey’s adult life, so much so that it seems tailor-made for a John Mellencamp song. He’s married to his sweetheart from middle school, Stacey. Together they have three children, daughters Alexa and Loren and a son, Brayton. Alexa is in her sophomore season at Bailey’s alma mater, Bedford North Lawrence High School.
“A very smart player; a coaches kid and understands the game and what we want done,” Bailey told the Louisville Courier-Journal last July, when he was coaching both Alexa and Loren on the Indiana Elite 14-and-under girls’ AAU team. “She’s a kid who really likes the game and wants to get better, so we’ll see where it takes her.”
For now, it’s taken Alexa to a court named after her father. And with good reason.
These days, if a middle schooler is ordained as basketball’s “Next Big Thing,” hardly anyone bats an eye. Recruiting has evolved so much that potential future stars are identified at a younger and younger age. But it wasn’t always like that.
Bailey was just a 14-year-old eighth grader in 1986 when then Indiana coach Bobby Knight remarked to author John Feinstein — whose season spent covering the Hoosiers would yield the best-selling book “A Season on the Brink” — that “Damon Bailey is better than any guard we have right now. I don’t mean potentially better, I mean better today.”
The pressure of being so wildly praised by a coaching icon (and a god as far as Indiana fans and residents were concerned) could have gotten to Bailey. If anything, he fulfilled Knight’s prophecy and then some.
Despite the fact that Bedford North Lawrence was annually undersized in comparison to many of its opponents, Bailey led the Stars to three state Final Fours. He scored a still-standing Indiana record 3,134 points, the final 30 of which he netted in a 1990 state championship game victory against previously undefeated Concord High School in front of 41,000 people at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.
The “Bailey Legend” only grew when he moved on to the Hoosiers. He was a role player in support of the likes of Alan Henderson and 1993 National Player of the Year Calbert Cheaney, yet IU’s sports information office “received more requests for Bailey photos, autographs and appearances than for any other player,” as Sports Illustrated’s William F. Reed wrote in December 1993. That Bailey’s IU teams were wildly successful (a combined 108–26 over four seasons) surely helped.
It will be 19 years this March that Bailey last played at Indiana. The “Bailey Legend” is now confined to the annals. It was briefly resuscitated when he returned to his high school alma mater to coach the basketball team, only to dissipate when he resigned after two seasons and a 23–19 record in 2007.
“In my situation with a family and trying to be a high school coach and having a business as well, trying to juggle all three of those, something is always going to suffer,” he said in March 2007 after tendering his resignation. “I think the basketball program was the one that I decided to put third, and that’s not fair to the program and that’s not fair to the kids that are there.”
It’s still evident today that Bailey’s priorities are his family, his business and his hometown as the real-life equivalent of Hoosiers’ Jimmy Chitwood.
Yes, life is still sweet for Damon Bailey - even if we’re no longer talking about his jump shot.