Unassuming Indiana Basketball Phenom Romeo Langford Just Wants to Play Ball

Mirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorApril 12, 2018

The White Team's Romeo Langford #9 in action against the Black Team during the Jordan Brand Classic high school basketball game, Sunday, April 8, 2018, in Brooklyn. The White Team won the game. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Everyone in New Albany has a story about Romeo Langford. Drive a few miles down Charlestown Road in the sleepy Southern Indiana city and listen to the legend growing around the 5-star, 18-year-old prospect.

Inside Kroger, a silver-haired man is bent over and unpacking Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Noosa Yoghurt. His eyes widen as I ask about Romeo.

"He's the best we've ever had," Chuck Stroud tells me. Stroud's been a New Albany High School season-ticket holder for 20 years. "He's humble. He's a good kid. And that don't happen too much anymore."

Romeo smiles and signs autographs for more than 90 minutes after every game, even as his hand grows stiff, even as his slice of pizza turns cold. He takes photos with babies. He visits the sick in hospitals. And every night, he puts on a show. Scoring from anywhere—midrange, from three, at the rim—he is so unstoppable in the open floor that he is considered a "once-in-a-generation" talent by Jim Shannon, his New Albany coach.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Langford immortalized himself in Indiana hoop history this season, as he finished his high school career fourth all time with 3,002 career points (132 points shy of the top mark), including a 63-point outburst against Jennings County.

"I'm surprised they ain't named a street after him already," Stroud says.

Kolkin Coffee Co.'s owner, Gary Almon, calls him "New Albany's No. 1 son." Alan Butts, Coffee Crossing's owner, runs through his favorite Romeo moments: Romeo draining an unthinkable 70-footer against Providence. Romeo, 6'5", throwing down a thunderous one-handed dunk over 6'11" Jaren Jackson Jr., who just declared for the NBA draft. Romeo pouring in 46 against Southport in the state semifinals as a sophomore.

"You can't guard him," Butts says.

Linda Morgan, owner of Make the Cut, a men's hair salon, tells me how Romeo says "yes, ma'am" and "yes, sir." She points to a wall with a portrait of PGA Tour star and New Albany native Fuzzy Zoeller. Then she points to a blank wall. "I've been saving this side for Romeo," she says.

Folks here—and across the country—are anxiously waiting for the shooting guard to reveal his college decision. But Langford, who is the highest-ranked unsigned prospect at No. 5, is in no rush. He'll pick between Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt by month's end.

"I pray it's IU," Stroud says. So do the people at Hoopsters Sports Bar & Grill in Jeffersonville and Couch's Body & Frame Shop in Clarksville, who have the same sign out front: "ROMEO LANGFORD PLEASE CHOOSE IU". Fans chant "IU! IU! IU!" toward the end of games. Folks at Romeo's barbershop in Louisville, just across the Ohio River from New Albany, are still trying to convince him to go to Kentucky or Louisville, though neither are in the running.

Where people want him to go and what people want him to be whirl around him like a tornado gaining speed. But he doesn't get swept up in it. His feet are planted, his mind is clear. He's doing this his way.

He walks into his coach's office wearing a black McDonald's All-American jacket a week after scoring 19 in the contest. There is a letter addressed to him from Indiana state representative Trey Hollingsworth. A photo shoot awaits. But Langford isn't thinking about any of that. He has to catch the school bus home at 2:35. He'll probably devour a bowl of Reese's Puffs cereal first thing, like he often does when he gets home.

He breaks into a smile and extends his hand. And in a voice so soft it almost sounds like a whisper, he says to me: "Hi. I'm Romeo."

An hour earlier, Shannon rushes downstairs to meet me. He had been on two phones at once, his cell and landline, answering two separate inquiries about Langford.

"This is Romeo Mania. It's really crazy for a high school kid," Shannon tells me.

"He walks by my room in seventh period every day and I've got students out there that are like, 'Oh my gosh! Romeo Romeo Romeo!" says teacher David Bradley. "It gets to the point where I have to say, 'Let's let Romeo be and let him get on with his day.'"

Once, Romeo was walking with his friend, Wyatt Malone, when a man on a motorcycle spotted the pair, parked and rushed toward them.

"Are you that Langford kid?"

Romeo looked a little scared. "Yes, sir."

The man pulled out a pen and paper and asked for his autograph, and, of course, asked where he's going to college.

"He's used to that stuff," Malone tells me.

A local high school player hasn't garnered this much attention since former Indiana star Damon Bailey. Langford stands out. He has a quick release but is proving to be more than just a scorer. He deflects passes, changes shots and has improved his rebounding. He's long, athletic and quick, and he uses his IQ to anticipate on the other end of the ball.

"He has the potential to be a lockdown perimeter defender," says Evan Daniels, 247 Sports Director of Basketball Recruiting.

On offense, he'll throw down a windmill dunk with brutal force like the rim has wronged him, then sprint back the other way silent and expressionless, as if he stepped into a library. He's just as unassuming snaking his way to the basket and gliding past defenders with so much ease that people think he isn't hustling. But he's just smooth in the way his father had always hoped he'd be, which is why Tim Langford almost named his son "Valentino." His wife, Sabrina, shut that down. Romeo stuck.

Tim tells me IU's coaches say his son would be revered almost like a "god" if he chooses Indiana. Tim lets out a hearty laugh and our table at Zaxby's wobbles. No one in the Langford family sees Romeo like that. He's just Romeo. The cereal prince. A quiet, goofy kid who has jokes. If you have a bald spot, he'll probably call you Ginobili.

He's an old soul. His favorite artist is Michael Jackson. He used to play the trumpet but didn't join the marching band because he was hesitant to play in front of the whole school. He's never had a Facebook. He's good at math and at draining 40-footers. He arrives to games 90 minutes early. He doesn't show any emotion on the court.

"You wouldn't be able to tell if he scored two points or 60 points by the look on his face," says friend Kameron Guess.

Last year, Langford was asked to visit a five-year-old boy in a funeral home. The boy's mother had just died of cancer. Seeing Romeo's face might have been the happiest day of that boy's young life. Langford isn't overwhelmed by the attention. Just genuinely surprised by it.

"When I'm signing autographs, or when people want me to do certain things, it's like, I'm just 18 years old. I'm a kid. Why do you want my autograph?" Langford tells me. "I really could care less if I was famous or not. I like playing the game. That's what makes me more happy than anything—playing basketball. It's not so much about the awards and fame and all that. I just like playing basketball."

Later that day, Romeo Langford is clanking step-back after step-back at the elbow with his trainer, Dion Lee, here at Central High School in Louisville. Langford's poker face doesn't break. But Jonathan Jeanty, a family friend looking on, knows Langford is pissed.

"He expects to make every shot," Jeanty tells me. "He's kind of a perfectionist."

He's not flicking his wrist hard enough. It's been sore since landing awkwardly in a January game. The follow through was one of the first things Tim taught his son.

"Romeo, you got to feel it," he'd say to his young son.

"What do you mean, Dad?"

"You got to feel it. You got to know it's going in. It's a feel thing."

It wasn't until 10th grade that the boy truly understood that his dad was talking about confidence more than mechanics: "Dad! I think I'm starting to feel it!"

Muscle memory returns in this workout, and Langford drains five in a row, as if the misses never happened. That's one of the reasons college coaches are on his tail: He doesn't lose his cool.

That's Tim again. When Romeo was in fourth grade, he turned the ball over and fouled a kid. Little Romeo waved his hands up and down and pouted to the referee. Tim couldn't wait until the game was over.

"Romeo, let me tell you something," he said. "Don't show no kind of emotion. … Control what you can control. Never lose control."

Langford played football, too, even tennis. But hoops seemed natural. The family had a Nerf ball and plastic basket hung in the hallway. One day, four-year-old Romeo swished 10 in a row. He had a real jump shot in elementary school.

"Some young kids, they push the ball, but he's always had a smooth, sweet touch," Lee says.

And he wasn't in a hurry. Former NBA player Rod Strickland remembers watching Langford when he was in seventh grade (Strickland's son, Tai, was on the same team). He was taking the right shots, making the right passes. Not forcing anything. Flowing. Sitting in the stands with Lee, Strickland exclaimed: "[Romeo] is a grown man! He is a grown man!"

Langford is taking his no-hurry approach with the recruiting process. He told college coaches and reporters he'd wait until after his senior season to make his decision so that he could focus entirely on his team. During that time, he and his family rarely talked about it. Tim says he still doesn't know where his son will go. Romeo says he still doesn't know, either.

"It's one of the biggest decisions of my life. I'm going to be living there for the next however many months, so I might as well take my time and focus on the things I need to focus on," he says.

Tim tries his best to shield his son from the chaos. He says some schools grew frustrated that he wouldn't allow unfettered access to his son, and some grew impatient that Romeo wouldn't commit sooner.

"Romeo's old-fashioned. That's the way we brought him up," Tim says. "We in control. We going to do it the way we want to do it. I don't care how much the fans want this, how much the colleges want this. We going to do it the way [Romeo] wants to do it."

"We not going to a school because of the name of the school on the jersey," Tim often tells his son. "We going because you want to go there and they make you better as a person, as an athlete, and also getting that degree. ... You gonna make a decision when you ready, not when they ready."

Romeo calls his father at 6:50 every morning before he catches the bus to school, as the two don't get a chance to see each other before the day begins (Tim begins work at 6). They talk about Romeo's goals for the day. His tests, his classes. How he's feeling, what he's thinking.

Anything but hoops.

The call only lasts three to five minutes, but it is sacred for both of them. They've been doing it since Romeo was in seventh grade.

Tim and Sabrina taught Romeo and his two older sisters, Tisha and Tiffany, to always say good morning. To put family first and respect elders. Things are earned, not given. Don't get caught up in the "computer world," as Tim puts it. "Let's stay grounded. Let's stay respectful. Let's stay humble and let's love each other."

Even though Romeo was a highly sought-after prospect back in middle school, his father still told him he'd have to earn his spot coming into freshman year. Maybe he'd be the sixth man, or seventh or eighth. Whatever it was, he'd have to work for his minutes.

This is why Romeo spends an hour shooting after practice these days, mostly NBA threes (Shannon always jokes with him: "You know, you don't get four points for those"). This is why when he drops 48, like he did against Charlestown, he expects more out of himself. This is why he isn't stressed about taking his time with his college decision. He remembers what his dad always tells him: When that ball stops rolling, you will still have your family to love.

When Romeo was in middle school, folks in New Albany buzzed about where he'd attend high school. Rumors swirled every which way: Would he stay local and go to New Albany? Or would he go somewhere in Kentucky?  

Call that The Decision 1.0.

The questions persisted even after his freshman year at New Albany. "Will he stay?" And after his sophomore year, when New Albany won state: "Will he really stay now?" And junior and senior year: "Will he go to a prep school?"

Now facing The Decision 2.0, the obvious Indiana Mr. Basketball pick and his family are brainstorming the announcement ceremony. Even though Langford's favorite player is LeBron James, he wants to do something much more low key than King James.

Tim recently suggested a get-together by the Ohio River, an area that often hosts concerts. He could call the mayor to set up a big event.

"Nah, Dad," Romeo said.

Since Romeo is known to wear red, white and black arm sleeves, Tiffany suggested having three sleeves on a table: a blue one for Kansas, a red one for Indiana and a gold one for Vanderbilt. Then Romeo would put on the sleeve for the corresponding college he will attend.

"Nah, man," Romeo said.

"Come on," Tim said, laughing. "You gotta give us something."

Romeo smiled that same shy, warm, Romeo smile. Just give him a basketball. He'll take care of the rest.


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