Thirty years ago -- yes, it's been 30 years -- they were the high school basketball equivalent of Picasso and Van Gogh.
Each in their unmistakable style, Steve Alford and James Blackmon covered the state in points during the 1982-83 season, setting single-season marks that still rank in the top 10 all time. They dueled against one another for four years in the heyday of the North Central Conference, Alford at New Castle and Blackmon at Marion, developing a friendly rivalry and mutual respect that carries on today.
"When you say 30 years, it makes it seem like a really long time ago," Blackmon said recently. "But it doesn't seem like it was that long ago." In fact, this season may feel like 1983 again as the sons of Alford and Blackmon are now the athletes posting huge numbers, each averaging nearly 40 points per game. The only difference three decades later is that they are separated by 1,400 miles instead of just 60.
With some trepidation, college coaches began asking about Bryce Alford during his junior season at La Cueva (N.M.) High School. It was widely assumed Bryce would commit to New Mexico, where Steve has coached since 2007.
When coaches would call Steve about Bryce, a 6-3 guard with that familiar Alford shooting touch, father made it clear his son was headed to New Mexico. Never mind that Bryce had not committed, or even been formally offered a spot. "I told all the coaches that he wasn't going anywhere else," said Alford, whose Lobos are 12-1 this season. "I just didn't tell Bryce that." Though Bryce jokes that he gave his dad "a little bit of grief" for not offering a scholarship earlier, it's true he never considered playing anywhere else. "We had a conversation one time when he asked me if I wanted to take any visits to other schools," Bryce said. "But I knew from the beginning that I wanted to play for him." Bryce officially committed at the end of his record-breaking junior season. Among the numerous school marks he set were highest scoring average (26.8 ppg), points in a game (44) and 3-pointers in a season (93). He led his Class 5A school (the state's largest class) to the state championship game, where it lost 75-72 to rival Eldorado despite Bryce's 38 points. The game was played in front of a frenzied crowd of 11,000 at "The Pit" on New Mexico's campus, slightly larger than the crowds of 9,000-plus that packed New Castle Fieldhouse for his dad's games in the early 1980s. "This is a big-time basketball state," Steve said. "They love it. Even for our exhibition games we have more than 13,000 fans. The high school games are very well attended. There's not the deep Division I talent that Indiana has because of the population difference, but people here are very passionate about basketball." Bryce, the second of Steve and Tanya Alford's three children (older brother Kory is a redshirt freshman guard at New Mexico), is putting up even more impressive numbers as a senior. Through eight games -- his team is 7-1 and ranked third in the state -- he's averaging 38.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists while shooting 51 percent from the field. Though those numbers are strikingly similar to his dad's 37.2-point average as a senior at New Castle (second all-time in state history), Steve rarely compares their games or even talks about his own accomplishments as a player. Bryce will occasionally hear bits and pieces from his grandfather, Sam Alford, who coached Steve at New Castle. "My dad will mess with me about it once in a while," Bryce said. "After I had 48 points and 11 assists in our first game this year, he told me he had 57 once (in a semistate game versus Broad Ripple as a senior). I'm not quite up there yet."
James Blackmon Jr.
Unlike Bryce Alford, who grew up in Iowa and New Mexico, hundreds of miles from people who watched his dad play in high school, James Blackmon Jr. has grown up hearing the comparisons to his father.
Blackmon Jr., a 6-2 junior guard at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, doesn't shy away from such talk. He's watched clips of his dad's legendary 52-point effort against Anderson in the first game of the 1983 state finals, an 89-87 double-overtime Marion loss in Blackmon's final high school game. "I always hear about how my dad was one of the best players to come out of the state of Indiana," said Blackmon Jr., who committed to Indiana before his freshman season. "I hear that we were both really smooth, but he was dunking on guys more than me. But I'm starting to get there now." Through five games, Blackmon Jr. is averaging 39.2 points, a pace that could bump his father from the top-10 single-season list for total points. Blackmon Sr. averaged 32.6 points in 28 games in his senior season. "I see the resemblance when I watch him," Blackmon Sr. said. "He shoots the ball a lot better than I do. I was a pretty good athlete, but he can really shoot and put the ball in the hole." Blackmon Jr., whose younger brother Vijay is a freshman at Luers, has plenty of motivation this season. After suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a game against Tech in February, he is eager to prove he is back to full strength. So far, so good. "I think he's probably a little ahead of schedule, but he just has to realize it takes 12 months to be all the way back," Blackmon Sr. said. "But he has his jumping ability back on that leg and he's going to the rim strong. He's done the things he needs to do to get that knee stronger."
Blackmon Sr. scored 40 or more points five times during the 1982-83 season, one of those a 41-point outburst at New Castle. But Alford topped him that night with 48 and New Castle rolled to a 103-79 win. "They really put it on us that night," Blackmon Sr. said. "But those are memories that you don't lose. Some of the battles we had over the years, I think we sort of fed off each other's accomplishments."
In most other seasons, Blackmon likely would have been a runaway choice for Mr. Basketball. He finished second behind Alford, whose New Castle team was upended by eventual state champion Connersville in the semistate championship at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
"If anybody (else) would have won Mr. Basketball, it would have been a different story," Blackmon said. "But Steve, he had a great career. I just realized that I was runner-up to a guy that was a great player." Blackmon, at Kentucky, and Alford, at Indiana, continued as rivals in college. In the second game of his college career, Blackmon scored a team-high 14 points as Kentucky defeated Indiana 59-54. "I don't think anybody shot a prettier jump shot," said Alford, who went on to score a then-record 2,438 points at Indiana and win a national title in 1987. "The way he could jump off the floor and elevate over the defense was incredible." Blackmon said he'll forever remember an act of kindness from Alford that strengthened the bond between the two. Prior to the Indiana All-Star game against Kentucky at Rupp Arena, Alford told Blackmon to lead the team onto the court, an honor usually reserved for Mr. Basketball. "Steve said, 'This is your home, you lead us out,'" Blackmon recalled. "Regardless of what the jersey said, he wanted me to do that. I really appreciated that thought of his. We respected each other a great deal." Neither man is surprised at the success of the other's son. It takes them back to a special time and place in their lives. Alford and Blackmon, lighting up scoreboards. Just like old times.