To anyone who has spent time in a gym shooting a basketball, there is nothing quite like hanging the net. It isn't easy to hang the net. It can be done only from a certain part of the floor, with a shot arched just so, garnished with precisely the right backspin. But when a jump shooter has traced that transcendental trajectory from the deep corner and caused the bottom of the net to lap up over the far side of the rim and tangle there, he has found the game's sweet spot. Hang the net enough times, and you could end up hanging the moon.
Steve Alford never let one of his countless private workouts end without hanging the net, and that is one of the reasons he found himself cutting the net in the Louisiana Superdome after his Indiana Hoosiers beat Syracuse 74-73 for the NCAA title. That is also why Tanya Frost, his high school sweetheart, didn't think anything of it when she stopped by the gym at New Castle High last summer and found a stepladder under one basket. Steve had been working out, and Tanya figured the net was tangled up but good.
"She walked in, and I told her I couldn't go on with my workout with the net like that," Alford recalls. "She likes to help any way she can, so...."
"So, I climbed up the ladder," is how Tanya tells it. "I started yanking at the net, but it was stuck. So I went up one more step, and I saw the engagement ring in a box on the back of the rim.
"It was perfect."
Also, you're thinking, a little perverse. But Alford has passed virtually every milestone in his life in some basketball arena. He learned to count as a three-year-old by watching the numbers tick off the scoreboard in Monroe City, Ind., where his dad, Sam, coached the high school team. When Sam moved up to Martinsville, his players would stash little Steve in an empty locker before practice. By the time the Alfords settled in New Castle (pop. 18,000, gym cap. 9,250) a dozen years ago, Steve had surrendered his adolescence to the game.
He wore out net after net—"I'd go through six or seven every summer," he says—and before Tanya came along, the patience of quite a few high school girls. Dad, can I have the keys to the gym tonight?" A lot of kids told me I was missing out on a lot of fun," Alford says. "But where was Jaws II going to help me down the road?"
The boy has a point. It wasn't going to help him pump-fake Tark the Shark's souped-up guards into Lake Pontchartrain and bury jumpers and leaners that would beat UNLV in the semifinals. Nor was it going to help him bottom out seven three-pointers in the championship game, four in the first half with the Hoosiers trailing Syracuse and about to be blown out.
And if he had squandered his Saturday nights at the movies, Alford wouldn't have been stuffing strands of net into his own little box with a ring—a championship ring—in it last week. That was an exquisite moment in particular for Sam and Sharan Alford, who had watched Steve grow up trying to toss Ping-Pong balls into Pringle's cans and had packed him off to Indiana coach Bob Knight's basketball camp at the age of nine. A great shooter himself in his day, Sam cut a simple deal with Steve: Shoot till you miss, father goes first. "He was always playing mind games with me as a kid," says Steve, who was to meet the master of the mind game in college. "I might have to rebound 40 or 50 of his free throws before I could shoot."
While Sam moved through coaching jobs as if they were military postings, Steve tagged along like a basketball brat. Along the way he missed only two of his dad's games, once when he had chicken pox, and once when he made the regionals of the Elks Club free-throw shooting contest. He finally played for his dad in New Castle, but he is still disappointed about the team's quarterfinal loss to Connersville in the 1983 state tournament. With that loss in mind, he gave the gold medal he won as a member of Knight's U.S. Olympic team to his dad in a tearful ceremony at the high school shortly after the 1984 Games. "Basically, Steve Alford owns New Castle," says Dan Dakich, Steve's former Indiana teammate and now a graduate assistant to Knight. "Basically, he owns all of Indiana."