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That Championship Touch
Alexander Wolff
April 13, 1987
Steve Alford, who helped lead Indiana to the NCAA crown, has added another chapter to his state's marvelous hoops history
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April 13, 1987

That Championship Touch

Steve Alford, who helped lead Indiana to the NCAA crown, has added another chapter to his state's marvelous hoops history

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"He's hard to believe," says Tanya, who's training in Munster, Ind., to be a physical therapist. "Everybody talks about his hair, his all-American image, how mothers would want him to marry their daughter. Everybody thinks he's so perfect. Well, that's a pretty accurate image. That's exactly what he is."

Actually, Alford is an utterly imperfect athlete. Small for a major-college guard, slow without any compensatory quickness and strong only because he ate and flexed himself up to 185 pounds from 150 as a freshman, he owes his success to repetition and work. In his workouts Alford will pick a spot on the floor and take 10 shots. If he doesn't make eight, he'll punish himself with fingertip push-ups or wind sprints.

He punished himself after averaging barely a point a game as a high school freshman and then averaged 18.7 the next season. He punished himself after scoring only four points in the Dapper Dan classic for high school seniors and then started immediately at Indiana, and won his Olympic gold the following summer. He punished himself after his disappointing sophomore season and Indiana's tournament loss to Cleveland State last March and then averaged 22 points and was among the national leaders in three-point accuracy this year.

Knight has often said, "I coach against the game." One of Alford's great accomplishments this season has been to learn to play against the game. A win over Illinois in late January was the final lesson. "I prepared all week to go against Steve Bardo," he says. "Then [Doug] Altenberger took me, and I only scored 10 points. From that point on, it wasn't worth preparing for individuals. If you do things the way you can, if you're able to read the screens, it shouldn't matter who's guarding you."

Alford is the Evelyn Wood of screen-reading. He follows one of Knight's dicta, "Be hard to guard," as he slaloms through and around teammates' picks. "He's gotten more out of his abilities offensively than anybody I've seen play college basketball," says Knight. "He's about as good a scorer for being strictly a jump shooter as I've ever seen. He's scored more than 2,400 points that way, and that's incredible, considering he doesn't get any tip-ins, drives or dunks."

Alford's two straight missed free throws against UNLV were so rare that he can tell you when he last committed the sin. (Six years ago. At Anderson. Down one. Five seconds to go.) His form at the foul line is so workmanlike, so routine, that it inspired the famous mantra from the Assembly Hall crowd—"Socks, shorts, 1-2-3 swish"—that made its way onto T-shirts and buttons. Before releasing a free throw, Alford tells himself, "Soft over the front edge of the rim." People swear that they can see his lips move.

Even without a state championship, Alford's other crowns—"Mr. Basketball," the gold medal, the NCAA title-have secured his status as an Indiana legend, the high prince of Hoosier Hysteria. There remains some debate over the origin of the term hoosier, though it probably came from Samuel Hoosier, a canal builder on the Ohio River during the early 19th century whose Indiana laborers were admired for their industry. Work is woven into the state's 10-foot culture, too. Half-court pickup games in most states are played "Make it, take it"—you score, and you keep possession. Not so in Hoosierland, where it's understood that every scorer will turn around and play defense. Basketball players in Indiana expect a little suffering.

And so Alford endured myriad punishments. Without his passing up the Super Bowl, because he had missed a few free throws the night before and felt the Sunday evening would be best spent at Assembly Hall; without Knight's impulsively banishing him from practice time after time for such transgressions as looking at him the wrong way; without the ludicrous, one-game, NCAA-imposed suspension in his junior year for lending his name and photograph to a sorority calendar that raised funds for handicapped girls—without all this, Indiana does not win.

It is only fitting that a martyred violator of an NCAA rule—"An absolute farce," Alford describes the calendar fiasco today—took another NCAA rule, the three-point shot, and followed it faithfully 107 times this season. "If I had to sit out a game to win a national championship," he says, "that's fine with me."

But Alford's greatest act of self-flagellation was deciding in the first place to play for Knight. No player has experienced more of the man's black moods and manipulations. Alford has actually spent six seasons under him, if you include the 17 games with the '84 Olympic team and the Hoosiers' 18-game trip overseas two summers ago. "Steve was incredibly mature as a freshman," Dakich remembers. "He was getting thrown out of practice then. If Coach respects you and knows you can handle it, he'll do that. When I was a freshman, only Randy Wittman and Ted Kitchel, the seniors, were thrown out."

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