Bassett’s road has not yet ended

A story from today’s paper . . .

Armon Bassett hugs Kelvin Sampson

You see it in many of those who have passion for playing the game.

They get near a court and they come alive. Their bodies were built with receptors that draw energy from basketball, be it the pickup game at the corner park or the NBA game inside the biggest arena in the state.

It flares in Armon Bassett on the Friday before Christmas. He’s walking in the shadow of Conseco Fieldhouse, a building he played in several times as a member of the Indiana Hoosiers.

But on this night Bassett won’t even enter Conseco. He had planned to watch the Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers play later that night.

As he crosses Pennsylvania avenue, though, he looks back over his shoulder.

“I wanted to go,” he says. “I wanted to see him play. But not after that.”

‘That’

Only because he can barely bring himself to discuss “that” do you realize how much it stung Bassett.

“That” in this case is the assertion by former Indiana and current Los Angeles Cippers guard Eric Gordon that drug usage ruined Indiana’s 2007-08 season.

Gordon’s comments had been published that week in the Indianapolis Star in advance of his first visit to his hometown as an NBA player.

“It was the guys that were doing drugs that were separate,” he told the Star, though he did not name the players who were involved.

The story also quoted him as saying: “Sometimes it felt like it wasn’t even a real basketball team because of all the turmoil that went on. I was just thinking about that the other day. It was so crazy that all that stuff threw off a good season and made it a waste, basically.”

It was not the first time drug use had been cited as an issue by the Gordon family. The following paragraph ran in an early November edition of Sports Illustrated: “According to Eric Gordon Sr., his son ‘didn’t get involved in the smoking and partying’ and, as a result, felt alienated from some of his teammates. Likewise senior co-captain D.J. White rarely spent time around his fellow players away from the court. ‘The kids weren’t on the same page,’ says Gordon Sr. ‘They didn’t have similar backgrounds or experiences or goals, and basically all hell broke loose.’”

‘We paid our debt’

Sitting inside a quiet restaurant a block from Conseco, Bassett doesn’t want to address the drug issue or any of the other troubles encountered by players last year.

“It’s in the past, and we all learned from it,” he says. Then he takes a moment to think. Bassett was often mercurial at Indiana; at times he offered the most honest and lengthy assessments of the team to reporters and at times his responses were short and muffled beyond recognition. He is thoughtful in this setting; after tough losses he was all uncontrolled emotion.

Finally, he finds the words.

“There wasn’t anybody involved in last year who didn’t make a mistake,” he says. “Everyone would take something back. But they can’t. And, you know, we paid our debt. Look at the situation. No one got out without suffering.”

He’s talking about his former coach, Kelvin Sampson, and former athletic director Rick Greenspan, who both lost their jobs. He’s talking about Dan Dakich, the interim coach who kicked him off the team, and about Tom Crean, who was hired in April and would not reinstate Bassett.

Dakich is out of college basketball and Crean was left to gut the program and rebuild.

But mostly, he’s talking about his former teammates. They were flung apart by what happened. Only one, guard Jamarcus Ellis, is currently playing. He transferred to Oklahoma City University, an NAIA school, where he continues to show remarkable versatility: he had 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, eight rebounds and eights assists in his last game.

Forward DeAndre Thomas also transferred to an NAIA school, Robert Morris in Chicago, but has since left the basketball team. Eli Holman (Detroit), Jordan Crawford (Xavier) and Brandon McGee (Auburn) are all sitting out this year, as per NCAA rules.

Bassett admits that he was close with those players. But the reason behind it, in his mind, had nothing to do with drugs or backgrounds or goals.

“The guys who hung out were the guy who didn’t have girlfriends,” he says.

Bassett lived with Kyle Taber and near D.J. White, but both of them spent much of their free time with girlfriends, he said.

And while Eric Gordon spent much of his time with friends from North Central, Bassett says that the rest of the players respected him and admired his ability and humility.

“I’ll never forget the time we were all watching a video of the top 50 high school players of all time,” Bassett says. “They show Kobe Bryant, and then they show Eric Gordon. And E.J., he just sits there. Doesn’t smile or anything. He was so humble.”

But Gordon was also reserved, even on the court. Bassett says that most of the times that Ellis was seen pushing opposing players or jawing with them after the whistle were retaliation for a hard foul on Gordon.

“He was just sticking up for the best player, a guy who isn’t really going to get up and get in somebody’s face,” Bassett says. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. Protect each other. Stick up for each other. But instead of admiring that, everybody calls Tone (Ellis’ nickname) a thug.”

Bassett remembers Ellis instead as the guy who, despite having lost both his parents as a child and growing up poor, would have given you the last $20 he had. And as a guy who was not afraid to show his emotions to his teammates — he cried in front of them more than once.

‘Social mistakes’

Bassett often refers to the “social mistakes” he made at Indiana. He does not feel the need to drudge them up in detail, but it was no secret that he and other members of the team (and countless other athletes from other sports) were often seen at bars and parties. What Bassett did not realize until too late was that their mere presence at these college rituals would be interpreted negatively by some fans. And their actions at them would be exaggerated by others.

“A lot of times you just wanted to be able to be a regular guy,” he says. “Just go out with your friends and be at a party. But when everybody knows you, you can’t do that. You’re the guy they’re talking about, watching, reacting to.”

Both Dakich and Crean have said last year’s team was destroyed by a “sense of entitlement.” But when was the last time a Indiana basketball team didn’t have entitlements? The players are often the most recognizable people in a small town. Everybody wants to buy them dinner or give them rides or become their friends.

“I remember I was hosting Jordan Crawford on his visit, and he asked me what the toughest part of college ball was,” Bassett says. “I told him it was dealing with the fans, the adoration. You practice a lot to learn how to drive the lane or get your shot off. You can’t practice for being the guy everybody wants to know or wants to come to their party.”

Ironically, what fueled Bassett’s drive to become a starter at Indiana was the feeling of being overlooked. He was overshadowed in AAU basketball by Dominic James — who he still calls his best friend — and was rarely mentioned among the top high school players in the state at a time when James, Greg Oden and Mike Conley were playing.

James went on to play for Crean at Marquette and is a senior there this year; Oden and Conley went to Ohio State for a year before jumping to the NBA.

Bassett went to Hargrave Military Academy after his career at Terre Haute South to improve his grades and his standing with recruiters. He originally committed to play at Missouri but had a nagging desire to play close to home. When Indiana offered a scholarship in October 2005, he jumped at it.

When he arrived in Bloomington in 2006 after a year away from the state, he was intent on capturing the attention of fans who were anxious to see how Kelvin Sampson’s first team would play. Bassett had 21 points in the first half of a recruit barnstorming game that summer; he had 10 assists the next game.

Ultimately, he would spend his two years playing for Sampson alternating between scorer and facilitator. And Sampson, who thrived coaching kids who felt they had something to prove, would challenge him frequently. After games in which he shot well, Sampson would tell the media that Bassett needed to be a better passer. When Bassett passed well, Sampson would tell reporters that he needed to be a more dangerous scorer.

Bassett would shoot back at his coach through his own comments, saying he could pass or score.

They were perfect for each other.

Their bond was there for all to see during the second-to-last game of Sampson’s career at Indiana. Indiana was on its way to beating Michigan State 80-61 at Assembly Hall. The night had started with fans booing Sampson — who would accept a buyout less than a week later — and ended with some of them chanting his name. As Bassett came off the court, he and Sampson jumped at each other in what appeared at first to be an attempted chest bump. But they held on and hugged each other tightly.

“It was a confusing time for us, to be sure,” Bassett said. “What are you supposed to think when fans are booing your coach, then cheering for him? We just wanted to be able to play.”

After Sampson left, the season skidded off course. Less then a month later, it ended with a first-round loss to Arkansas in the NCAA tournament.

When discussing that time, Bassett’s recollections are disjointed.

“We respected coach Dakich,” he says. “Some of us were hurt by what happened. Some of us really wanted (assistant) coach (Ray) McCallum (to be the interim coach). Some of us were too worried about what would happen in the future.”

In the hours following the loss to Arkansas, though, Bassett says the players imagined better days ahead. They all knew Gordon would leave for the NBA (in that way, Eric Gordon Sr. was right about the players having different goals) and that national prognosticators would overlook the remaining players, who after all would be adapting to a new coach.

“We knew what we had,” Bassett says. “We were talking about that backcourt, about Jordan and Jamarcus and how we would play together. We didn’t know who the coach would be, but we were ready for any system. We were ready to surprise people, be a tough, close-knit team.”

But Bassett and Ellis were late for an appointment a few days later, and then refused to accept Dakich’s punishment of coming in early to run.

So he kicked them off the team.

“I would do things differently there, if I could,” Bassett says. “We were so similar. Coach Dakich took a lot of care in doing what he said, in living what he preaches. I was stubborn, too.”

Though Bassett tried to work his way back onto the team when Crean arrived, the two had a falling out and decided it was best to go separate ways.

“Coach Crean is a good person,” Bassett says. “I have no sour thoughts about him, and I hope he continues to turn the program around. I’m from Indiana. I’m always going to care about Indiana basketball.”

‘I’ve got faith’

The article including Gordon’s comments could not have come at a worse time for Bassett. He had just announced that he planned on leaving UAB, where he had transferred over the summer. As soon as word of another Bassett transfer hit the Internet, message boards roared with rumors of failed classes and/or drug tests.

Bassett told anyone who would listen that he wanted to get closer to his family in Terre Haute because of a “personal issue” (which he refuses to discuss because he does not want to draw attention to the individual) and because he did not feel comfortable at UAB, where Mike Davis seemed to be floundering. Davis was set to sign a highly-ranked recruiting class when university officials refused to acquiesce to top forward DeMarcus Cousins’ demand for an out clause in his letter should Davis not be employed by the school.

With his coach suddenly at odds with the administration and Cousins — who he had hoped to team with in pursuit of a Conference USA title (and more) — possibly headed elsewhere, Bassett opted to leave. He’d gone through the turmoil of head coaching changes twice before, and that was enough.

So he found himself back in Indiana, looking for a new school while also facing — in a more direct way than he had anticipated — his past.

““I’ll get a chance to show what I can do somewhere,” Bassett says. “I have faith in that.”

Bassett wants to transfer to a school on the quarter system because doing so would allow him to get back on the court earlier.

NCAA rules necessitate he sit out two full semesters or three quarters after transferring. If he gets enrolled in a school for its next quarter, he can sit out the next three and probably be cleared to play by November and thus only miss a few non-conference games.

Bassett did lead the Big Ten in 3-point shooting percentage last season and improved as a defender under Sampson. He was a third-team All-Big Ten selection and has shown an ability to play point guard or shooting guard. There are few teams that would not jump at adding a player like him.

And he’s beginning to understand what it takes to succeed academically at the college level. He got his first ‘A’ while at UAB.

“When people heard that, most of them thought I’d taken a basketball class,” Bassett says. “But it was a real class. Philosophy.”

Since returning to the state, Bassett has phoned Dakich to apologize for his behavior last year. And he’s had time to think about that experience, to discuss it with many of the friends he made while playing at IU.

As night descends, the restaurant starts filling up with people having drinks before the game. Many of them come over to talk to Bassett. Some know of his recently announced transfer, some don’t. One begins to ask about Gordon’s comments in the Star but thinks better of it.

Bassett ducks out of the restaurant and walks back toward his car, parked near Conseco. A boy selling candy stops him, and Bassett pulls $15 from his pocket as a donation.

But the kid keeps after him. He’s doesn’t need money; he needs to get rid of his wares so that he can go home. He’s insists that Bassett grab five or six huge candy bars.

Bassett smiles at him.

“He keeps after it,” he says.

A police officer arrives and tells the boy that he can’t sell on that corner. The kid freezes.

Bassett leans down and says, “Go to your guardian,” — he says guardian, not mom or dad — “and you’ll be OK.”

It’s a few hours before the game, and Gordon is telling reporters inside Conseco that he does not want to elaborate on the comments he made to the Star.

After the game, he’s asked if that means he regrets saying what he said.

“I ain’t got no comment about that,” he says. “Everything that happened in the past, I just leave it alone.”

Bassett had turned and said one final thing earlier that night, before ducking into a car and leaving.

“We’re all going to be OK,” he says. “Everybody involved, they made mistakes. But they’re good people. And they learned. They’re better for it. That’s what you learn from the past: you learn to fight through.”

33 comments

  1. I wish you the best and can only hope you have learned something from all of this.The best place for you is right there in Terre Haute. ISU !!!!!!

  2. Still don’t feel sorry for him. He had his chance and he blew it. He had to have made some BIG mistakes in order for Dakich to kick him off and for Crean to not re-instate him. These “mistakes” that he has referred to the team making has caused IU basketball to sink as low as it ever has.

    I’m just glad there’s hope for a bright future.

  3. Yes, poor kid, should have done much more with his chances. But I agree, he blew it, and maybe he will be better for it. Still hope the best for him.

  4. It’s just a shame. The whole thing, almost the whole of the last 10 or so years of IU Basketball (excepting the 2002 Final Four run). From Knight’s decline, to Davis’ inability to progress the program, to everything about the Sampson reign. It’s a shame that both the program and last year’s kids (with the exception of DJ) let each other down. Guys like Bassett and Ellis should’ve been mentored better so that they would have been prepared to overcome last spring’s obstacles. But, they did blow their chances to stay here.

    At times, this season is going to be very hard to take, but I do believe in Coach Crean. This is the low point, and things will get better from here.

  5. A childhood friend of mine played ball at another Big 10 school and is a mentor now and helps kids from the football team stay out of the same kind of trouble bassett and co were in. I wonder if IU has a mentoring program in place??? Anyone know? I worked at IU while in college and other than tutors and such I do not remember a program like this.

  6. Yeah we had that mentor for many years, its name was Bobby Knight. And he practiced something called discipline and accountability.

  7. Bobby Knight taught discipline and accountability? Cussing out secretaries, throwing plants at secretaries, cussing out his boss, throwing tantrums left and right, throwing chairs across the floor during a game, abusing a police officer, cursing like a sailor in press conference, choking players, and verbally abusing nearly anyone that crossed him…discipline and accountability?

    Kelvin was involved in some improper phone calls. Indiana fans deserve an absolute crappy basketball program. Your support for Bob Knight, and simultaneous condemnation of Sampson, is unreal.

  8. No one said he was perfect, but his record speaks for itself. As does the majority of his players that credit him with their successes in life. Sampson was a buddy to the players, and let them get away with too much, molded after his own lack of attention to the rules.

  9. As someone who knew this kid growing up in Terre Haute, I’m hardly surprised at what’s happened to him. I don’t think transferring to ISU would help him personally, but instead stunt his personal growth by allowing him to be fawned over by a community that remembers him as a very good (notice I didn’t say great) high school basketball player. I guess you can get a third and fourth chance at life if you can dribble a basketball. I still believe that Crean taking this job was contingent on Thomas, Ellis and Bassett being shown the door.

  10. Observer, uhhh, sure, I’m proud of a coach that actually cares about Academics, he made sure his kids graduated and attended class. He made sure his athlete’s made the right choices of the field. He NEVER broke any rules of the NCAA I can only assume you are either a Marquette, Illinois, or Purdue fan. So go spew your stupid Indiana hate on one of their blogs, and stop speaking of what you do not know.

    We bash Sampson because he didn’t absolutely destroy our basketball program for something that he promised he would never do. Ridiculous

  11. It is sad, but some learn the easy way and some learn the hard way. All the best to Bassett, but it is discouraging that it didn’t work out better at IU.

    Zach you meant ‘did’ not ‘didn’t’ right? I think you are getting too worked up.

  12. Patrick, please provide us what you base your belief upon. Crean has stated clearly he had no idea what he was walking into when he took the Job. Dakich on his radio show stated he just now got to talk to Crean about why he did what he did and the things that went on for him to make his decisions. So please tell us your gem of information.

  13. Cheyennemtnman,

    Sorry if I didn’t read it correctly. I wonder what was said in that conversation between Crean and Bassett that ultimately led to a “blow up”? Regardless, it doesn’t matter now.

    Better get back to practicing my reading skills….

  14. Great article Chris. It’s a sad story but I think Bassett is trying to learn from his mistakes. I wish him well.

  15. Yea Kevin you are right, i was thinking which way i was going to say it, and i kinda combined both of them, I meant did, :D.

  16. Here’s all you need to read from that article:

    “refused to accept Dakich’s punishment”

    That’s the whole ball of wax, kid. After all the dope smoking and class skipping, and the horrible pressure of having the entire university handed to you on a platter, you decided that some macho pride was more important to you than continuing to be a member of the IU family.

    You traded your IU bball career for an extra hour of sleep. We all make mistakes, and that was yours.

    Actually, I think AB comes off ok in tis article. Here’s hoping he learned from his mistakes.

  17. It’s convenient how some of the facts were left out of the article which seems to be trying to portray a kid who made a couple minor mistakes, really did nothing wrong and is now trying to get his life back on track. Let’s see:

    – Suspended during the middle of the year (drug use is the rumor)
    – Skipped a practice because he didn’t like the choice of Dakich
    – Was late for at least one practice
    – Refused to accept the punishment of the coach
    – Had grade issues at least during the second semester at IU

    Plenty of mistakes there. Don’t feel that sorry

  18. Isn’t it ironic that the Pacers had to hire Big Smooth to help mentor NBA players [adults] on how to act right. As the father of three teenage girls, kids in general just don’t understand how others will percieve their actions. It is a constant struggle for parents, mentors, or whoever is in charge, to keep reminding, making kids aware, what might of happen if… It’s an age old problem that generations have dealt with for years and years, but now you have that many more single parent/no parent families trying to over come it. Good luck to Mr. Bassett he just might have gotten it.

  19. Brad,

    I agree the story was a bit one-sided.

    Your points are all well made. That’s why they call it “the hard way.”

    The kid has received his punishment. I really don’t feel sorry for him, but I do wish him well in the future.

  20. Brad, I don’t feel sorry for him but their have been a ton of players for IU, even under Knight that have done a lot worse. Even Pat Knight had a MAJOR altercation with the law and I can remember numerous kids on the ball team that had run-ins with the law during 94 to today.

    Trouble with law vs. late practice and etc……

  21. Bassett’s comments reinforce the blame for the IU situation is all on Sampson. He either created the team atmosphere or ignored it. Either way he failed in his responsibility to his players. I don’t think Crean will fail is that regard. Good luck to Bassett…he would have enjoyed playing for Crean and he is a kid desperate for a father figure.

  22. I hope he does well at Ohio also, I just don’t feel sorry for him and I don’t particularly like how the story “feels” to me. The feeling I got from the story is that EJ was overreacting and that Bassett really didn’t do anything that terribly wrong. It just sounds like Chris got a little sucked in on believing what Bassett was saying, when I’m not sure you can take his word at face value. You need to look at it and compare it to what other players and coaches have said and I think when you do that it doesn’t quite stack up.

    Besides, what was Bassett going to say, “yeah half of us were smoking it up every night, it was great”. No. I really doubt Sampson suspended him and Crawford for just hanging out or going to a party.

  23. Great article Chris. Regardless of whether Bassett was right or wrong, the article humanizes him when most would prefer to paint his story in black and white. Keep up the good work!

  24. Brad,

    I’d be the first to agree with you that the story is slanted to tell Bassett’s side. The only reason I was OK with that was that we’ve told Crean’s side, oh, 300 times. We had a press conference on New Year’s Eve and the conversation got back around to what Crean had to “endure” when he got here. Crean’s got quite the pulpit; what he says is printed all over the place. That’s not the case for Bassett, so I was OK with the story being built around his take on things.

    I didn’t mean to make it seem like his take on things was the correct version. It’s just a different one. There are many, many others.

    And it’s not like Armon comes out and claims he was an angel.

    Something I should have included in the article was the fact that I did try to reach the rest of the players who left the program after last season. I was told by the people at Auburn, where Brandon McGee landed, that they do not allow athletes who are redshirting to talk to the media. I got no reply when I e-mailed Detroit (Eli Holman), Xavier (Jordan Crawford) and Oklahoma City (Jamarcus Ellis). The people at Robert Morris in Chicago, where DeAndre Thomas had been playing, did not return my phone calls.

    Bassett was in a unique position to speak, seeing that he did not have a media relations director looking after him.

  25. An article well done and it is interesting people like Brad throw out innuendo yet provide no proof. Please list how things do not stack up. You have a thing for Bassett and the other players. You will not stop the berating and smearing. It is quite evident that Bassett has learned a few things reflecting on what happened last year. Why do you think EJ backed off his statements within days? Here is some speculation. Maybe he realized he should not have cast the first stone.

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