Bloomington natives discuss playing at IU

Indiana assistant coach Tim Buckley put a fantasy into the mind of Bloomington South’s Jordan Hulls, pitching the opportunity to play at his hometown school.

“You can be a rock star.”

“Not that I wanted to be a rock star,” Hulls said, recalling Buckley’s phrasing. “But you’re the hometown kid, all your friends are going to be going to school here, you are going to know a whole lot more people on campus than most.”

Hulls, Indiana’s 2009 Mr. Basketball, chose to stay home, embracing all that came with it. That’s the same choice current South standout Anthony Leal made this past Friday, with all the positives and negatives in mind.

Playing basketball at IU is intense in itself, placed in the middle of Assembly Hall’s fishbowl with 17,000-plus pairs of eyes staring back, the program’s storied history hanging over you with those crimson banners. Wearing an IU jersey as the hometown kid, and being a big man on campus amongst your childhood friends and fellow townies, can multiply the pressure factor.

You know exactly what IU basketball means to them because of what it meant to you growing up.

The 41 losses in Hulls’ first two seasons at IU? They hurt just a little bit more. The turnaround to 27-9 and a Sweet 16 berth as a junior? Hulls knows his upbringing factored into the glory, as well.

“You want to represent your hometown and your hometown school the best you can and be proud to do it,” Hulls said. “It’s not a bad kind of pressure. A lot of people would say ‘That’s kind of tough, isn’t it?’ But I really enjoyed that aspect of it, used it as motivation. I needed to work hard not only for myself and my team but for the people who supported me my whole life.”

Hulls didn’t aim to be a “rock star,” but he was aware of his platform. The 6-foot sharpshooter performed for a national television audience but also fans much, much closer to home. Leal was one of them, a young boy who looked to Hulls as an exemplar of passion and hustle on a basketball court.

For Hulls to know that Leal was one of many boys and girls he posed for pictures with, it’s validating. It speaks to everything Hulls wanted to inspire as a hometown Hoosier.

“That’s one of the best feelings ever,” Hulls said. “That’s why we play the game. It’s more than just basketball.”

Those are words Leal, now a 6-foot-5 guard, echoed when he discussed his commitment to IU. He wanted to become a part of something bigger than himself. He wants to be a role model for the next generation.

It’s not an incredibly long list, but several Bloomington natives have donned cream and crimson. Ralph Esarey, who led Bloomington High to the state finals in 1917 and ’18, lettered for IU’s basketball program in 1920. Harlan Logan (’24-25), Bobby Dobson (’51), and Dick Sparks (’62) also went from BHS to IU.

Since the split to two high schools, Bloomington North has had its share of IU men’s basketball players, from Pat Knight (’91-95) and Jared Jeffries (2000-02) to Errek Suhr (2003-07). South has sent Chris Lawson (’89-91) and Hulls (’09-13), and most recently Johnny Jager (’17-19) as a walk-on.

Not every iteration has been a fairy tale. Lawson, for example, didn’t mesh all that well with Bob Knight’s program, leaving Bloomington to find success at Vanderbilt. But in many cases, Bloomington natives have fared well at their hometown school.

Suhr initially walked on at IU but earned a scholarship, and he has served as a color commentator for Don Fischer’s radio broadcasts. Jeffries, a 6-11 forward, led the Hoosiers to the NCAA title game in 2002 and then entered the NBA draft. He went 11th overall to the Washington Wizards.

“Honestly, I didn’t want to be in school that long,” Jeffries said. “I was like ‘How cool would it be if I could stay right here with my mom, dad, and grandparents and play college basketball for a few years?’

“If you have a bad game or a great game, you can go home and sit on the couch and talk to mom and dad and you feel good about it. If you have a great game, you can go hang out with your buddies.”

Leal doesn’t have NBA buzz like Jeffries, but he is highly regarded. Rated a four-star prospect by recruiting sites, he could provide the Hoosiers with the deep range they have desperately needed. At the same time, IU was slow in its pursuit of Leal, refraining from officially offering until late April.

South coach J.R. Holmes figures IU’s Archie Miller had to be deliberative. He had to be sure, because offering the hometown kid comes with risks.

“It’s a big decision by Coach Miller to take him, maybe not so much because of the talent, but because it’s hard if the hometown kid struggles,” Holmes said. “It reflects poorly on the coaching staff sometimes.”

Holmes isn’t setting odds on Leal’s success or failure. He just knows there is more scrutiny on a Bloomington product from Day 1.

And for everyone other than the Zion Williamsons of the world, Holmes said, college freshmen need time to develop physically. The veteran high school coach went to last year’s IU-Michigan State game, and it was so physical, he compared it to “assault and battery.”

He found Leal in weights class the next day and posed some questions.

“Who could you have guarded on that team? Who could you have gotten a shot off against?” Holmes asked.

Luckily for IU, Leal is a confident young man. He replied, emphatically, “I could guard somebody. I can score on those guys.”

He will need that confidence. Hulls remembers the lows being pretty low his freshman and sophomore seasons. But having his family 10 minutes away, hopping over for a meal whenever he needed, was a great benefit.

He never considered bailing on IU, but losing floods the mind with questions.

“That’s just human nature. ‘Was it a great idea or not?’ But I never had any doubt about it, honestly, like wanting to leave or anything,” Hulls said. “It was like ‘Wow, this is a lot harder than I thought.’ It’s a little bit different situation for Anthony, but it’s something you can’t take lightly, and the next level is completely different, and I know he understands that.”

Hulls doesn’t necessarily remember taking pictures with a younger Leal — there were a lot of pictures — but he has watched the South product grow. Returning to his high school gym for workouts, Hulls would see Leal around, and once his name started popping up in recruiting news, the Hoosier vet extended a hand.

“I knew IU was interested and was a possibility. It is different being from here and a lot of the things that kids from here worry about is ‘Am I going to get the full college experience? It’s too much pressure,’ whatever it may be,” Hulls said. “I was letting him know I’m here if he ever needed to talk.”

They have exchanged texts, and the content of those conversations isn’t hard to guess.

By choosing to stay home, Leal was embracing all that comes with being the hometown Hoosier. And by choosing IU, he had Hulls’ approval.

“This is one of the best decisions of your life, you’ve set yourself up for the future, on and off the court,” Hulls told Leal. “Once you’re in the Indiana basketball family, it’s unlike anything else.”

2 comments

  1. Hulls: Glory, game, guts and gumption written allover his grumpy face.

    Always remember the game @ Penn State when Hulls and Roth went on a perimeter shooting rampage for a combined 50. Still hard to believe Matt Roth was never secured a roster spot for his final year of eligibility….
    Just think how much either one of those guys could have helped us last season during our struggles from the perimeter.

    Don’t shooters sort of define Indiana basketball? How about the 3-pt barrage against Kent State(after we defeated #1 Duke) in the 2003 regional finals? Some incredible record was set…Can’t remember how many we hit from beyond the arc, but it was an insane shooting display from the likes of Hornsby, Fife, Coverdale, Jeffries, Moye….I think Jarrad Odle even got in on the act.

Leave a Reply