The news broke shortly before 4 p.m. on August 8, 2013, and seemingly everybody had a reaction to it. James Blackmon Jr., Indiana's prize recruit in the 2014 class for nearly three years, had decided to reopen his recruitment and visit other schools.
Conspiracy theorists pointed to the fact Blackmon Jr. announced his decision just a year and a day after Trey Lyles, another 2014 Indiana commit, had reopened his recruitment. Surely they were connected. Thousands of Indiana fans took to Twitter to voice their frustration, positive Blackmon Jr. would turn his back on Indiana and choose another school. A few wished harm on him, saying they hoped he'd tear his ACL for a second time.
"It was really hard because they didn't know what type of person he was or what led him to make that decision," says James' brother Vijay, a sophomore at Marion who also owns an Indiana offer. "Some people said stuff about they hoped he got hurt and stuff, and that really made me upset. I wanted to respond, but I just didn't."
Everything seemed to be falling apart for the Hoosiers. They had just lost two key players to the NBA (Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo), two more to graduation (Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford), and suddenly they were without a committed recruit in the 2014 class. And all of this after Tom Crean and his staff had stuck by Blackmon Jr.'s side through his devastating ACL injury, supporting him through the most painful year in Blackmon Jr.'s life.
"I even talked to coach Crean, and he even said: 'The fans are hurt,'" says James' mother, Saila. "And it made sense. The fans were hurt, and whenever people are hurt, they are going to say things that aren't so nice. But I think we took it with a grain of salt."
"Coach Crean was obviously upset, but he understood," James Jr. says. "He took it great as a coach. There was nothing really he could do, but he understood what we were looking for. He knew that was a little early and this would give me a better chance to look around. He was confident Indiana had the best situation, so I don't think he took it too hard and they just recruited me even harder."
Blackmon Jr.'s path ultimately led back to Indiana, where he will be a freshman next season. It's been a long journey, one that features stops at both Fort Wayne Luers and Marion. But first, let's go back where it all began, in the Blackmons' Fort Wayne living room. This is James' Story.
An affinity from the beginning
James Blackmon Sr. has always been around basketball. He was a star at Marion High School, scoring 1,897 career points, and finishing second for Indiana Mr. Basketball in 1983 (He lost to Steve Alford.). Blackmon Sr. also scored 866 career points at Kentucky, and he has continued to be involved with basketball as a coach ever since.
During those many years around the game, Blackmon Sr. too often saw parents that pushed their kids to play sports even when they didn't enjoy them. He vowed to never make the same mistake when he had children.
So James Sr. and his wife, Saila, who is of Indian descent, chose to share an Indian tradition with their children to determine their involvement in sports. When James Jr. was three years old, they put money, a basketball, a football, a baseball and a few other things around him and let him choose which one he wanted.
"James automatically grabbed that basketball," James Sr. says. "You could see from three years old that he had an interest. He had something pertaining to that basketball that drew his attention quite a bit."
And so it began. Blackmon Jr. began his basketball career in the YMCA when he was six years old. After a season or two there, he moved over to the local Boys and Girls Club to play against better competition.
"I remember I played up about two or three grades at the boys club, and that's when I really learned to start playing basketball faster," Blackmon Jr. says. "At the Y, it was a lot slower, you had wristbands, you guarded your own man. And when I went to the boys club, that's what really changed me because guys just started picking me up, pressuring me, and I didn't know they could do that. That's when I really learned how to start playing basketball."
James Jr. played for his dad's AAU team in Marion beginning in the second grade, and started playing for Spiece when his family moved to Fort Wayne in the third grade. All the while, James tried a few other sports -- he played soccer, baseball, tennis and was a football quarterback for a year in the fifth grade -- but he never had the same passion for any of those that he did for basketball.
"I just felt naturally better at it and just looking up to my dad and learning his high school career and college career," James Jr. says. "Basketball just felt like a gift to me at a very early age. I wanted to be like that. We had a court outside and everybody would be outside at my house playing basketball like it was a park or something. I would just be out there all day playing against older people."
At first, James was a drive-first guard. Scoring at the rim just seemed simpler to him than working to establish a consistent outside jump shot.
But when James began playing with and against kids two or three years older than him on the Spiece team, he had to adjust. He wasn't nearly as quick as the defenders guarding him. James couldn't get to the rim nearly as easily, and sometimes he couldn't get there at all.
"I had a conversation with James and Vijay when they were fairly young," James Sr. says. "I told them, 'If you guys wanna be a great shooter, it just doesn't happen overnight. You have to apply yourself. Sometimes that takes you making 500 shots a day.' Once they understood what it took to be a better player, it was easy. They started applying themselves and getting more shots up."
Blackmon Jr. quickly became known for his outside shooting. He worked on his 3-point shot constantly, and eventually made it consistently. The problem was, James shot with two hands. If he was eventually going to be an effective shooter at the high school level and beyond, he had to change it. Even if he didn't want to.
"It was frustrating because the two-handed shot was automatic," Blackmon Jr. says. "I never missed a 3. I knew it was going in every time. I was like, 'Why am I doing this? I'm missing shots now.' But once I worked on it enough, it became natural."
Blackmon Sr. was careful not to tinker with his son's shot too early, though. He waited until he was in about the fifth grade, when James went from using a 28.5 ball to a full-size one, to change anything.
"I knew when he shot the ball that he had a good follow through," James Sr. says. "I thought that once he got older with the strength, if I just changed his shot a little bit, it would be more effective if I waited. So I waited until he got a little older, and then we made some small adjustments. It was frustrating for a short period of time, but he was able to get the reps in and get more comfortable with it."
Early offers and a commitment
By the time he was an eighth grader, schools from around the nation had taken noticed. Blackmon Jr. quickly turned himself into one of his class' top shooters, and it didn't take long for schools from around the nation to show interest.
When Blackmon Jr. was in the eighth grade, he and his father were driving to an AAU game when James Sr. handed his son a envelope with the University of Illinois emblem on the front. James Jr. was confused.
"Who's this for?," he asked his father.
"That's for you," James Sr. replied. "This is how it's going to be now."
Blackmon Jr. didn't know how to react. He wasn't even in high school yet, and he was already receiving letters from colleges. Shortly after the Illinois letter, Blackmon Jr. received one from UCLA, and then from Indiana.
"I was just so shocked and surprised, like I'm only in the eighth grade," Blackmon Jr. says. "But that's when I knew it was serious and I'm ready to get even better and get a lot more."
More than anything, the fact James was receiving letters from universities before he ever played a high school game showed the change in recruiting methods over time. Blackmon Sr. never got any information from colleges until he was a sophomore or junior in high school. But even so, James Sr. wasn't surprised when his son suddenly blew up on the recruiting scene. He claims he saw it coming because of the way James Jr. was playing on the AAU circuit during the summer.
"James was very talented," Blackmon Sr. says. "He was very active during the summer time. Our AAU team was pretty competitive, so we got some good exposure."
Tom Crean had seen Blackmon Jr. play as much as anybody. Still very early in his tenure in Bloomington, Crean wanted to do everything he could to get Indiana's best talent to stay in state. He was a regular at Spiece AAU games during the summer, and he almost immediately expressed interest in Blackmon Jr. During the summer before his freshman year at Fort Wayne Luers, James Jr. received a phone call from Crean. The Indiana coach was ready to be the first to offer James a scholarship.
"I just remember Indiana being at almost all of my games," Blackmon Jr. says. "Your first one, it's a feeling like no other."
A few other schools offered James Jr. a scholarship, but he could never take his mind off of Indiana. Just a few months after receiving the offer from Crean, on Sept. 3, 2010, Blackmon Jr. committed to play for the Hoosiers. James hadn't played a single high school basketball game yet.
"I knew he was having a good summer, but at the time I didn't know schools really were interested in eighth graders," Vijay says. "I was kind of shocked, but I knew he deserved it."
To read JAMES' STORY: Part Two, click here.