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."
'It's my ACL, it's my ACL'
As a freshman at Luers, Blackmon Jr. averaged 20.3 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the floor and 38 percent from beyond the arc in 22 games. James was playing even better as a sophomore, improving his numbers to 24.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. But during a game against Indianapolis Tech in early February, Blackmon Jr. fell to the floor in agony. He was trailing a guy on a fastbreak, jumped to block his layup off the backboard, and then landed on his leg awkwardly. James knew something wasn't right almost immediately.
"When I was down on the court, I said to my mom, 'It's my ACL, it's my ACL.' She was like, 'No, it's not. No, it's not,'" Blackmon Jr. says. "I just listened to her and I hoped it wasn't. That whole day, I didn't think it was because I was walking around pretty good. And they said it was just a little MCL and I'll be back in two weeks."
Blackmon Jr. went to the doctor for an MRI, and returned home to wait for the results. Shortly thereafter, his mother let him know the results were in and they needed to go back to the doctor's office in order to hear them. Blackmon Jr.'s worst fear was confirmed: He had torn his ACL. He faced a 3-4 month recovery process and would miss the remainder of his sophomore season.
"I actually knew the results before we went to the doctor, but I let the doctor tell him," Saila Blackmon says. "That was hard. I honestly never saw him cry, but he felt sorry for himself for a very short period."
"I broke down in tears," James Jr. says. "I was just like, 'Man, that's crazy.' And I was just down on myself for one day. But then I just told myself, 'I'm gonna work hard and I'm gonna get back.' And it happened. I never gave up."
James' mind was eased somewhat by the fact that Vijay had sustained the same injury and had gone through the same recovery when he was 12 years old. James witnessed how hard Vijay worked to get back, and he was motivated to do the same thing. If his brother could do it, James thought, then he could do it, too.
"He knew that it was a big deal, that it could hurt him in the future if he didn't work hard," Vijay says. "But he worked really hard. Now he's stronger than he's ever been."
"It probably did help that we'd been through it one time," Saila says. "He could see that just because it was a devastating injury didn't mean he couldn't come back from it. He got right back and fought back to get better and get healthy. I was really proud of him. I think it made him a better person and it also made him not take things for granted."
That's not to say James didn't have his share of bad days through the process. Sometimes, he wondered whether this injury would change his future. He didn't know if he'd ever be the same, no matter how hard he worked to recover.
"There were doubts in my mind," Blackmon Jr. says. "'Am I ever gonna be the same athletically?' Those were just the thoughts going through my head. Was I ever going to be as good as I was? Am I ever going to reach my full potential? My mom and my dad just talked to me and said this won't set me back at all. They said I had a work ethic like they had never seen before. My mom always tells me that, like nobody works as hard as you."
James eventually did fully recover from his injury, and returned an even better player for his junior season at Luers. And all the while, Crean and Indiana stood by his side. They let James know that the staff and program were as committed to him as they had ever been. They supported him throughout his recovery.
Blackmon Jr. returned to average 33.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game on 49 percent shooting and 46 percent from beyond the arc. Indiana's commitment to James looked incredibly smart at the time. The Hoosiers would be getting one of the nation's best guards. But what happened next would shock everyone.
For several months leading up to last summer, there were rumors Blackmon Jr. was wavering in his commitment to the Hoosiers. Most seemed unsubstantiated because Blackmon Jr. and his family continued to say nothing but good things about Indiana. I personally checked with James Jr. when one of the rumors came up, and he told me he remained very committed to Crean and the Hoosiers.
But when August 8 rolled around, Blackmon Sr. decided his son should reopen his recruitment and see some other schools. James Jr. never expressed concerns with Indiana, but he began to wonder what other schools out there had to offer. He committed to Indiana so early, he'd never had a chance to compare IU to anything else.
So Blackmon Sr. called Crean to let him know the family's decision.
"That came from me," Blackmon Sr. says. "It wasn't that he had any doubts about going to Indiana, he just wasn't for sure because he didn't have an opportunity to visit a number of schools that started contacting him. And it's fair for him to be kind of confused about the direction he was heading in if he didn't have anything to compare it to. As a father, I wanted him to comfortable with his decision. So I decided that it was probably best to give him an opportunity to compare and make sure he was doing the right thing."
It wasn't a decision that came out of nowhere. Blackmon Jr. had, in fact, been wavering in his commitment for a little while.
"A little before that, I just wanted to see where my head was at, look around, and compare Indiana to other schools," James Jr. says.
Adds Vijay: "I remember we took a lot of time and we talked about it for awhile. He knew Indiana was the right place, but he hadn't seen anything else, so what could you expect for him? He just wanted to know what other schools had. He didn't really know anything."
It wasn't long before the news trickled to the media and then out to the public. The reaction was almost all negative and sometimes harsh. It was, after all, the worst possible news at the worst possible time for Indiana fans. The July recruiting period had just ended, leaving Crean and his staff in an impossible situation. They were without a commit in 2014, and they had little time to get in on the class' elite guards.
Blackmon Jr. tweeted only one time after the news broke that day:
I never said I wouldn't end up at IU. I still love Indiana— James Blackmon Jr. (@JBlackmon2) August 8, 2013
After that, he stayed off of social media all together. His phone continually buzzed with Twitter notifications, but James Jr. did his best to ignore it all.
"I was off for basically the whole day," he says. "I just turned it off. But I heard from other friends and stuff, because they were on there all day. They came over and they showed me, but I just told them I was trying to stay off it.
"That was kind of hard for me. It got easy for me after I decommitted because I've had a lot of situations like that where a lot of people were just talking. I was really used to it and I just turned my phone off. When I was younger, I didn't like people talking and I didn't take it in a good way."
Vijay, meanwhile, took James' phone and read everything that was being said about his older brother. Some of it stung Vijay so bad that he wanted to respond.
"I was showing him, but he didn't really want to see it," Vijay says. "It was crazy. I didn't even have to search. Everyone was talking about it. And then when I did search his name, it was just crazy things that people were saying."
All of the negativity made it seem highly unlikely Blackmon Jr. would ever end up back at Indiana. Especially since he had decommitted so late. He made it clear he still planned to sign his National Letter of Intent in the fall, leaving him just three months to make his final decision.
"He really didn't have a lot of time to be sad," Vijay says. "Everything happened so fast. Right when he did, I think he got a couple offers that same day, so he had to get busy."
Back to Indiana
Blackmon Jr. received a number of new offers in the weeks that followed his decommitment, but he quickly whittled it down to just four schools: Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana. James and his family took a visit to a number of schools and heard all the pitches. And there were a lot of them.
"It's difficult because everybody is putting their best foot forward so you see only the good," Saila Blackmon says. "Everything looks great, so it's sometimes hard to decide what's the best fit. I'm glad that we did it, we met a lot of wonderful people. It's nice when we see people on TV now we kind of feel like we know some of them. But it was also difficult because you are trying to find the best place for your son. The relationship he built with the coaches at IU was over a three-year period versus a three-month period. I think he just had a lot more trust in them. It's hard to know who to trust because everybody is saying what you want to hear."
By the time James was ready to announce his decision at halftime of an ESPNU-televised football game on Halloween, he was down to just two schools: Kentucky and Indiana.
Leading up to his decision, nearly every expert projected Blackmon Jr. to Kentucky. It made sense. His father played there, he seemed to have severed ties with Indiana permanently, and Kentucky had made him a priority.
But when Oct. 31 arrived, all of a sudden, the experts shifted. Rumors were spreading that James Jr. wanted to play for Crean and the Hoosiers after all.
In the end, those rumors proved true. On national TV, Blackmon Jr. committed to Indiana … again.
"I knew who he was gonna pick the day before," Vijay says. "He told me and then I was just there for him."
"I think the relationship overall was a big thing," Saila says. "He needed to just go out and see what else was offered because he hadn't seen it. But in the end, the relationship he had with the coaches … It was a big thing that they stood by and him and supported him through that. That was always in the back of our minds."
After everything -- the decommitment, the ill-wishing, the criticism -- Blackmon Jr. was a Hoosier again. And that was the most important thing. Crean had his star recruit back, and the future suddenly looked very bright again in Bloomington. Finally, the pressure was off for James Jr. The recruitment was over. He could return to his regular life, to being a kid again.
"It was really tough for my family," James Jr. says. "Probably the biggest decision my family has made. It was just really hard to choose because they were all great. Once you see all those big programs you could see yourself out, you just start to think a lot. You put a lot of time into just thinking."
"He was totally different [after the decision]," Saila says. "In those few months, he was really distracted. It was stressful. He was able to get his focus back and focus on playing instead of thinking, 'Where should I go? What should I do?' It was definitely a big relief."
A Brotherly Bond
After Blackmon Jr. reopened his recruitment and began to visit a number of new schools, his little brother Vijay was always by his side. He went on all of the visits with James and heard anything and everything each coach told and promised him.
It had always been that way. James and Vijay were close growing up and constantly pushed each other to be better in whatever it was they were doing. The brothers have been playing 1-on-1 in the driveway for years, and they continue to do so to this day.
"It's pretty heated," Vijay says. "It seems like at the end, he'll do whatever it takes and he'll always win. No matter what, he always wins."
Really, Vijay? You've never won?
"I probably have a couple times, but not really. He's always won."
Vijay has always looked up to his older brother and says James has taught him a lot about both life and basketball over the years. The brothers grew even closer when they started playing on the same AAU teams when James was a fourth grader and Vijay, a second grader.
"He told me once that you always have to have something that separates yourself from others," Vijay says. "Like if you're on a team with people that have the same talent as you, you have to work harder and do something different to make yourself stand out."
Now, both James and Vijay are in the starting lineup for the Marion Giants, a team coached by Blackmon Sr. As of Thursday, Marion was 10-4 with a win over highly-ranked Hamilton Southeastern back in December.
Blackmon Jr. is having another big year, averaging better than 30 points per game, but Vijay has also been a significant contributor.
"It's been fun," Vijay says. "I have to learn my role, that it's his team and listen to him because he's the leader. It's just hard because we sometimes bump heads, but I think we'll be good."
It has been a unique, sometimes challenging, situation for James and Vijay playing for their father at a school he played for so long ago. Blackmon Sr. has been coaching his sons for years, both in AAU ball and at Luers, but it's a little different now with all three family members a part of the same high school team.
"It's really tough," James Jr. says. "He's been one of my coaches for awhile. It's tough at times because he'll get on me first before anyone else. He expects more out of his kids. He wants us to get better, and we understand that as players. I kind of want a coach to get on me because if he gets on you, he knows you can do better than what you're doing. At the same time, he just gives you the greatest advice he can give you as a coach. His advice isn't to hurt you, it's to make you better. That's what I've come to understand, even though sometimes it might come in a hard way."
The Next Step
We're just a few months away from Blackmon Jr. and the other 2014 signees stepping on campus as students for the first time. He still has a promising high school season to finish up, but he says he can't wait to finally put on the Cream and Crimson.
James Jr. is one of the top-ranked players in the 2014 class, and like most basketball players, he has visions of playing in the NBA someday. So how long will he be at Indiana? Could he be a one-and-done candidate?
"I think I have the ability to be," James Jr. says. "That's not really up to me. It's up to the NBA scouts. That's a major goal for me and I think I am capable of being one and done. I think that can actually happen. But if it doesn't, I think I'll be alright and I'll just keep working toward it.
"My ultimate goal is to play in the NBA. That's every basketball player's dream. I've been working hard to make that come true. In two years, if I'm not at IU, in the NBA. And in five years, in the NBA."
For now, James is focused on being a Hoosier. After a long, winding road, Blackmon Jr. is close to calling Bloomington his new home.