I was traveling on business and the hotel we wanted to stay at was full. We hit the road driving further on toward our destination when I saw a sign for the “Steve Alford All-American Inn.” I decided we would check it out.
In the middle of nowhere Indiana, we came upon a giant sneaker. It was a giant UCLA sneaker. The hotel sign, in basketball crazy Indiana, said “Go Bruins!” Then, the fun started. We entered the shrine to New Castle, Indiana’s most famous prodigy, Steve Alford.
Behind the hotel desk were four decked-out lockers for each of the schools where Alford has coached. On the far right, there was a UCLA locker that could have been on display at UCLA Hall of Fame. On the other side, there was a program filled out in pencil with the stats of the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal game, including the starting backcourt of Steve Alford and Michael Jordan.
The Inn feels like It is frozen in time to 1984. The clerk offers a $60 king bed room. When I pay for both myself and my associate, she reminds me this is a non-smoking inn and if he smokes I will be responsible for the $200 fine. She, then, hands me an actual key (not a card) with a plastic piece attached listing my room number.
I pause before going to the room to hang out in the lobby and downstairs hallways. Each part of Steve Alford’s career is documented at length from his High School All-American career to his infamous start in the NBA, where he literally put his shorts on backwards.
There is an interesting difference between the UCLA section and the section for the other teams he coached. They all feature some memorabilia from his “best” season: D-III runner up for Manchester College and a UCLA t-shirt saying Pac-12 Tournament Champions. But the UCLA section is different because there is no media guide featuring Steve Alford on the cover. His first season at Southwest Missouri the media guide cover was all about Alford. UCLA is the only one where they must take an internal page from the guide for a Steve Alford picture. Steve is never the show.
As you go through the Inn, you realize Steve’s whole life he has been the show from his high school magazine covers to being the poster boy for a Bobby Knight championship team. Don’t forget he started all four years for Knight back at a time when great players leaving early for the draft was the exception not the rule.
You also realize how far the bright lights and media focus of Los Angeles is from New Castle. In LA, Alford is more likely to have a billboard asking for him to be fired than an Inn chronicaling every year of his basketball life since he was in high school.
But it goes deeper than that. In one of the coaching team pictures seated next to Coach Steve Alford is a small boy, Kory Alford. The lesser talented Alford son Kory has been his dad’s shadow from when he was literally a little pipsqueak.
There are also the culture differences. The Inn is next to a calorie bomb chain restaurant called Steak and Shake which features a daily happy hour of...yup, you guessed it...shakes. This isn’t LA with clubs and other adult temptations. This is where the Steak and Shake stays open 24 hours for your sugar needs. When we check into our rooms across the hall, a retired couple are excited as they say “Oh, we haven’t stayed in this room yet.” The Inn is something of a must-visit place I guess for some.
I come to think about how culturally hard it must be for Alford in Los Angeles. After all, LA isn’t Indiana. The overweight clerk in the morning is outside on a smoke break while a guy with a mullet, which made him look like a character out of the movie Joe Dirt, is working on vacuuming the rooms. This is a simple town stuck in the 1970s. Alford talking about “blessings” as coach fits right in with New Castle folks and contrasts Los Angeles where Phil Jackson’s transcendental mediation ideas with the Lakers probably seemed more “normal.”
And, Alford isn’t a big deal in Los Angeles. So many people loom larger over the basketball scene. Shoot! He was not even the most famous, or rather, infamous basketball dad in LA where LaVar Ball continues grabbing headlines. Yet, back home in New Castle where he grew up, he is former Indiana player of the year, Olympic Gold medalist, and big-time college coach. People still follow him and even say “Go Bruins!” in the middle of Indiana to support him.
I am not writing this post to criticize or praise Alford. I enjoyed the taste of Americana for $60 a night. But it was interesting to think about where Alfold came from and a reminder that when Alford leaves UCLA whenever that may be, there will be no reason to feel sorry for him. Another team locker will be added, giving a new reason to go the Inn for his fans in New Castle.