Steve Alford hotel is quirky, bizarre homage to a Indiana hoops hero, former Iowa Hawkeyes coach
NEW CASTLE, Indiana — Off the exit where a Flying J truck stop and Denny's diner unite, a couple of miles down Ind. 3, tucked between a Steak 'n Shake and the Henry County Rural Electric Membership Corporation, is that fiberglass sneaker.
Bigger than an elephant, it sits there, its color scheme changing based on the current whereabouts of a high school basketball player who hasn't taken a shot during a game in this town since 1983.
"Go Wolf Pack," the black letters spell out beneath the towering sign announcing the Steve Alford All-American Inn.
It's a bit of bizarre mixed with a little quirky and doused with nostalgia -- a 55-room hotel paying homage to a former teenage basketball star in this town 48 miles east of Indianapolis. Steve Alford came to fame playing for his dad at New Castle High and went on to play for the legendary Bob Knight at Indiana University.
New Castle hasn't been Alford's home in three decades. And yet ...
"He's the king of New Castle, the reigning king, the former king, the king that will never go away," said Charlene Schmidt, who was eating inside the White Castle just catty-corner from the inn. "People here think Steve Alford walks on water."
The worst fight Schmidt ever saw was at a family reunion at the Henry County Memorial Park in New Castle. Her uncle from Kansas thought Alford was average, overrated and proof was in his "lame four years in the NBA," she said. Her other uncle, a New Castle native, thought otherwise. The two actually brawled.
"Over Steve Alford, for Christ's sake," Schmidt recalled, laughing. "That's just the way things go around here. Guess we don't have much else to talk about."
Of course, it's not just the people of New Castle who have talked about Alford through the years.
Plenty of America knows of Alford, who won a national title with IU in 1987. He has coached basketball at Manchester University (back when it was a college), Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State), Iowa, New Mexico and, most recently at UCLA, which fired him in December. He is set to enter his first season as head coach at Nevada. Hence the new paint job on the shoe.
Alford hasn't lived in New Castle for more than 30 years. He is 54 years old. He has wrinkles and a few gray hairs.
Yet, this hotel isn't about to forget him.
And even though the two-story hotel recently underwent major renovations inside, the Steve Alford All-American Inn feels a little outdated, a moment frozen in time OF an old factory town's adoration for a favorite son.
None could compare
The brick ranch house on Hickory Lane where Alford would shoot hoops, and townspeople would pull up to watch, is still in pristine shape.
Alford is long gone from that childhood home, and so are his parents, Sam and Sharan. But the basketball lore at that house of a teen born before the onset of video games and cell phones is rich.
There was a hoop in that driveway in the 1980s and Alford would practice shooting nonstop, so much that he missed most of his high school social events. The summers were particularly intense.
With no school, Alford would shoot on that hoop so much, his dad-turned-high school coach said, he would wear out seven nets a summer.
As he entered his freshman season, few knew what to expect from Alford. And at first, his high school career wasn't looking good. As a freshman, he averaged just more than one point a game. As a sophomore that catapulted to 18.7 points and, by his senior year in 1983, Alford averaged 37.7 points per game and was named the state's Mr. Basketball.
He left New Castle as its career scoring leader with 2,116 points and the single-game scoring leader with 57 in the 1983 semistate.
New Castle had fallen hard for this 6-2 young man with the feathered brown hair.
He was all of theirs, their son and he was heading to play for the best basketball program in the state -- Knight and IU.
"It was like watching your own kid play those games at IU and there was this proudness that everyone in New Castle felt,"' said Jeri Masters, a rabid Alford fan who has attended New Castle basketball games since the 1970s. "I don't remember being able to go anywhere without someone talking about Steve."
After winning a gold medal as a member of Knight's U.S. Olympic team, Alford went on to be the team MVP for four years at IU. He was a 1986 and '87 All-American and led the school to its most recent NCAA title in 1987. When he left Bloomington, Alford was IU’s all-time leading scorer, 2,438 points, and all-time leader in steals, 178.
There have been other notable New Castle residents and natives. Among them: Rocker David Lee Roth, Gen. Omar Bundy, IU alum Kent Benson and NASCAR driver Dakoda Armstrong.
None has garnered the reverence of that fresh-faced high school kid, Steve Alford.
"In the eyes of this town," said Frank Lenny, who was grocery shopping last week at the New Castle Wal-Mart. "He was ... perfect."
Basketball goals required
A decade would pass before the Steve Alford All-American Inn would open. By that time, Alford was coaching at Southwest Missouri State.
But the hotel had Alford's blessing — and then some.
While he doesn't own any part of the modest brick business, according to Alford family friend Matt McGraw, Alford has given the hotel plenty of his memorabilia.
The man who opened the inn in November 1997, Kenny Cox, was a high school teammate of Alford's, and a longtime friend. He even helped Alford coach at some of his early college jobs.
When Cox returned to New Castle for business, he asked Alford about a hotel, according to a Los Angeles Times article in 2015. Alford said yes and had just one demand.
“I just wanted to make sure there were two goals in the parking lot," Alford told the Times.
There are. Two basketball goals, one regulation height and the other lowered for kids, stand along one edge of the hotel parking lot.
Alford didn't return IndyStar calls and neither did the inn. In May, IndyStar made its first request for a tour of Alford's hotel. After three months of calls and visits, the owner promised that an interview would take place within weeks. It didn't.
The hotel was full on a recent Friday. Online travel sites reveal Alford's hotel as a New Castle lodging gem and it gets mostly rave reviews. TripAdvisor rates it 4.1 stars out of 5 and Yelp 4 stars out of 5.
"What a quirky, fun place to stop for the night! Good value, clean and comfortable!" Tiffany R. from Missouri wrote on TripAdvisor.
"This place is a basketball fan's dream come true," Steve M. from California wrote on his Yelp review. "A giant hi-top sneaker out front for selfies...and dozens of photos of Hoosier Steve Alford's career inside."
And much more than photos.
Over the years, the hotel decor has evolved along with Alford's career. But old standbys remain — IU photos, life-sized cutouts of Alford, the rim he shot on as a kid, jerseys, lockers, old scoreboards, banners.
"I'd bet you there (isn't) another hotel in the world dedicated to a high schooler," said Darren Crull, who was in the Steak 'n Shake parking lot next to the inn. "Sometimes, even I forget how whack that is."
People from out of town might like to say a hotel such as this one could happen only in basketball-crazed Indiana. And maybe they're right.
New Castle is, arguably, one of the most hyped high school basketball towns in the state. It is home to the self-proclaimed world's largest high school gymnasium, with more than 9,000 seats. The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, too, calls New Castle home.
And just last year Hickory Lane, where Alford grew up, was renamed Sam Alford Boulevard, after Alford's father, a coach who racked up a career record of 300-189 at the high school from 1975-95.
The Steve Alford All-American Inn makes perfect sense in New Castle, but probably not everywhere.
Jerome Pohlen featured the inn in 2002, along with other "eccentric destinations," in his travel guide called "Oddball Indiana: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places."
Rooms inside the hotel range in price from $65 a night for a single to $125 for the suite. Each stay gives guests access to a modest fitness center, wi-fi and a free continental breakfast. Reservations are available only over the phone; no online bookings.
And the phone number ends in 1212, the digits of Alford's high school jersey No. 12.
It's a hotel built for a kid — a high school kid who captured the love of a town.
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