Four hours before tipoff of every game, former walk-on Johnny Jager would be the first player to enter a still Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
The arena would be empty, save the event staff, who'd be draping the seats with promotional giveaways, and the team managers, but even they wouldn't be on the clock yet.
As Jager would enter the locker room, the team managers would be huddled around the pool table playing a few rounds before going to work. Jager would stand there quietly watching them play until inevitably someone missed a pocket and he could unleash some smack-talk.
During his senior year, getting to Assembly Hall early became Jager’s way to relax before a game. A little time away from basketball before he has to snap back into it as the rest of his teammates arrive for warmups.
“I never jump in because I’m horrible,” Jager said of the managers’ pool battles, “but I like to talk my talk.”
Jager relishes the time he spends inside Assembly Hall because it’s a reminder of everything he has worked for.
As a local kid growing up in Bloomington with the shadow of Indiana basketball looming large over the region, Jager said he always dreamed of wearing the candy-striped pants in front of a packed crowd.
In kindergarten, Jager got his first taste of the Hoosier program when he went to Midnight Madness — now called Hoosier Hysteria — with his dad, sister and two brothers.
“Back then it was actually at midnight, so you can only imagine what it was like for me trying to stay awake,” Jager said. “But going to those games is where my first real connection with Indiana basketball started.”
Just like that, IU basketball became one of the cornerstones in Jager’s life.
From November through March, Jager and the rest of his family huddled around the television to watch their hometown Hoosiers battle it out.
When Jager was in fifth grade, his love for IU basketball reached its climax as he got the job every kid in Indiana dreams about: being the ball boy for the Hoosiers.
“It was awesome,” Jager said. “I would sit underneath the basket at the games and give the refs water during the breaks. Indiana basketball was a big part of my life, so to actually be a part of it was like a dream come true.”
Jager’s constant exposure to IU basketball drove his desire to compete. By sixth grade, Jager was fully invested in basketball, leaving behind other sports such as soccer and baseball to play year-round.
With Assembly Hall beckoning on the northwest side of Bloomington, the goal always remained the same for Jager: To not just be a fan inside Assembly Hall, but to be one of those players on the court that he looked up to as a kid.
But as Jager played through high school, the dream of wearing the candy-striped pants became more of a long shot. Even as a standout player at Bloomington High School South, earning Area Player of the Year honors as a senior, IU never came calling. Instead, Jager decided to go play at Wabash College, a Division III school up the road in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
Jager had to adopt a new plan: Be a standout player at Wabash en route to becoming a dentist.
He was well on his way to accomplishing his first goal of being a standout player, starting all 26 games his freshman year and averaging 15.5 points, 5.5 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game. His second goal of going to school to become a dentist, however, quickly got slashed. He hated his biology classes.
Jager took some time soul searching, trying to figure out what he wanted to do in life, then it hit him.
The constant in his life was basketball.
“I’ve always admired Johnny’s passion and work ethic towards the game,” former IU Coach Tom Crean said. “He reached out to me about Indiana and also about preparing for a life in coaching after graduation.”
Jager walked into Crean’s office one afternoon while back home in Bloomington expecting to have a short conversation. What Jager got instead was a three-hour meeting that ended with an offer that would change his life.
IU had an open walk-on spot on its roster, and it was Jager’s for the taking if he wanted.
In the blink of an eye, a forgotten dream sprung into reality.
Jager was home. Not just in Bloomington, but in Assembly Hall as well.
“Going from Bloomington South to Wabash was kind of like a step back,” Jager said. “The crowds were bigger in high school and it seemed to be a little bit more intense. Then making the jump up to IU was like taking two giant steps.”
Jager knew coming to IU meant his basketball experience would be completely flipped upside down. He went from being an everyday starter to someone whose job was to bring energy and excitement from the far side of the bench.
The playing time was a non-issue for Jager in his decision to come back home to IU. He would still be able to compete, just instead of in front of a crowd, it’d be in front of his coaches and teammates on the practice court.
After all, Jager’s reason for being a Hoosier was different from everyone else’s.
“I was taking it as a learning experience,” Jager said. “I would definitely say that I have a different perspective during practice.”
At practice, Jager would stand on the sidelines, picking the brain of the assistant coaches. He stands there dissecting the plays being run on the court, pointing out who should be cutting when and what tweaks could be applied. He also stood there listening and learning. As a player, what was he missing that he would need to see as a coach?
While at IU, Jager slowly started to piece together what he thought his coaching style might look like.
Jager has become a disciple of the pack-line defense, the defensive style Coach Archie Miller has implemented at IU and the style both University of Virginia and Texas Tech University used when they played each other in the National Championship game last month.
For Jager, his time back in Bloomington has always been about the experience, both coaching and living out his childhood dream.
Jager will never forget the first time he went against former Hoosier and first-round NBA pick OG Anunoby or probable lottery pick Romeo Langford in practice, the basketball team’s movie club, which would stay up late on road trips cramming into a hotel room to watch the newest movies or when a crowded Assembly Hall chanted his name as he scored his first and only points in his final game.
That moment came in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament against Saint Francis University. With 52 seconds remaining, the crowd in Assembly Hall erupted as Archie Miller motioned down to the end of the IU bench for Jager to check in.
With just over 30 seconds remaining in the game, and IU leading by 17, Jager dribbled the ball at midcourt, content to let the clock run out. He ignored the crowd’s plea for him to shoot and passed the ball off to fellow walk-on Quinton Taylor. Then it came back to him as the crowd roared again, urging him to shoot.
Two seasons with the Hoosiers had come and gone for Jager, yet his point total never changed.
“We all wanted him to go,” junior forward De’Ron Davis said following the game. “We knew this was probably his last chance to get his points, so we wanted him to go.”
Jager gave in to the pressure. Instead of just pulling up from beyond the arc like normal, Jager pounded the ball on the court, crossed over to his right and drove to the hoop, drawing a foul and sending himself to the free-throw line.
It was the moment of truth for Jager.
As Jager nervously stepped up to the line, he wiped his sweaty palms on his shorts, performed an extended dribbling routine, spun the ball in his hand and let it fly.
Assembly Hall burst with excitement as the Bloomington native finally scored. It came down to the final seconds of his playing career, but the hometown kid finally got his points.
With the weight finally being lifted off his back, Jager took a moment wiping his hands on the soles of his shoes, with his tongue sticking out and shot his teammates a quick wink. He then recollected himself, stepped up and calmly drilled the second free throw.
“I was excited for him,” senior captain Juwan Morgan said. “When he stepped up, I think I was sitting next to Zach (McRoberts), and I was like, ‘Yeah he’s probably peeing down his leg, he’s definitely going to miss. He’s going to hit all backboard or air ball.' Thankfully he made both."
It may have not been the scene Jager dreamed about as a kid playing basketball in his driveway, taking the game-winning shot to win the National Championship, but it was a perfect end to his playing career.
Jager came back to IU to pursue his goal of becoming a college coach and to live out a fantasy so many young Hoosiers like himself had.
“Johnny has been a very valuable part of the program,” Miller said. “I think he has a bright future and would not be surprised at any success he has.”
Jager knows the road ahead will be even tougher than the one that brought him back home to Bloomington.
As Jager hopes to stay home and land a graduate assistant job at IU, he is still the same kid that struggled to stay awake for Midnight Madness. Just a Hoosier with a basketball and a dream.