News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 4, 2013

The Bird Years: Rise to prominence

TERRE HAUTE — Do dreams ever come true?

Does an athlete ever not only live up to his buildup, but exceed it by enormous amounts?

It may not happen very often now, when athletes are written about and recruited from the time they are in elementary school.

But it certainly happened in the 1970s, when Indiana State University and Terre Haute got to know Larry Bird and were able to introduce him to the rest of the world.

ISU may have been the first school to recruit Bird at Springs Valley High School, even though it took a second attempt to get him to come. And even when he arrived — after being an Indiana All-Star selection and an Indiana University recruit for a very short time — there weren’t a lot of people who appreciated the significance of his arrival.

“I don’t think anybody realized [how good Bird would become],” said former teammate Rick Williams, “no matter what they say now.”

… But Some realized

There were one or two who may have, however.

One was Gordon Stauffer, Indiana State’s head coach from 1967 through 1975.

“We were following him as a freshman and sophomore,” said Stauffer. “We really got our foot in the door.

“I used to take [my wife] Norma with me when I went to look at players, but I’d never tell her which one I was looking at, to see if she could pick him out,” the retired coach continued. “The night we went to see Larry, she turned to me after about a minute and said, ‘He’s the one, isn’t he?’”

Bird was also just 6-foot-3 then, however, and not exactly muscular. Bill Hodges remembers seeing Bird play for the first time when the Springs Valley star was a junior.

“We were recruiting a kid named Curt Gilstrap from Orleans, and they were playing Springs Valley,” said Hodges, an assistant coach at Tennessee Tech at the time. “Larry was a 6-3 wing and he was really good, but even at Tennessee Tech you’ve got to have a bigger kid than that. But then he grew four inches during the summer.”

The taller Bird had more of an impact as a Springs Valley senior. Ed McKee was the sports information director at Indiana State at the time, and started to hear Bird’s name in conversations with the coaches.

“He was unproven and he was from a small town,” McKee said. “I think the coaches’ attitude was ‘We want him, but we don’t want to tell the world how good he’s going to be.’”

Until very late in the recruiting process, Stauffer and his assistant coaches felt confident.

“We were very close,” Stauffer recalls now. “It came down to the last week. … Indiana [University] just came out of the blue.

“We were disappointed, to say the least.”

Hodges saw the taller Bird play — briefly — for the Indiana All-Stars in June of 1974.

“I thought he was [Indiana’s] best player, even though he was their 11th man [in terms of playing time],” Hodges said.

Change in staff

Stauffer and his staff were let go at the end of the 1974-1975 season, the season that would have been Bird’s first at Indiana, and replaced by athletic director Bob King. Hodges became one of King’s assistant coaches, and when recruiting was discussed an obvious need was at the forward position, where Williams and Geoff Shuck were about to become fifth-year seniors.

Hodges mentioned Bird’s name, and he and fellow assistant coach Stan Evans were dispatched to French Lick to see what the situation was after Bird’s departure from Bloomington.

Asked recently if other colleges were also on Bird’s trail at the time, Hodges joked, “There’d been a lot of coaches down there … at least that’s what his mother said when she slammed the door in our face.”

Undeterred, Hodges started driving around town and found Bird coming out of a laundromat helping his grandmother carry baskets of clothes. “A place that size, there’s only so many places a kid can go,” he said, “and not many of them are going to be almost 6-9.”

Bird wasn’t enthusiastic about talking to Hodges and Evans, but the coaches found an unexpected ally.

“His granny told him, ‘Larry, these men came all the way down here to see you. The least you can do is invite them back to the house for tea.’”

It started over tea

That pitcher of iced tea started the series of conversations that eventually got Bird to Indiana State.

“The only thing he asked was to come to Terre Haute in the summer, because there weren’t enough guys around French Lick to play [basketball] with,” Hodges said.

Waiting at the ISU Arena for pickup games were many of the players who would make up the lineup for King’s first season coaching the Sycamores; Bird was ineligible because of transfer rules, and he arrived without fanfare.

“It was not a big deal [that he was coming to ISU],” recalled Shuck, now a Terre Haute business owner. “Coach King called Rick [Williams] and I into his office and told us we had a guy who had left IU. He wanted each one of us to play [on a team] with him and play against him and then come back to [King’s] office and tell him what we thought.”

Initially there were no flashes of greatness.

“Larry was a little shy. I noticed right off that he was ambidextrous around the basket … but Rick and I were fifth-year seniors, and [Larry had] never been on a weight program so he wasn’t as strong as he would get to be,” Shuck said. “We were both impressed, but we didn’t know he would get to be great. We thought he was very good and would be an asset to the team.”

If there was a high-profile ISU recruit at that time, it was 6-11 center DeCarsta Webster, however, and before Shuck and Williams could report back to King there was one play that Shuck remembers.

A loose ball resulted in Bird heading to the other end of the court with one player — Webster — waiting for him. “Larry threw it off the board, grabbed it and stuffed it left-handed,” Shuck recalled. “Coach King was up in a corner of the gym at the time, and Rick and I went up and told him he probably didn’t need any reports from us.”

Hints of excitement

Shuck and Williams, ISU’s ninth-leading career scorer all time with the fifth-best points-per-game average in school history, were the leaders of a team on its way to a winning record in King’s first season as the Sycamore coach, so any Bird excitement was muted, to say the least. But there were hints.

“I remember coming in after [preseason] conditioning one day, and Larry’s locker was right next to mine,” said Williams, now a stockbroker in Florida. “We were peeling off our sweaty jerseys, and he said to me, ‘One day I’ll be making a million dollars doing this.’ … He had that kind of fire in his belly.

“Of course, he was wrong,” Williams quipped. “He made a lot more than that.”

“He was extremely friendly with all the guys on the team,” Shuck said. “I had the dubious honor of always guarding the top forward on the other team, and in practice Larry would always play that guy.

“The games were a lot easier, because the guys I guarded in games were not as good as the guy I was guarding in practice.”

“He and I played a lot on the practice squad,” recalls Jimmy Smith, executive director of the Terre Haute Boys & Girls Club, who was a regular on the 1975-76 team and the 1976-77 team that included Bird for the first time. “He was never selfish. … Sometimes you had to shake your head at the stuff he could do.”

“[The late] Bob Forbes [the “Voice of the Sycamores” at the time] would come by about every day to watch practice,” Ed McKee remembers, “to see Larry and the second string beat the returning group — which wasn’t a bad team.”

More work coming

Federal judge Craig McKee was a freshman at ISU, working as Ed McKee’s assistant sports information director during the 1975-76 school year.

“I didn’t work much past March, because the money [allotted to pay for the position] ran out,” Craig McKee said. “Then, in the middle of May, Ed called and said ‘Mr. King would like to see you.’

“[King] asked me if I’d seen Larry Bird play, and I hadn’t. But I said, ‘I know he’s good. Some people even say he could be better than Rick Williams.’ ”

King’s response to that always sticks in his mind, Craig McKee said.

“Bob King said, ‘I think he is [better than Rick Williams]. I think he’ll keep our sports information office very busy.’ And then he offered to give me an athletic scholarship plus $100 a month to be Ed’s full-time assistant.

“Bob King knew what he had, and he knew life was going to be very different [with Bird on the team].”

“We had a lot of fun playing together,” Smith said. “He probably got me more playing time than I would have gotten otherwise, because I figured out the most important thing was getting the ball to Larry where he wanted it.”

“I sent him a Christmas card every year for 10 years,” Craig McKee said. “After all, he paid for my education.”

Mel was right

And another pickup game, which included more than just current members of the team, is significant in Hodges’ mind.

“Mel Daniels (one of the all-time greatest Indiana Pacers, who had played for King at New Mexico) was playing against him for the first time, and when he got done we asked Mel what he thought,” Hodges said.

“Mel sat there and said, ‘He’s the best player I ever played against. He can do more things than anybody,’” Hodges continued.

“As it turned out, Mel was right.”

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