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November 17, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Reflections on Larry Bird at Indiana State in 1979 (Part I)

TERRE HAUTE — During the years Larry Bird played for Indiana State University, this writer wrote sports for the “Spectator,” a popular Terre Haute weekly tabloid edited and published by Fred Nation.

On March 3, 1979, The Spectator published a special issue devoted almost entirely to the 1979 NCAA-bound Sycamores, including a feature story on each team member. What follows is the first installment of the column I wrote about the man whose 17-foot bronze sculpture by Bill Wolfe was dedicated last week in front of Hulman Center.]

I remember the first time I heard the name Larry Bird.

The speaker was former Indiana State basketball coach Gordon Stauffer.

The year was 1973. Bird was a junior at Springs Valley High School in southern Indiana.

I was discussing ISU’s recruiting prospects with Stauffer, a subject of great interest to me (during a time when the NCAA did not disapprove of communications between coach and alumni regarding recruits).

Stauffer reviewed with me several senior prospects that he and his staff were hopeful of bringing to the Terre Haute campus.

Then he stopped and, almost in a whisper, said: “Right now, we’ve got a kid for next year from a little town in southern Indiana who is really super.”

“What’s his name?,” I asked.

“Bird. Larry Bird. He’s the type of kid who could turn around our whole program. He is really something.”

“Where is he from?” I entreated.

“Springs Valley. He is about 6-5 and growing. You almost have to see him to believe him.”

“What do you think our chances are of getting him next year?”

“I really think we can get him. Very few people have heard of him. If we can just stay on top of the situation and his team does not go too far in the state tournament so the big schools see him, I think we’ll get him.”

I talked with Stauffer a few times the next year about current recruiting. On one occasion I asked: “What about the Bird kid from Springs Valley?”

Gordon paused and said: “We’re still after him. I’m afraid some of the big basketball schools have seen him and are really going after him. I still think we are ahead but we have our work cut out for us. He’s really the type of kid that would be happier at a small school.”

Bird, who by his senior year had grown to 6-7, attracted college coaches with his 30-point per game scoring average. He was named to the Bloomington Herald-Telephone’s All-State team and, then, to the 1974 Indiana All-Star squad. But his name still was not among the top prospects in Indiana.

Stauffer was heartsick when Bird signed a national letter of intent with Indiana University.

“We just could not compete with the glory of IU,” he lamented after the announcement, “I really think the kid made a mistake.”

Stauffer appeared clairvoyant in early 1974 when it was announced that Bird left Indiana University. Rumors were rampant that “he couldn’t cut it.” I never expected to hear his name again.

How wrong I was!

Stauffer and his staff were terminated at the end of the 1973-74 season. A few months later Athletic Director and new head coach Bob King brought up Bird’s name.    King told me that Bird was enrolling at Indiana State and would be redshirted.

Then, King added: “He’s a super player. He’s got the potential to be as good as anybody we have ever had.”

A few weeks later, I shook hands with Larry Bird at a local restaurant. He was quiet and appeared shy. I had never seen him on the basketball floor.

The year Bird redshirted (1975-76), former Marshall, Ill. star Howie Johnson transferred from the University of Illinois to ISU and one of Stauffer’ recruits, Ray Jackson, also redshirted.

The talk on the street was that the “redshirt team” consistently beat the starters.

Indiana State suffered through a mediocre 13-12 season in King’s first year at the helm. But, as the year wore on, it became clear that the coaching staff already was looking forward to “next season” and had great expectations for the 6-9 kid from Springs Valley.

In the summer of 1976 I saw Bird having dinner with prospective junior college transfer Harry Morgan at Ambrosni’s restaurant. The next time I saw him he was on the basketball floor.

My father was hospitalized in Fort Wayne during November 1976 but I came home from a visit with him to see Larry Bird make his college basketball debut for Indiana State against the national team from Brazil, South America. He scored 31 points, got 15 rebounds and handed out eight assists.

The statistics were impressive but the Sycamores won easily, 96 to 76, and I was not sure how good the competition was.

In Bird’s first “official game — against Chicago State, another unknown entity — he scored 31 again, nabbed 18 boards and had 10 assists. I decided that he was a “pretty good-looking sophomore.”

I refused to venture a higher opinion until after the Sycamores played Purdue at West Lafayette. The Boilermakers, loaded with former Indiana high school stars, were a Big Ten title contender.

Purdue won, 82 to 68, but, as I walked away from Mackey Arena that night, I knew that Bird was the best player on the floor. He scored 27 points and pulled down 15 rebounds. He also blocked three shots, handed out four assists and made several passes that should have been so recorded if his teammates had been able to handle them.        

After that game I decided that Gordon Stauffer and Bob King were right about the kid from Springs Valley.

But, even then, I did not know how great Bird was, or would be.

Continued next week.

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