News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 23, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Reflections on Larry Bird from 1979 (Part II)

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

---- — On March 3, 1979, “The Spectator,” a popular Terre Haute weekly tabloid, published a special issue devoted almost entirely to the 1979 NCAA-bound Indiana State Sycamores with feature stories about each player. What follows is the second installment of a column I wrote in that issue about the man whose bronze sculpture by Bill Wolfe was dedicated last week in front of Hulman Center.

Larry Bird was consistently impressive in those early games but his performances became “great” in January 1977. I particularly remember the Butler game. John Dunn, the Bulldogs’ defensive whiz, was quoted in the Indianapolis News on the day of the game that he would “stop Bird.” Somebody must have put that clipping on a bulletin board in the Sycamores’ locker room.

With Dunn doing everything in his power to stop Larry, the ISU sophomore tossed in 42 points on 16 of 29 shooting. He also dominated the boards and handed out seven assists. The Sycamores won, 90-67, and Bird had established a new Hulman Center scoring record. For the first time in college, he had met an opponent’s challenge.

Bird followed that game with 33 points (15 of 23 from the field) against Missouri Western and 47 (a Hulman Center and school record) against Missouri-St. Louis in a game publicized as a match between the Sycamore star and Division II scoring leader Bobby Bone. Once again, Larry met the challenge.

He eclipsed all prior performances in a game against the Centenary Gents, a team that had given the Sycamores a scare in an earlier game at Shreveport, La., 74-71.

The alma mater of Robert Parish, Centenary featured Bobby White, one of the NCAA scoring leaders in 1976-77. Bird had scored 28 points in the first meeting so the Gents decided to use a box-and-one zone against him at Hulman Center.

With a defensive player sticking to him like glue, Bird hit 14 of 16 field attempts, nine of nine free throws and snared 19 rebounds. It was an unbelievable exhibition witnessed by 8,051 fans. ISU won handily, 88-70.

For the rest of his college career, Bird delivered a truckload of memories.

I was at Normal, Ill., on Jan. 25, 1977, when Larry sponsored a Coming Out Party for the Chicago media, including Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau of WGN, against Illinois State. The Sycamores were getting some votes in the weekly national polls and fans from Terre Haute were anxious for the team, and for Larry, to do well. Did we have to worry? All Bird did was score 31 points in the first half!

Redbird fans were muttering to themselves. They had watched one of the finest scoring exhibitions ever presented by a college basketball player.

Illinois State won the game, 70-64, inflicting the Sycamores’ second loss, but Bird & Co. were ready for the rematch in Terre Haute the following week. Larry scored 40 points and stole the ball four times in a 100-84 rout before the first packed house in Hulman Center’s short history. I vividly remember a scary night in Cleveland, listening to Bob Forbes radio account of the Cleveland State game. Larry needed to be helped from the floor after a collision. His injury as reported sounded serious. Could it affect his future playing career?

Against Eastern Michigan, Bird hit at least four of his patented deflection shots to finish with 40 points on 17 of 24 shooting, and 13 rebounds.

In a post-game press conference, Eagles Coach Ray Scott, 1973-74 NBA Coach of the Year with the Detroit Pistons, said he was “astonished” by Bird’s talent.

And who could forget the final home game of the 1976-77 season? Loyola University of Chicago was here. So were 10,420 spectators. The marquee outside Hulman Center read, “SOLD OUT,” for the first time. Larry’s stats for his final home game as a sophomore: 20 of 27 from the field for 45 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and five steals. Yet the most memorable moment was his unselfishness in an effort to help teammate John Nelson, a senior from Rockville, score a basket in his last home game.

Though he was only two points shy of his school record 47 points, Bird grabbed an offensive rebound underneath his basket. He could have easily scored to tie the single-game record but, instead, brought the ball out and handed it to Nelson.

John’s shot missed but Larry was there again for the rebound. Again he brought the ball out and handed it to Nelson And again Nelson missed. For the first time I found it possible for a basketball player to bring tears to my eyes.

I also was in Hinkle Fieldhouse when 12,767 crowded in for ISU’s next-to-last regular-season game against Butler. There still was hope for an NCAA tournament bid.

The Indianapolis press represented that the crowd was there to witness George Theofanis’ final game as the Butler coach. But the press knew better. Most of the large crowd was there to see the sophomore phenom from Springs Valley.

Bird did not disappoint. He hit 19 of 30 shots from the field and nine of ten free throws (47 points) to tie the school single-game record. And he nabbed 19 rebounds.

Thirty-two teams were invited to the 1977 NCAA tournament but Indiana State, with a 25-2 record, was not one of them. The Sycamores were selected to appear at Houston in the National Invitation Tournament.

Though Larry was one of the nation’s top scorers, his reputation as a complete player had not spread outside of the Midwest. He was averaging 32.2 points and 13.3 rebounds per game but the national media apparently presumed Bird was a gunner from an unheralded mid-major school in Indiana.

I made arrangements to meet ISU alum Bob Mayfield in Houston for the game and briefed him on Bird and the ISU team. I had press credentials and both of us wore ISU buttons. I hoped that the team, and Bird individually, would show well in Hofheinz Pavilion and advance to the finals in New York.

ISU lost, 83-82, but, as usual, Larry was superb. He dominated his matchup against Houston’s unanimous All-America Otis Birdsong with 44 points on 19 of 28 from the field and 14 rebounds. But, when the game ended, I was deeply disappointed that this very good Indiana State team and its star player would not be seen in Madison Square Garden.

Suddenly I was besieged by the Houston media, who quizzed me about Bird, who some called “the best college basketball player” they had seen. Much of my disappointment evaporated when I realized that Larry Bird’s talent was recognized outside of the Midwest.

Continued next week.