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November 30, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES: Reflections on Larry Bird from 1979 (part III)

TERRE HAUTE — On March 3, 1979, “The Spectator,” a popular Terre Haute weekly newspaper, published a special issue devoted almost entirely to the 1979 NCAA tournament-bound Indiana State Sycamores with feature stories about each player. What follows is the third and final installment of a column I wrote in that issue about the man whose sculpture by Bill Wolfe was dedicated on Nov. 9, 2013 in front of Hulman Center.

Following the 1976-77 season, I went to Louisville to watch Bird try out for the U.S. World University Games team. I was fortunate enough to sit with Creighton Coach Tom Apke, who was there as a spectator.

Bird had finished the season third in the nation in scoring and seventh in rebounding. So his odds of making the team seemed pretty good.

But there was a lot of talent on the floor. I was particularly impressed by James Bailey of Rutgers, Phil Hubbard of Michigan and Calvin Natt of Northeast Louisiana. I hoped that Denny Crum, the team’s head coach, would recognize Bird’s talent. When he missed a couple of shots, I cringed at the thought that he might not make the team.

Then, one of the assistant coaches came over to talk to Apke and I overheard the conversation.

“What we need is a good passer,” one said.

“Yea,” was the response. “The only great passer we have is Bird.”

“Yes. Isn’t he something?”

I left Louisville confident that Larry world make the U.S. squad at the World University Games in Sofia, Bulgaria.

He did and the U.S. won the gold medal, defeating the Soviet Union twice, 129-95 in the second round, and 87-68 for the championship. Bird, Natt, Sidney Moncrief of Arkansas and Freeman Williams of Portland State reached double figures in the title game.

The Sycamores won their first 13 games of the 1977-78 season and moved into fifth place in the national polls. Their victims included Purdue (91-63), St. Louis, Central Michigan,  Evansville, Eastern Michigan, Ball State, Tulsa, Bradley and Southern Illinois.

Bird had double-doubles in eight of those games and 45 points in games against Central Michigan and Drake. He had 19 rebounds against St. Louis and 17 against Purdue. Southern Illinois gained revenge for its loss to ISU at Hulman Center, edging the Sycamores on Jan. 19, 1978, in Carbondale, 79-76. Bird had 38 points and nine rebounds.

Two nights later at Normal, Ill., Illinois State inflicted the season’s second loss on the Sycamores, 81-76, though Bird scored 37 points and snared 17 rebounds.

The consecutive loss streak was extended to five games as ISU fell at Wichita State in overtime, Creighton at Hulman Center and Loyola Chicago on the road. It was the only stretch in Bird’s college career that his team lost back-to-back games. Losses at New Mexico State and Creighton gave the Sycamores a 19-7 record going into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament at Omaha. ISU disposed of West Texas State and Bradley with relative ease but needed overtime to eject New Mexico State, 80-78. The three victories elevated the Sycamores to the MVC title game against Creighton on its home court. The Blue Jays beat ISU for the third time, 54-52, despite 29 by Bird.

For the second year, ISU accepted an invitation to play in the 1978 NIT. Instead of playing on the road, as they did in 1977, the Sycamores hosted Illinois State, a team that won the only game between the two schools.

Howie Johnson’s 20-foot baseline jumper with 2:12 remaining gave the Sycamores the lead, which resulted in a 73-71 first round triumph. Bird compiled 27 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists to lead the team. Using a box-and-one defense designed to restrict Bird, Rutgers won, 57-56 before a standing room only crowd listed at 8,700  in Piscataway, N.J. Larry had 23 points and 11 rebounds to lead all in both categories. ISU forward Harry Morgan added 18 points.

You know most of the rest of the story. Many will remember the 40 points he scored at Evansville on Dec. 2, 1978. And the 48 he compiled Dec. 16 against Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Or the school record 49 points he scored Feb. 24, 1979, against Wichita State in his final home game.

And few will forget the “Bird’s Nest” defense imposed on the Sycamores by Bradley Coach Dick Versace. Bird was held to four points – the only game in his three-year ISU career when he failed to reach double digits – but ISU won easily, 91-72. In his last two years in a Sycamore uniform I watched Bird become what I believe to be the best college basketball player in history. For a guy who has been following the sport for 30 years and marveled at the talent of Oscar Robertson, that is saying something.

Larry always met the challenge, whatever it might be. He may be a bit slow and is not the world’s greatest jumper but his all-around ability and court vision exceed that of anybody who has put on basketball togs.

Legends about Larry have spread in the past two years. He can hit a softball “a country mile” and, together with his older brothers, led the Glenn Recreation Center league in home runs.

He allegedly can hit a golf ball as far as Jack Nicklaus though he has not played the game much. And he can handle his own with a beer mug. But he is really a private person who, by reason of his basketball exploits, has been coveted by many in the local citizenry. I have not been part of that scene. So, except for shaking his handle on a couple of occasions, I have never really talked to him. When I walked into the ISU locker room the other day to interview some other players, I intended to honor his silence with the press. As I entered the room, Larry threw a dirty wet towel at a towel basket and it hit me in the face. He apologized profusely.

“I guess you must have known I was a newspaper reporter,”: I said in jest.

Bird smiled and, then, also in jest (I hope), said: “If I had known that I probably would have thrown a chair.”

That was the day before he established another school single-game scoring mark with 49 points against Wichita State before a national television audience.

Some day I may get to know him better. But, if that day never comes, I will never forget him or the entertainment he provided for three years. Frankly, I am emotional about his forthcoming departure.

As Craig McKee eloquently said recently: “Halley’s Comet appears only once every 76 years. So does a Larry Bird.”

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