TERRE HAUTE —
I don’t know Larry Bird and it would be extraordinarily foolish for me to pretend to be an expert on his mood, but some impressions don’t lie, and as I watched the Indiana State legend be honored with a beautiful 15-foot statue by his alma mater on Saturday at Hulman Center, I saw someone who seemed at ease in his time, and especially, his place.
Memories came back easy for Bird … as did smiles. He kibitzed with friends and well-wishers before, during and after his statue was dedicated in a well-attended morning ceremony.
He hung out in the Hulman Center Varsity Club before the game as any other alum might. He sat front-and-center with long-time friend Greg Gibson in the courtside seats at Hulman Center, and for two hours, he was a fan as much as any of the other 7,221 on-hand as he watched ISU defeat in-state rival Ball State 82-73.
When the statue itself was unveiled, I was fortunate enough to have a vantage point where I could see Bird’s reaction. He was genuinely moved, and after that first sense of awe drained from his face, he wore a big smile as he expressed his thanks to sculptor Bill Wolfe.
It felt right. It felt like Bird was home. ISU and Terre Haute threw their doors open for their favorite son and it seemed Bird was happy to step right in and feel the love.
Adoration is nothing new for Bird of course. His greatness as a basketball player has demanded it ever since that iconic 1979 season that placed himself and ISU into college basketball immortality. ISU wanted to pay its respect with a statue and a scholarship fund and Bird was more than happy to reciprocate.
“I’ll never be comfortable about [being honored], but this is part of who I am and what I do. If somebody wants to show you a ton of respect you’ve got to reply. I’ll never be comfortable being in the spotlight because I know how many people have helped me along the way,” Bird said.
“I’ve had some awful good folks and some awful good teammates. They always say if you have good people around you good things will happen. That’s what’s happened with me my whole career,” Bird added.
The Bird ceremony was well-done on Saturday, but I don’t think I’m out of bounds in saying that most ISU fans would love if Bird could come back to ISU and enjoy himself without pomp and circumstance. Without a spotlight. To just be Larry, the guy who felt so comfortable in Terre Haute all those years ago, and which helped him decide to become a Sycamore in the first place.
An ideal scenario would be for Bird to come back when he wanted to, relax, take in a game, and just be himself in a place that’s been good to him and loves him unconditionally. To be part of the ISU fabric beyond just the legendary shadow his playing career will always cast.
It seemed that Bird felt the pull. In both his public comments and those to the media, he was unfailing in his praise of both ISU and Terre Haute.
“Terre Haute’s always been good to me. It was the right fit. I liked the campus. I liked the school. I met a lot of people in the community. We did a lot of charity work. [Former ISU coach] Bob King insisted on us doing charity work. I feel very comfortable here, and if I feel comfortable in a place, I usually do really well,” Bird said.
Bird, of course, does have the small matter of his day job as President of the Indiana Pacers. Fitting in ISU games isn’t easy when you’re trying to build a team into the NBA powerhouse the unbeaten Pacers have become. Aside from a one-year retirement during the 2012-13 season, Bird has been busy with Pacers duties for the last decade. Given that, it’s easy to understand why he hasn’t taken in a game since his number was retired in 2004.
Bird wasn’t having it though. He said his Pacers’ duties are no excuse for not gracing his alma mater with his presence.
“Now that our team is pretty well set, I might have more freedom than I did. We put a lot of hours in, but I ain’t going to blame [not coming to ISU games] on my job. Really it was me not getting in the car and getting over here. It’s not that far so I can’t blame anything but myself,” Bird said.
I don’t think any ISU fans blame Bird at all. He’s more than earned the right to come and go as he pleases. The love for him will always be here, it will always be unconditional, and I’m sure he knows it.
“This is the place I need to come. This is the place for me. I don’t think I was in Terre Haute until I came to visit here, but when I left, it was with sadness. I loaded up my car, took off for Boston and it was a sad day. Now I can come anytime I want to. It makes it easier,” Bird said.
The door will always be open. Come back anytime you want to Larry. This is a place you can always feel right at home and feel the love.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.