Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
I attended the unveiling of the Larry Bird statue on Saturday, Nov. 9, and found the proceedings to be wonderful. I found myself experiencing a myriad of thoughts and emotions throughout the day and felt the need to share some of those with my fellow Terre Hauteans.
You see, to me, Hulman Center is not only Bird’s house but also my dad’s house. My dad was Pete Ray. He hired in as an usher at Hulman Center when they opened the doors for their first event in 1972. He got promoted to head usher and worked there up until five days before his death in 2011. He worked the ISU graduation that day. He was really too sick to do it but wild horses couldn’t keep him away from the place he loved so much. If his name doesn’t ring a bell with you, you might remember him as the guy with the flat top. I got an “oh yeah” from some of the players from the ’79 team with that reference.
I attended all of the home games during the Bird years. It was a special time in my life as I know it was in many of your lives. You could really sense in the air before the start of “The Season” that something special was about to happen. I think maybe Rich Nemcek summed it up best for me when I spoke with him after the unveiling. He said it was a lifetime worth of memories.
Looking back on that season, it was like a dream. But if you think about it, aren’t all of our cherished memories of the past like that? It seemed like everyone around town was more upbeat and more congenial to each other during that time. It seemed like everyone was really enjoying life and the ride that team took us on.
Bobby “Slick” Leonard so aptly said, “That team shocked the world.” We were so proud of those guys and we held our heads up high, because during that time we felt that we lived in the capital of the basketball world. This was where it was at.
A lot of people would say it’s just a game. I get that, but I think many life lessons can be learned through athletic competition, especially in the area of team sports. There is just something special and magical about a group coming together and putting their all into fulfilling their dreams by going as far as they can go for themselves, their families, their school and their town. And there are so many wonderful memories made in the process.
I think to fulfill our promise on this Earth, we humans have it in our DNA to do more than just fulfill the basic needs of life. We build things. We build roads, buildings, societies, songs, literature, sculptures, as well as teams gathered together to compete to achieve a collective goal. And we ultimately build each other. We build things not just for the necessity of it, but for the sense of accomplishment and the sheer joy of doing it and to share among ourselves the gifts that God has bestowed upon each and every one of us.
Larry said at that Saturday ceremony that what kept him working hard was what his high school coach said, “that there is always someone out there working a little harder.” We all know that nothing in this world is accomplished by accident. It comes through hard work and, yes, as we can certainly see with Larry, a generous sprinkling of God given talent helps greatly. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t apply yourself and strive to perfect that talent, it just goes to waste.
Larry said that everyone on that team knew their roles. Sure, they couldn’t have come close to what they accomplished without Larry. But they couldn’t have done it without each member of that team. Even those guys that didn’t get hardly any playing time pushed the starters and made them better. Perhaps Larry’s best gift was that he made everyone around him better. For example, he used to say: “If you are open, you’ll get the ball.” As a result, his teammates took Larry’s lead and worked hard to get open. And they knew that they had better be watching him intently when they did get open or they might end up with a broken nose because his passes rarely missed their mark.
I think perhaps the biggest thing we can glean from that fabulous season once upon a time is that it happened as a result of a lot of hard work. It’s kind of like Congressman Ed Pease told me about his tenure in Congress one time. He said: “People look at this as all glamour. It’s not. It’s hard work if you do it right; tedious, long hours and yes sometimes even a lot of mundane repetition.”
Everything worth achieving in life is like that. You’ve got to be willing to do the dirty work; endless, repetitive drills, floor burns and diving for loose balls. And hard work is contagious. Like Larry said, “If I dive for those loose balls then Carl is going to dive for them and Brad is and so on.” Oh what lessons we learned back then, and we all had so much fun while we were learning them.
And think about what those guys went through to fulfill their dream. Think about all of the petty politics that runs through a lot of school systems with team sports, the favoritism, the lack of playing time when you know you deserve it, the backstabbing, ballhogging and downright crap that you know they all endured at one time or another in their climb to get to that season.
But they kept going. And through the example of Larry, they played the game the way it was meant to be played, unselfishly, all for one and one for all. Team.
We can take away from that time not only the memories but the lessons Larry taught us in his class of life conducted at such a tender age. Things like, keep your nose to the grindstone, be unselfish, be kind, help others to see in themselves what perhaps they cannot see on their own. Maybe the biggest thing we can take away from “The Season” that perhaps we could not have learned if we had beaten Michigan State that long ago March night is that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. And what a journey it was. For a team from a non-power conference to go to the final game during that era was unbelievable. They definitely shocked the world.
Even though Larry was the engine that made that team go, he wasn’t a one-man team. Larry knew that. He worked within the framework of the team he had, utilized the unique abilities of each of his teammates and through his unselfish play inspired them to strive for excellence in each of their roles. He did the same thing with the Celtics. Like Kevin McHale once said, “If my job is to put in a widget, then I’m going to put in a widget, and I am going to put it in to the best of my ability.”
We are all divinely gifted with something. Do what you do. Do it to the best of your ability while inspiring others to do the best they can do. And also show others respect and make them understand that their contribution, no matter how small, is essential, like Larry did with his teammates. Along with that vaunted Sycamore pride and the fond memories of the joy and glory of those days, I feel that these other supreme lessons of life may be the most important part of the legacy that Larry and that team left for us to apply to our lives. That’s the stuff that fulfilled dreams are made of.
Thanks for the ride, Larry and the rest of you guys on that ’79 team. You guys will go down as one of the most amazing teams, if not the most amazing, in NCAA history. And you will always hold a special place in all of our hearts for as long as we live.
Paul Ray is a resident of Terre Haute and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org