TERRE HAUTE —
The idea has been out there for awhile, floating.
Locals in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s would say, “They need to put up a statue of Larry Bird. I mean, one of the all-time greatest basketball players played right here in Terre Haute at Indiana State University.”
The identity of “they” seldom gets clarified in such declarations. “They” — a nebulous cluster of apparently powerful people, at least in the eyes of coffeeshop debaters — never seem to materialize.
Yet, in this case, “they” did.
In November 2003, in a tunnel leading to the upper concourse of Breslin Center on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing, Magic Johnson — of all people — validated the notion that Terre Haute and ISU should honor his longtime rival, Larry Bird, in bronze. The four schools that participated in that historic 1979 NCAA Final Four — champion Michigan State, runner-up ISU, DePaul and Penn — had placed their current teams in a reunion tourney in the Spartans’ home arena. Just a few weeks earlier, MSU had unveiled a striking, 12-foot-tall, bronze statue of Johnson right outside the Breslin Center entrance.
I asked Johnson if Bird’s alma mater should do the same thing outside Hulman Center.
“Without a doubt,” Magic said, quickly. “I’m really shocked that he doesn’t have one already. I mean, you’re never gonna get that much excitement [at Indiana State] and how it felt to go to the Final Four. The college basketball Player of the Year, one of the greatest four or five players that have ever played, and he played at your school. I mean, come on, he should have two or three statues.”
His words ran in the Tribune-Star, and a few months later, they bubbled up again. On Feb. 29, 2004, ISU retired Bird’s No. 33 jersey, along with that of another former Sycamore great, Duane Kleuh’s No. 54, in a ceremony at Hulman Center. In a news conference afterward, I relayed Johnson’s comment and asked if Bird liked the idea. In classic Larry Bird deadpan style, he said, “I don’t want a statue. Magic’s got more statues than Saddam Hussein.”
(Just two weeks earlier, the Los Angeles Lakers had erected another Magic statue at the Staples Center in L.A.)
So, given Larry’s reserved nature, any effort to create a lasting monument to his exploits as a Sycamore would have to win Mr. Bird’s heart. “They” would need to be a grassroots collection of people, folks with whom Larry could identify.
It took a few years, but “they” emerged. “They” turned out to be ISU student Brad Fenton and six of his young friends, a marvelously industrious bunch of guys who decided to turn the concept into reality.
The idea came to Fenton in 2006. A Notre Dame football fan, he had trekked to East Lansing to watch the Fighting Irish play the Spartans. While walking across the MSU campus, he saw the Magic statue. The Sycamore passion quickly kicked in for Fenton, whose mother was an ISU student during the Bird years and whose dad avidly followed Bird into his Boston Celtics career. Fenton figured Bird deserved a statue, too. A bigger statue.
Back in Terre Haute, Fenton sought out local sculptor Bill Wolfe, who shared Fenton’s motivation.
“The first person that listened to anything I had to say was Bill Wolfe,” Fenton, now 28, recalled by telephone last week from Indianapolis, where he lives and works as a branch manager of a bank.
The idea brewed for a few years. Fenton and six friends from Terre Haute and ISU — Matt Foster, Geoff Haynes, Ryan Royer, Zack Hurst, Nick Ferrell and Luke Jones — eventually formed the Larry Legend Foundation. With a goal of raising $135,000 for a 13-foot-tall statue, sculpted by Wolfe, and perpetual scholarship in Bird’s honor, they eventually surveyed students and locals about the plan. “Almost every single person I talked to was for it,” Fenton said.
“Once I saw people’s reaction, I said, ‘We can make this happen,’” Fenton added. “But now that it’s actually happening, I can’t believe it’s actually happening.”
ISU will unveil a bronze statue of Bird on Saturday morning, as part of a weekend celebrating the legacy left by Bird and his teammates in the 1976-79 era. Lots of dominos had to fall, right in line, to make that possible. Fenton and his friends set those dominos in motion. They formally launched the Larry Legend Foundation in September 2009, debuted the Larry
LegendFoundation.com website, and started the fundraising with sales of “Everybody Loves a Legend” T-shirts at ISU basketball games. They enlisted the ISU Foundation as a steward of the fundraising effort, which led to a generous contribution from an anonymous donor a couple years later. An initial disagreement over the choice of a sculptor was ironed out, the funds were secured to craft an even taller statue (15 feet, at $153,000), and Wolfe began creating the art piece in 2012.
“It was a long journey, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to turn out any other way. I’m glad Bill’s doing it,” Fenton said. The assistance and expertise of the ISU Foundation proved essential. “When we realized it was bigger than us, that’s when we handed it to the ISU Foundation,” Fenton explained.
Still, the fact that ISU students and local young people initiated the drive captured Bird’s interest.
“It was the total impetus behind it,” said Phil Ness, the ISU Foundation associate vice president of development for athletics. “It’s what got Larry excited about it. I think Larry was really touched that a group of kids, who were born after he graduated, were the ones who got this going. I don’t think it could’ve happened without them.”
Fenton was born in 1985, six years after Bird and the Sycamores stunned America by rolling into the NCAA Final against Michigan State with a perfect 33-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in the polls. In the years since that season, ISU suffered through a 17-year stretch of sub-.500 seasons, seven coaching changes, and some hard feelings, for various reasons, among basketball alums.
Fenton and the Larry Legend Foundation crew focused on the goal, not past baggage. “Those guys didn’t know any better, and so they just went out and did it,” Ness said, with admiration.
“They” just went out and did it, despite the odds. No wonder “they” impressed Larry.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.