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February 17, 2011

B-SIDES: It’s time we all admit it: ‘Everyone Loves a Legend’

TERRE HAUTE — This question is for anyone who has lived around Terre Haute for at least the past 35 years …

(If you missed the cut, don’t stop reading this and go change your Facebook status. Young Hauteans are actually the focus of this story, so stay with us.)

What was this community’s most exciting moment? (OK, aside from the annual arrival of new phonebooks.)

Unless you were hibernating during the winters of 1976-77, ’77-78 and ’78-79, the overwhelming choice would have to be the Larry Bird era of Indiana State University basketball. Community spirit peaked. People in Little Rock, Ark., New York City and Amarillo, Texas, knew the nation’s No. 1 team played in Terre Haute, Ind. Crowds in Hulman Center grew to sellout size. Coffeeshops buzzed. Church sermons referenced the Sycamores’ humble rise to prominence. By the time Bird and his teammates dueled Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans in the epic 1979 NCAA title game, this city enjoyed its new (and albeit temporary) status as the center of the college basketball world.

Those wonderful, crazy days shouldn’t be locked away in the dwindling brain cells of baby boomers.

Thank goodness for youth.

A 25-year-old ISU senior is determined to give the face of Terre Haute’s heyday — Larry Bird — a permanent spot in the community’s landscape. Brad Fenton launched the Larry Legend Foundation a year and a half ago, hoping to raise funds to erect a statue of Bird in front of Hulman Center and create an annual scholarship awarded to an incoming ISU freshman. After lots of organization and planning, as well as securing the support of the ISU Foundation, Fenton’s project is ready to take an important first step.

The Larry Legend Foundation (or LLF) wants every fan attending the current ISU team’s season finale against Southern Illinois on Feb. 26 to wear a special “Everyone Loves a Legend” T-shirt to the game in Hulman Center. Sales of the shirt (at $10 apiece) will go toward the statue and scholarship fund, and all proceeds go into an account secured by the ISU Foundation, said Fenton and Matt Foster, an ISU graduate student who works for the university’s Foundation.

The initial goal for the T-shirt sales is modest — $3,333.33. (For anyone who’s forgotten, Bird wore jersey No. 33.) But the overall fundraising goal for the statue and scholarship is $150,000-plus, Fenton said. The plan is for local sculptor Bill Wolfe to craft a 13-foot-tall, bronze likeness of Bird to stand in front of the south entrance of Hulman Center, and be unveiled by August 2012 (33 years after the Sycamores’ big season).

That height is not a coincidence. Fenton hatched his idea after traveling to East Lansing, Mich., to watch Notre Dame play on the Michigan State campus in 2008. There, outside the Breslin Center (the Spartans’ home court), Fenton saw the imposing statue of Magic Johnson. It measures 12 feet tall.

Fenton thought Bird deserved not only a statue in Terre Haute, but one that exceeds Johnson’s. (After all, even though Michigan State handed ISU its only loss in the ’78-79 season, Bird was the National Player of the Year.)

Since starting the Larry Legend Foundation in 2009 and its website (www.larrylegendfoundation.com), Fenton has heard “99 percent” positive comments about the concept. “It’s the same story every time — they say, ‘I can’t believe there isn’t one there already,’” Fenton said.

That is, indeed, a glaring void on Terre Haute’s historical resume. Until Bird’s ISU jersey was retired in 2004 and perched along the walls of Hulman Center, visiting teams and fans routinely stood inside the arena, gazing up and down in search of some evidence Bird once suited up in Blue and White. A wooden statue of Bird went on display in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1998. Johnson’s statue in East Lansing was completed in 2004.

Part of the reason for Terre Haute’s delay can be attributed to Bird’s reluctance to pursue such attention. On the day ISU retired his number, he was asked about whether he — like Johnson — deserved a statue at his college alma mater. “Magic’s got more statues than Saddam Hussein,” Bird quipped, adding that he didn’t need or desire his own.

But, because the Larry Legend Foundation effort is purely student and community driven, Fenton thinks Bird will embrace the idea. “It’s a generation of students that never got to see him play that are putting this in motion,” Fenton said.

The statue will fill a prominent spot on the Hulman Center grounds. “It will be the focal point,” Fenton said. “Any time anyone from out of town, or someone who hasn’t been back here for a while comes in, the statue will be the first thing they’ll go see.”

And the folks in town, those old enough, will remember a time when Bird and the Sycamores were the first thing to go see.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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