TERRE HAUTE —
On a sunny, slightly windy Saturday morning, a countdown similar to what Larry Bird heard before he would swish a game-winning shot during his Indiana State University and National Basketball Association playing careers triggered the Terre Haute unveiling of the 17-foot, 1 1⁄8-inch Bird statue south of Hulman Center.
As the ISU marching band played and former Boston Celtics teammate Quinn Buckner rattled off these descending numbers in front of thousands of curious onlookers — including hundreds who filled the elevated Terre Haute Transit building across Eighth Street — Bird, sculptor Bill Wolfe and ISU President Daniel J. Bradley pulled the strings to drop the black draping that covered the Wolfe creation.
Finally, the statue was available for public viewing.
Before the unveiling, Bird expressed gratitude to all who made this weekend’s events become reality.
“My family and I are so honored today,” he told spectators who surrounded the temporary stage and those across the street. “This is an honor. This is truly a great honor.”
He also thanked his teammates from the 1978-79 Indiana State squad that finished as national runner-up in the NCAA tournament.
“Basketball is a team game,” he emphasized. “And that year, for some reason, God looked down on us and said, ‘Hey, let’s let them guys have a nice run this year.’ Going into that season, we had no idea what was about to happen. Believe me, we enjoyed every step.”
Back to the statue, Bird appreciated that the project originated as a student-driven idea.
“I’m not a guy who tries to self-promote,” he elaborated. “All I want to do is get the job done and move on. But when I found out it was a few students who got together and had a great idea, it shows you that they did a lot of hard work, talked to a lot of people and got it done and I appreciate it very much.”
NBA legend Bill Walton, another former teammate of Bird with the Celtics in the 1980s, was on hand for Saturday’s dedication and Bird could not resist the urge to good-naturedly rib the 6-foot-11 former center commonly known as “the Big Red Head.”
“Bill Walton was my hero years ago,” Bird revealed. “Then one night, I got to play against him [in the NBA] when he was playing for the mighty Clippers [then located in San Diego]. The game was about two minutes old and Bill turns to the referee [and says in a whiny voice]: ‘Tell him to quit pushing me. Quit pushing me.’”
After the crowd laughter subsided, Bird concluded his story: “So sometimes it’s better not to meet your heroes.”
Not surprisingly, more laughter ensued.
Although humor often highlighted Saturday’s presentations, serious news came out as well.
One was an announcement from Bradley that the Larry Legend Scholarship Fund will start with an endowment of $400,000, thanks to money raised at the Bird tribute dinner Friday night in Hulman Center.
“Larry, I would like to thank you, [wife] Dinah and your family for joining us this weekend and for allowing us to pay tribute to you in this manner,” Bradley continued, looking at Bird. “Your tremendous work ethic is an inspiration to all of us and your unparalleled contributions to the game of basketball will never be eclipsed. Your name has become synonymous with Indiana State University and we are proud that the world knows that Larry Bird is a Sycamore.”
Also, former ISU teammate and Indiana state representative Bob Heaton read a proclamation from Gov. Mike Pence that praised Bird’s career accomplishments and announced that Nov. 9, 2013, would be known as “Larry Bird Day” throughout the state.
Walton, despite being teased by Bird earlier, told the Tribune-Star after the program that nobody deserved to be honored in such a grand public fashion more than Bird.
“This has been a most remarkable experience for me,” Walton said. “To sit there in the audience today — the divine intervention of whoever picked out my seating location, with a beautiful autumn sky in the background and framed by Hulman Center — seeing this incredible statue and Larry at the microphone was a vision that I will never forget. This moment in history is a testament to what is possible in the world because Larry represents the dream coming true.”
Buckner, a former Indiana University star who joined the Bird-led Celtics in 1982, agreed with Walton, but used fewer words.
“It’s an honor for me personally just to be a part of this,” he said. “And it was an honor for Larry and Larry is a very proud man. I think he’s proud that he can inspire others to try to be better.”
Buckner, who served as host for the dedication even though he is not an ISU graduate, told the mostly blue-clad crowd at the beginning: “It’s a great day to be a Sycamore.”
That turned into a theme echoed by others during the program.