TERRE HAUTE —
Larry Bird fans from near and far will gather at Indiana State University this week to pay tribute to the basketball legend and former Sycamore, who in 1979 took the team to the NCAA Championship game.
The Honoring a Legend events Friday and Saturday will be a 1978-79 reunion of sorts, bringing together fans who watched Bird play at Hulman Center as well as 1978-79 team members who went to Salt Lake City to play against Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans in “The Game That Changed The Game.”
A 15-foot-tall bronze statue of Bird will be dedicated on the southwest corner outside Hulman Center at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, followed by the season-opening men’s basketball game against Ball State. Bird will be recognized at half-time of the game.
On Friday, ISU will host the largest, single fundraising event in its history with a dinner and program chronicling Bird’s playing career in high school, college and the NBA, as well as his days as a coach and executive with the Pacers.
The event is a fundraiser for the Larry Legend scholarship, which will go to an in-state player on the ISU men’s basketball team.
On Tuesday, Bird’s statue had a preview showing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, coinciding with the Pacers’ season-opener. This week, it will be installed at its permanent home on the ISU campus.
The upcoming weekend events “are pretty exciting for me, personally, as well as for the campus,” said ISU president Dan Bradley. “Larry is without a doubt our most famous alumnus, and the teams from those years are the height of our athletic success.”
Gordon Bryan, a member of the Sycamore Athletic Foundation Board, saw the statue Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “I think people will be absolutely amazed and impressed,” he said. He’s seen artist Bill Wolfe work on the project in his studio, “but I had no idea it was so big.”
That’s also the kind of impact Larry Bird has had on ISU and the community. “He is gigantic for our community,” Bryan said.
He was still in high school when Bird played at ISU, and he went to those games when he could. “It was extremely hard to get a ticket, especially if you were a high school kid without money,” Bryan said. Both on campus and throughout the community, “It was an amazing time … maybe something we can never duplicate.”
He and his wife will attend events Friday and Saturday, as will other Bird fans from Terre Haute and across the country — including big names from Larry Legend’s past and present.
When ISU Foundation staff first began talking about the potential for Honoring a Legend events, “Many of us said, I don’t think you understand — this is Terre Haute, it won’t work. Good luck,” Bryan recalled.
But the response has been impressive, he said. “People will be flooding into the community to support this,” he said.
He also hopes it serves as an inspiration to the current ISU basketball teams. “It shows these kids that they are part of program that has a history. We were playing at the highest level at one time.”
Those involved with Honoring a Legend hope it creates a “wave of momentum” that benefits not only basketball, but the university as a whole, Bryan said.
Lu Meis, a Terre Haute businessman and friend of Bird, believes Honoring a Legend events “are long overdue.”
He vividly remembers the charged atmosphere back when Bird played at ISU. “It’s the most exciting thing Terre Haute has ever had. They filled up Hulman Center, and on game days, that’s all people talked about.”
It’s never been the same since, Meis said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, what that team did.”
Among the celebrities attending Friday’s dinner/program will be Quinn Buckner and Bill Walton, Bird’s former Celtics teammates, and Bob Love, who played with the Chicago Bulls. The entire 1979 team is expected to attend, and ISU is still awaiting word on whether Magic Johnson will be there.
Greg Lansing, the current ISU men’s basketball coach, described it as an honor to be part of the events. “I think Larry was the best player to ever play here and one of the best ever to play basketball at any level,” Lansing said. “This gives us a chance to recognize him and all he has meant to this university.”
Among those looking forward to Honoring a Legend events is Thomas Lynch, a student from Bird’s hometown of French Lick. He also is director of the Forest, a student pep club for athletics that has about 800 members.
Lynch remembers shaking Bird’s hand once when Bird visited French Lick; Lynch was in elementary school at the time. “It was very exciting — definitely that celebrity moment, getting to meet someone famous,” he recalled.
Of course, in French Lick, Bird’s presence is felt everywhere. Even Springs Valley High School is located on Larry Bird Boulevard. “In French Lick, you hear his name all the time,” Lynch said.
He’s playing a behind-the-scenes role this weekend, getting students and Forest members involved and making sure they understand how important Bird is to ISU.
“It’s a great honor to be a student when ISU finally is getting around to honoring the legend that he is,” Lynch said.
Several Forest members took a bus to the Pacers game Tuesday and got a first-hand look at the Bird statue.
The Forest also has 300 tickets to give to members to attend Friday’s 8:30 p.m. program, and they’ll have seats in the lower bowl of Hulman Center.
All ISU students will be able to get into the program for free, with those upper bowl tickets available starting at noon Friday.
When Lynch first came to ISU, he couldn’t understand why the university lacked the passion and pride that exists for Indiana University athletics. With the Forest, students are working to create that sense of enthusiasm, and membership has grown from 160 last year to 817 this year.
He hopes Bird’s visit will help fuel the fire even more.
Also anticipating the weekend events is Darlene Hantzis, a student in 1979 who flew on the plane with the team to the NCAA Final Four in Salt Lake City.
Now an ISU professor of communication, Hantzis still has a button that reads: ISU NCAA Champs, prepared in the event ISU had won in 1979.
“As far as I’m concerned, and although I was right there watching, we won [my button tells me so],” said Hantzis as she fondly recalled that year.
She’ll attend Friday’s program and Saturday’s statue dedication. “It was the most amazing experience,” she said of that dream season and the team’s trip to the NCAA finals.
Teresa Exline, ISU chief of staff, has coordinated planning for the weekend events. She’s done a lot of research and has learned a lot about Bird she didn’t know — including that the Twitter bird logo is named “Larry” after Larry Bird. A Twitter co-founder grew up outside Boston and was a Celtics fan.
While Exline attended another college when Bird played at ISU, “I watched and cheered for ISU on TV. I can’t imagine what it would have been like” to be on campus at that time, she said.
She was able to secure Larry Bird bobbleheads about a year ago, and those will be given to everyone who attends the dinner or purchases a $133 lower bowl seat to the program.
Also, the downtown Barnes and Noble is selling “I’m a Bird Watcher” T-shirts similar to those available in 1978-79. The price is $15 and part of proceeds will go to the Larry Legend scholarship fund.
Friday’s after-dinner program will be hosted by Jackie MacMullan, ESPN analyst and co-author of Bird’s biography. She previously wrote about Bird and the Celtics when she worked for the Boston Globe.
The program will consist of four quarters, each a segment of Bird’s career: high school, ISU, Celtics and Pacers. If Magic Johnson attends, he’ll be the “overtime” guest.
MacMullan and Bird will be on stage, and during each quarter, guests from that part of his career will be featured. Among those guests will be his former high school coach, Jim Jones, for the first quarter; ISU teammates for the second quarter; Buckner and Walton, third quarter; and representatives of the Pacers for the fourth quarter. The program will be an interview-type format, Exline said.
Bird played for ISU from 1976 to 1979. In 1979, the Sycamores reached the NCAA Championship Game, losing their only contest of the season to Michigan State, 75-64, in Salt Lake City. Bird was the National Player of the Year that season, and the Sycamores finished 33-1.
He was a first-round draft pick by the Boston Celtics after his junior season, but he chose to return to ISU for his senior year. Bird wore No. 33 at ISU, which the university has since retired.
After completing his college career at ISU, Bird went on to become an NBA all-star with the Boston Celtics, an Olympian and an Indiana Pacers coach and executive.
President Bradley said ISU “is very excited to be having him on campus for the events Friday and Saturday and hope he will be a greater part of the university and athletics program going forward.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or email@example.com.
Tickets for Friday available
• The public can attend the Honoring a Legend Program Friday in Hulman Center, immediately after the fundraising dinner for the Larry Legend Scholarship.
Doors will open at 8 p.m. for the program. Tickets are $33 for the upper section and $133 for the lower section of Hulman Center seating. Proceeds will benefit the Bird scholarship fund.
Purchase of $133 tickets will also include a commemorative event program.
The after-dinner program will be a tribute to Bird’s career and contributions to the game of basketball. There will be guest appearances from coaches, teammates and players who have been a part of Bird’s dominance in the sport.
Tickets can be purchased at the Hulman Center ticket office; online at ticketmaster.com or charged by phone by calling 800-745-3000.
• For the dinner, tables are still available for sponsorships, starting at $5,033 for a table of eight. Individual dinner seats also are available at a cost of $630
The Larry Bird Scholarship will provide a scholarship for an in-state player on the ISU men’s basketball team.
For more information on Honoring a Legend events, tickets or sponsorships, visit www.indstate.edu/larrybird.