By Mark Bennett
TERRE HAUTE — Consider the irony, if Brad Fenton succeeds.
What if, after all these years, the guy who leads a campaign to finally put a statue of Larry Bird in front of Hulman Center wasn’t even alive in 1979?
It could happen.
Fenton is a student at Bird’s alma mater, Indiana State University. He’s a junior, studying business administration. He was born in 1985 — six years after Bird led the unheralded Sycamores to the nation’s No. 1 ranking, a 33-1 record, and a loss in the most ballyhooed NCAA Final ever to Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans. Fenton learned about it all from his parents and grandparents. His mom, Christi, was an ISU student during that wild, once-in-a-lifetime era.
This 24-year-old appreciates the historic footprint Bird left on the campus and the community.
Of course, older folks know the aftermath of the ’79 season, too. ISU has gone through seven coaches since then. Only one — Royce Waltman — produced winning records. A few thousand people typically attend games, compared to the capacity crowds 30 years ago. Some members of the Sycamores’ NCAA finalist team carry hard feelings over snubs and missteps by the university’s past administrations.
ISU’s runner-up trophy comes with three decades worth of baggage.
Thankfully, those troubles aren’t distracting Fenton’s focus.
“I don’t care about any of that,” he said. “Larry Bird did something special in 1979. He put ISU on the map, and I think it would be great to honor him.”
So Fenton formed the Larry Legend Foundation. He created a Web site, www.larrylegendfoundation.com. His goal is to erect a 13-foot statue of Bird, crafted by Vigo County sculptor Bill Wolfe, in front of the south entrance to Hulman Center. Once the $135,000 project is done, additional proceeds would be used to create an annual Larry Legend Foundation scholarship for an ISU student. Last month, Fenton set up a table outside the Hulman Student Union and got 157 people — “97 percent” students — to sign a petition backing the effort and join a mailing list. Fenton figures a student-driven project has the best chance of appealing to Bird himself, who has sounded hesitant — even resistant — to previous suggestions of a statue in his honor at ISU.
Gene Crume, president of the ISU Foundation, agrees.
“The uniqueness of this effort is that it is solely student driven,” Crume said. “With that student emphasis, you get a freshness of ideas.”
And the ability to look past the baggage.
The ISU Foundation supports Fenton’s Larry Legend Foundation with advice and by serving as a financial steward for donations to the cause. Interested people can contribute to the project through the ISU Foundation by making a donation in the name of the Larry Legend Foundation, Crume said. That can be done by visiting larrylegendfoundation.com, and then clicking on the link to the ISU Foundation. The partnership with the ISU Foundation shows the Larry Legend Foundation’s legitimacy, Fenton said.
Soon, Fenton hopes to discuss the statue and perpetual scholarship idea with ISU President Daniel Bradley — “ironically a Michigan State grad,” Fenton said, chuckling. Fenton also wants an information table for the Larry Legend Foundation set up during Sycamore basketball games this season. Sometime during the following 2010-11 season, he hopes the bronze likeness of the university’s most recognizable figure will overlook Hulman Center’s doorway.
Wolfe has had that vision for several years. A few years ago, he sculpted four 28-inch-tall bronze maquettes of Bird, with the intention of someday creating a full-scale statue for the Hulman Center grounds. Three of those miniature statues are kept at ISU, while a fourth in on display at Ivy Tech Community College south of the city. All four are for sale, Wolfe emphasized.
Fenton wants the ultimate Bird statue to stand a towering 13 feet. That’s because a statue of Magic Johnson outside Michigan State’s Breslin Center is 12 feet tall. Actually, Wolfe prefers Bird to be at least 15 feet tall. “We can’t have Larry smaller than Magic,” Wolfe said, laughing.
The benefits of that sculpture go beyond historical relevance. Visitors to the campus and Hulman Center often look for signs that Larry Bird once was there. “I think some people in higher education are a bit reluctant to admit that point,” Crume said. “[Visitors] do, in some ways, expect to see certain things like that.”
Recruits look for those things, too.
“I think it would do nothing but help the basketball program,” Wolfe said. “I think if they brought that 7-foot recruit in and walked him around and let him see Larry up there, it would reinforce the history and what happened in that ’78-79 season.”
Ninety-five percent of the people Fenton has encountered like the idea, he said. The other 5 percent question its need, or doubt it will happen.
Most share Wolfe’s outlook: “It’s something that’s long overdue, and there’s a lot of people, I think, who would agree.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.