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November 7, 2013

Still an ISU, Larry Bird fan after all these years

Indiana State professor recalls exciting season as a student and trip to the NCAA Final Four

TERRE HAUTE — In 1978-79, Darlene Hantzis was a 19-year-old Indiana State University sophomore, English major, student leader and basketball fan.

And for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, then-President Richard Landini invited her, among other ISU representatives, to travel to the NCAA tournament games leading up to the championship in Salt Lake City.

The president had an allotment of tickets for the games.

“It was the most amazing experience,” said Hantzis, now an ISU professor of communication. “It was magical.”

In fact, she flew on the charter plane with the basketball team to the Final Four in Salt Lake City — just the second time in her life to fly in an airplane.

On the plane, Bird sat in the cockpit and told stories, many of them about Bob Forbes, a former WTHI sports anchor. “Larry really liked him,” Hantzis said. “They had a really good relationship.”

She went to the NCAA sub-regional at Lawrence, Kan., where ISU beat Virginia Tech. She also traveled by bus to the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati, where ISU beat Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Then, at Salt Lake City, she watched ISU defeat DePaul 76-74, thrusting the Sycamores into the finals against Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans. Michigan State won 75-64.

“I’ll never forget Larry sitting on the bench with his face in a towel,” she said. “I think he felt like he let us down.”

The team’s record that year was 33-1, something Hantzis describes as “poetic,” given Bird’s jersey number was 33. ISU has since retired that jersey number.

Years later, when Bird and the Celtics won the 1984 NBA championship against the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers, he dedicated that victory to Terre Haute. “I knew he would mention us,” Hantzis said.

Hantzis, who’s been on the ISU faculty for 24 years, still has a button that reads: “ISU NCAA Champs,” prepared in the event ISU did win in 1979. She also has a glass with the team’s 1978-79 record and a picture of  Chief Ouabachi, a former ISU mascot.

“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.

Before the finals loss, “everybody was so happy and everybody was having fun” in Salt Lake City, she said.

When the team returned to ISU, 10,000 cheering fans greeted it at Hulman Center. “It was so great,” she said.

Even those on campus who weren’t basketball fans got caught up in the fervor that year, because, “My school’s on television,” or, “We’re no. 1,” Hantzis said.

This weekend, she plans to attend Friday’s Honoring a Legend program at Hulman Center, the statue dedication Saturday morning and ISU’s men’s basketball game in the afternoon, where Bird will be recognized at halftime.

She believes the scholarship fund established in Bird’s honor “is the perfect way to honor Larry now.” He’s approached coaching and management as a teacher, she said, cultivating the next group of great basketball players.

She has other Bird memories. She recalled living in Pickerl Hall as a student, and at that time, outside the residence hall, there was a wall and a gate. That semester, she would run into Bird three times a week at the gate.

“The gate would open and there would be Larry,” she laughed.

They would smile and say hi, but other than that, she never formally met him. “I admired him from a distance,” she said. “My perception was he carried himself with an air of privacy that people tended to respect.”

Bird “was an awesome basketball player. Just watching him was a treat,” she said. “The man really could pass into darkness. It was astonishing to watch him play.”

Over the past month, when Hantzis has taken her daughter to dance classes, she encounters other parents, including dads, who remember that once-in-a-lifetime 1978-79 season.

Some of those dads would have been kids at the time, and they tell her about how their dads took them to games at Hulman Center. They like reminiscing with her.

“I’m suddenly realizing how much bigger this was for Terre Haute than even it was for the university,” she said.

Hantzis has many lifelong memories from that special basketball season. She says she was one of the “lucky” ones, part of a select group that received an up-close-and-personal view of ISU and college basketball history.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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