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November 10, 2013

Hughes, News & Views: The ’78-79 Sycamores rediscover timeless bond

TERRE HAUTE — The 1978-79 Indiana State men’s basketball team that posted a 33-1 record and battled Michigan State for the coveted NCAA championship almost 35 years ago isn’t likely to play any more full-court games together, not even just for fun.

After all, each player is in his 50s now.

But Brad Miley, a starting forward for those remarkable Sycamores and a Terre Haute resident who works as a sales consultant for Southern Wine & Spirits, said the ’78-79 group “bonded even more as a team” after taking part in the Larry Bird “Honoring a Legend” weekend.

Events included the Larry Bird Scholarship Dinner on Friday night and the Bird statue dedication Saturday morning, both at Hulman Center.

“We all felt like [the statue] was long overdue and we’re tickled they got it done,” Miley told me before the start of the ISU-Ball State men’s game inside Hulman Center.

“I really think it genuinely touched him, so that’s the most important thing. I think he was very excited to have it done. He realizes how important it was to him and the school. … We’re all tickled to death to be part of it.”

Leroy Staley, a “super sub” for the ‘78-79 Sycamores, traveled up from Pearl, Miss., where he is a supervisor of recreation for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to be involved in the Bird-related festivities.

“It’s great to see they have a statue for him,” he said. “You know, it’s always great to be back here [for any reason]. I’m just happy to be here and still living and be able to come back to enjoy this.”

Staley said he sensed plenty of gratitude from Bird, a man who rarely allows his emotions to show in public.

“I think Larry realized the support that we had here and still have,” he explained.

On Saturday, Bird mentioned — both in a private news conference with reporters inside Hulman Center and during the public statue dedication outside — how he needs to try harder to return to Terre Haute and Indiana State more often. He’s currently president of basketball operations for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, so making time for non-work trips isn’t always easy.

“Yes, he’s busy,” Staley assessed. “But I think he’s going to make time in his schedule to come back and visit the school more often. It would be a good thing for the school.”

Alex Gilbert, another starting frontliner from the ‘78-79 ISU squad, came from St. Louis to attend the weekend-long party in Terre Haute and he’s glad he did.

“Larry’s the greatest living Indiana State athlete,” pointed out Gilbert, who works in the behavioral health department of a St. Louis hospital.

“This was a great thing to be a part of and it was really cool to be back for this. I’ve loved every minute of it. I caught up with a lot of old teammates this weekend. Some of those guys I haven’t seen in a while, like Steve Reed. … It was great to see Carl Nicks, Eric Curry. We’ve had a great weekend. It was a great weekend.”

Speaking of Curry, who lives in Dolton, Ill., and runs the juvenile program for Cook County Probations, he has more memories than he can count of ISU’s “Dream Season.”

“It was just an awesome time,” Curry reflected. “Larry is well-deserving of this [statue]. We had a great team, but Larry deserves this statue.”

Another who returned to take in a few days of camaraderie with old friends and celebrate the greatness of Bird was Rick Shaw, a student manager/trainer for the ’78-79 Sycamores. He operates the Rick Shaw Agency for insurance in Plainfield.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he emphasized. “To come back and see all the players who were on that ‘79 team and to see Larry — and see him be honored in that way — it was great.

“I think that’s as close to tears as you’ll ever see him. It really seemed to touch his heart.”

David Hughes, an ISU journalism student in the late 1970s when Bird was leading the Sycamores to the national spotlight, can be reached after 4 p.m. by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at 812-231-4224; by email at david.hughes@tribstar.com; or by fax at 812-231-4321.

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