News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

November 9, 2013

MARK BENNETT: A degree of success

Determination to get that diploma Bird’s deepest bond with fellow ISU alums, students

TERRE HAUTE — A statue of Larry Bird now stands outside Hulman Center, dedicated this weekend.

It depicts him wearing his No. 33 Indiana State Sycamores uniform and displays his rare, famed gift — wizardry with a basketball. “One of the four or five greatest players ever,” rival and friend Magic Johnson once said.

Bird’s stats, court exploits, confidence and practice ethic are part of Hoosier and American hoops lore. He took a school previously disregarded by the college basketball elite to the game’s pinnacle — the fabled 1979 NCAA championship game vs. Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans — with the Sycamores sporting an improbable 33-0 record and the No. 1 national ranking. That’s why they call him Larry Legend. Perhaps no other player ever could’ve accomplished such a thing.

Most of us can’t relate to that achievement, no matter how great we thought we were in high school or on the neighborhood courts. It seems other-worldly.

Bird succeeded at something else in 1979, though, and that achievement is something every current ISU student and thousands of young kids, dads and moms, grandpas and grandmas all across the state can match. The statue doesn’t overtly portray this feat, although artist Bill Wolfe did sculpt Bird in his senior season form. That circumstance is significant. Bird was drafted by the NBA’s Boston Celtics as a junior, but chose to play as a senior and finish his bachelor’s degree.

He entered ISU in 1975, sat out that first season of Sycamore basketball after transferring from Indiana University (it’s an NCAA rule), continued taking classes as a physical education major and playing through the following three incredible seasons, completed his student teaching in the spring of ’79 at West Vigo High School and graduated.

Many would say, “Well, good for Larry, but why single him out for praise in that area? After all, thousands of people earn degrees from Indiana State every year.”

And that’s the point. That statue, in more subtle style, also represents the niche that ISU has long carried and undoubtedly longs to retain. The university offers higher education to many, many first-generation college students. In other words, they are folks who’ll become the first in their family to receive a bachelor’s degree. Believe it or not, that goal mattered greatly to Bird, just as it does to scores of his fellow ISU alums. The allure of the NBA was tempting, but remember, as a junior, Bird’s pro potential remained in doubt among NBA insiders. It wasn’t on his radar, then.

“At that time, I don’t think I had spent two minutes in my life thinking about playing in the pros,” Bird wrote in his autobiography, “Drive: The Story of My Life.” “I just liked college life and had no desire to leave school.”

He, of course, returned in the fall, led ISU to the NCAA Final in March, and then turned down NBA money for school once more. Celtics president Red Auerbach — who’d gambled a first-round draft pick on the small-school phenom a year earlier — offered Bird the unheard-of opportunity to immediately join the Celtics after the Sycamores’ NCAA run ended. (Auerbach assumed ISU would lose in the early rounds, which irritated Bird.) Larry said, “No,” again, and remained committed to starting his student teaching job at West Vigo, graduating, and then going off to fame and fortune in Boston.

In that order.

And he did just that.

In a 1998 interview, former West Vigo coaches Dick Ballinger and Bob Burton recalled how Bird immersed himself in the final piece of his college experience — student teaching. He taught classes in phys-ed and driver’s ed, and served as an assistant baseball coach, and eagerly mowed and lined the field. Burton once overheard Bird talking with his agent Bob Woolf by telephone from the coaches’ office. “Larry was supposed to have some kind of meeting in Indianapolis, but I heard him tell Woolf, ‘I have a B-team baseball game to coach in Bloomington tonight, and that’s my first obligation,’” Burton recalled. Woolf sent a Lear jet to Bloomington to pick up Bird, afterward.

On a handful of occasions, Bird supervised a class of special-needs kids at the high school. “It was an unbelievable experience,” Bird said in the book, “When the Game Was Ours,” written by Jackie MacMullan. “I can’t tell you how much respect I have for people who made it their life’s work to help those kids.”

By that May, Bird was the College Player of the Year, a millionaire-to-be, and a graduate of Indiana State University.

“I was so excited I remember running home and showing off my diploma to everyone, especially to Mom and Granny,” Bird explained in “Drive.” “Mom had always told me that she wanted me to be the first person from either side of our family to get a college degree, and I had done it!”

Thirty-four years later, his alma mater is focused on bolstering its graduation rates. Currently, 21 percent of full-time ISU freshmen get degrees within four years, and 41 percent within six years. ISU President Dan Bradley has set goals to raise the four-year rate to 30 percent and the six-year rate to 50 percent by 2017. Such a big increase may seem to be a lofty goal. Yet, to the thousands of young people who come to Indiana State every year, that goal is their motivation, and their chance to give their family — many of modest means — something special.

In that respect, the new statue on campus contains a small piece of every Sycamore graduate who shares Bird’s final college achievement.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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