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November 3, 2013

The Bird Years: Small-town beginnings

Larry Legend's evolution began on French Lick courts

FRENCH LICK — Larry Bird is not the only small-town Hoosier basketball success story.

But his rise to legendary status makes his the biggest.

Bird’s ascension to stardom at Indiana State is the essence of what March Madness is today. He may have come out of nowhere in the minds of basketball fans around the nation, but those native to Southern Indiana’s Orange County and the surrounding area — and really any pride-filled Hoosier small town — would disagree.

While he is better known for thriving under pressure in his NCAA championship battle with Magic Johnson of Michigan State, or the Eastern Conference and NBA Finals showdowns of his pro years, Bird learned to excel on that stage while playing for rabid fans of the Springs Valley Blackhawks in French Lick.

Area filled with talent

Hardwood battles with larger rivals such as Washington and Jasper or tradition-rich Loogootee blended in with county rivals Orleans and Paoli each season. The challenging caliber of play in the area was evident as Bird improved year-to-year.

Facing talent like Orleans’ 6-foot-7 Curt Gillstrap and Milltown’s Dave Smith, both of whom earned scholarships to play for Louisville, Bird went from one of Springs Valley’s key players to the Blackhawks’ star who outshone Gillstrap in head-to-head battles as a senior.

And talented basketball players were also in Bird’s own family. Three years older than Larry, brother Mark Bird was known as a great shooter at Springs Valley. The oldest of the six Bird children, Mike, also played for coach Jim Jones, who would later coach Terre Haute North Vigo’s Patriots.

“That really provided him a tremendous amount of competition. He was very competitive, really had a will to win,” Jones said. “Those things just began with the brothers and carried on right through his career.”

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