“You ain’t going to believe this, but I’m nervous as hell right now,” Indiana State University’s most famous alumnus said shortly after helping unveil “Larry Legend,” a 1,900-pound sculpture.
Thousands of fans spread out in front of Hulman Center, where the street was closed for the occasion, and on the upper four levels of the Cherry Street parking garage. They were there to celebrate the legacy of Indiana State’s greatest basketball player ever and one of the best to play at any level.
But Larry Bird couldn’t help but think about the task awaiting the 2013-14 Sycamores, 35 seasons after he led the Trees to the NCAA championship game.
“They’ve got a game in there and I’m worried about that game,” Bird said.
The crowd laughed, but Bird’s statement epitomized his approach to the game he loves – an approach that helped him achieve greatness at all levels of basketball as a player, coach, and now as an executive with the Indiana Pacers.
As those who spoke during the “Honoring a Legend” weekend, a 24-hour tribute, noted, Bird is all business and his attitude inspires others to do their best.
“He was our best player as a junior, yet he was not necessarily the leading scorer,” said Jim Jones, Bird’s coach for two years at Springs Valley High School in French Lick. “He could have been, but he took so much pride in winning he made everybody else play so much better. It’s unreal how well people relate to him.”
Carl Nicks, one of Bird’s 1978-79 Indiana State teammates, had his doubts at first about Bird’s no-nonsense approach to practice.
“My first thought was I ain’t takin’ none of that,” Nicks told moderator Jackie MacMullan during a Larry Bird Scholarship recognition program Friday night. “You know, I’m from the south side of Chicago. I grew up with all of that, but once we started playing and I seen Larry’s toughness, and his dedication, his passion for the game it brought out the best in me … I didn’t back down to anybody and I think that in some ways he respected that.”
Bob Heaton, who sank a half-court shot to lift the Sycamores over New Mexico State and keep them alive in the ’79 NCAA tournament, said Bird “worked for everything he got. (He) wasn’t a vocal voice saying you’ve got to work hard, do this, do that. We just sensed that we’ve got to do the same thing because he was putting it out every day in practice.”
Bird said his goal each day “was to outwork everyone, not only on the opposing team but on my own team. I showed up early and I stayed late and I knew it was paying off.”
Bird’s hard work, and that of his Indiana State teammates, paid off in the form of Indiana State’s best basketball season in history. Though the Sycamores lost the game, the contest remains the highest rated NCAA championship game ever and the rivalry between Bird and Michigan State’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson continued into the NBA. The 1984 championship series in which Bird and the Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Johnson, prompted Bird to declare, “This one’s for Terre Haute,” a reference to one of his life’s greatest disappointments – not being able to add the NCAA trophy to the extensive hardware collection he and his Sycamore teammates for three seasons brought to Hulman Center.
Heaton recalled how Bird’s dedication was evident when he honored his student teaching commitment at West Vigo High School following the NCAA title game – even after being drafted by the Boston Celtics.
“Nowadays, I think, once you use up your eligibility you don’t even think about graduating, but that was Larry’s goal,” he said.
Bird once famously said he would never coach at any level, but a few years after he retired as a player in 1995, the Indiana Pacers convinced him to do just that. Upon retiring from coaching, Bird served the Pacers as president of basketball operations and, after a brief hiatus, is back in that job this year.
“Larry loves the state of Indiana. He is as Hoosier as anybody could be and I think that he is exactly where he wants to be,” said Jim Morris, president of Pacers Sports and Entertainment. “We just took the Pacers to Manila and Taiwan and he’s as famous there as he is here. It’s extraordinary.”
Dan Bradley, president of Indiana State, told Bird that his “tremendous work ethic is an inspiration to all of us and your unparalleled contributions to the game of basketball will never be eclipsed. Your name has become synonymous with Indiana State University and we are proud that the world knows that Larry Bird is a Sycamore.”
Bird said the statue dedication and the establishment of the Larry Bird Scholarship to support men’s basketball at Indiana State is “truly a great honor – not only for me but for my teammates from ’79. You know, basketball is a team game and that year for some reason, God looked down on us and said, ‘Hey, let these guys have a nice run this year together,’ but going into that season we had no idea what was about to happen.”
As for Bird’s rivalry with Johnson, give the victory to Bird when it comes to collegiate statues, Bradley noted.
“The statue from the top of the basketball to the sidewalk measures 17 feet-one-and one-eighth inches,” Bradley said. “That is enough to dwarf the 12-foot structure at Michigan State. The folks on the banks of the Red Cedar are not happy today.”
The idea for the Larry Legend statue first took root in 2006 when Brad Fenton, then an Indiana State student, saw the statue of Johnson at Michigan State and became determined that a larger statue of Bird would one day grace the Indiana State campus. Fenton and fellow students established the Larry Legend Foundation with the twin goals of erecting the statue and establishing a scholarship in Bird’s name to benefit future men’s basketball players from Indiana.
Fenton said the Larry Bird Scholarship dinner and recognition program provided an opportunity for fans to share their stories and memories of “a magical time.”
He recalled watching Bird play for the Boston Celtics and playing pickup basketball himself with the sons of Bird’s 1979 teammate Brad Miley.
“As my internal shot clock counted down three … two … one, I was always pretending to be Bird, not Jordan and not Magic – definitely not Magic,” Fenton said. “Larry, ISU’s proud of you. Terre Haute’s proud of you. You had, and will forever have, an impact on our community.
The statue and scholarship in his name weren’t the only recognitions Indiana State had for Bird during the weekend. The ISU Alumni Association presented him with a Distinguished Alumnus Award, making the great-but-humble ball player from the southern Indiana hills one of only 241 recipients of the award in its more than 50 years of existence.
“I’m not much on stuff like this,” Bird said Friday in reference to the award, but he could have just as easily been speaking of the statue. “If you dedicate yourself to something that you really love, your dreams will come true. I know I’m living proof of that.”
During an interview with local, state and national media Saturday prior to the statue’s unveiling, Bird said he would never be comfortable about receiving such accolades but takes them in stride.
“If somebody wants to show you a ton of respect you’ve got to reply. I’ve never been comfortable being in the spotlight because I know how many people have helped me along the way. I’ve had some awfully good folks and some awfully good teammates and they always say if you have good people around you, good things are going to happen and that’s what’s happened throughout my whole career.”
For Bird, the best part of the weekend may have come when Bradley announced that a fundraising dinner had raised $400,000 to endow the Larry Legend Scholarship.
“If they reach their dreams like I did, I’ll be very happy,” he said.
As for that ball game that had Bird so nervous at his statue dedication, with the flesh and blood “Larry Legend” watching inside Hulman Center and his bronze likeness standing guard outside, the Sycamores won it, 82-73 over Ball State.