The making of a legend

How artist Bill Wolfe, the sculptor commissioned by the Indiana State University Foundation to create Bird in bronze, created a campus icon

The slight 8-year-old boy momentarily forgot the cold that winter Indiana day. There in the dump among the flotsam and jetsam of small-town life lay a treasure. He grabbed the old, rusty iron rim and dragged it home that frigid afternoon. He pulled a ladder to the old walnut tree in his backyard and, his hands stiff with cold, he carried the rim up the ladder and hammered in nails to secure it to the tree. When he climbed down, the rim sagged a bit in the front, but no matter, he could play basketball.

A pair of carefully sculpted legs pointed up to the ceiling as if the person to whom they belonged had dove forward and disappeared into the floor below. Across the room, the sculpture’s upper-half—torso and famous face—looked as if it was springing out of the floor. The subject’s mouth was slightly open in concentration, his floppy ’70s hair askew. Larry Bird was vanishing and reappearing in Bill Wolfe’s studio.

“I really wanted to show Larry as everyone else thinks of him, shooting the long-range jump shot and have him on his tiptoes just about to release the ball,” said Wolfe.

At 15-feet tall, Bird is the largest statue that Wolfe has created—it rises more than 17 feet if you include its base. Inside a car dealership’s showroom-turned-art studio, Wolfe carved Bird out of sections of Styrofoam before crafting his features, down to a wispy moustache and Sycamores No. 33 jersey, out of clay. After four months of crafting the 1979 Bird, Wolfe glued the two sections together on tables stretching across the studio. Then with the help of 10 friends, he carried Bird to the former garage, where, for the first time, the statue stood upright under the 20-foot ceilings. After securing the statue with cables, Wolfe climbed down off of his ladder and gazed up at his creation.

“I was a little bit in awe,” he said remembering that moment before a mold was cast from the Styrofoam and wax statue and molten bronze poured to create the athlete in action. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is huge.’”

But it had to be large. It had to be taller than the 12-foot statue Michigan State University installed of Magic Johnson, Bird’s nemesis-turned-friend. Johnson led the Michigan State team that handed the Sycamores their only loss of the 1978-79 season—and it came in the NCAA championship game. In the pros, the two men battled each other for NBA championships, Bird playing for the Boston Celtics, Johnson for the Los Angeles Lakers. Wolfe and Larry Legend Foundation members knew Bird’s statue had to be larger.

“We just thought that it adds a little kick to the whole process. We want to honor Larry and that would be a good thing for Larry to have,” Wolfe said. “He’ll be able to say to Magic, ‘My statue is bigger.’”

In the spitting snow, though his hands raw with cold, the boy attempted to dribble the basketball. The ball fell with a thud and returned with only a small bounce—a problem known to many playing ball outside in the Midwest. The boy took one dribble and then launched the ball at the drooping rim. Again and again, he took a shot: now from close up, then from far away, this time as a layup. As darkness spread through the sky, it settled into the walnut tree’s branches. But such was the boy’s love of the game that he continued aiming the ball into the night until the rusty hoop disappeared into the darkness.

At 4-years-old, Wolfe looked up at his grandmother and told her that he wanted to be an artist.

“Lo and behold, here I am,” he said.

He had spent hours sitting on her knees, rocking together with her in her chair, coloring and drawing pictures. His grandmother would hand him her latest issue of LIFE magazine and he, clutching a pencil, would draw what he saw on the pages.

“She was training me with that hand-eye coordination,”
Wolfe said.

In his studio, that rocking chair now provides a seat for guests who stop by to see the artist at work.

From paintings to sculptures, Wolfe achieved his childhood dream. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Indiana State University to study art, and watched his friends earn paychecks from working in the coal mines. They were driving Corvettes. He commuted to classes from his home in Clinton, Indiana, and spent his spare time writing papers and studying. Then one week his old car had two flat tires.

“I got disgusted about everything. I just up and quit [school], which I have been kicking myself about ever since,” he said. “But I’ve done OK.”

Indeed. From murals gracing walls of buildings to statues serving in Boston, Roanoke, Va., and Dayton, Ohio, as well as around Indiana, Wolfe has made a name for himself in the art world. His statue of Terre Haute poet Max Ehrmann sits at the intersection of Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue.

“Public art is an educational tool. It enters the fabric of what the community is all about,” Wolfe said. “I don’t take it for granted. There is a lot of intense pressure that I do feel to do a good job.”

Wolfe has remained a part of Indiana State. He drafted the concept and created the name of ISU’s mascot Sycamore Sam. And he joined the community in cheering for Bird and the 1979 Sycamores.

“I remember the game. I remember all the excitement,” Wolfe said. “This was Indiana State going to the final game of the NCAA championship. I mean who could have believed it? ISU would be going to the final game.”

The Terre Haute community rallied around Larry Bird and the Sycamores in 1979, and they did it again on a November afternoon in 2013 with thousands of people filling the streets around Hulman Center. They wanted to celebrate again the man who brought such joy and pride to the university and the community. During the dedication ceremony, ISU President Daniel Bradley informed Bird, “Your name has become synonymous with Indiana State University, and we are proud that the world knows that Larry Bird is a Sycamore.”

But he is more than that.

“He is Larry Legend. He is probably one of the best basketball players who has played the game,” Wolfe said.

Ron Carpenter, president of the Indiana State University Foundation, said the organization was glad to link an anonymous donor’s philanthropy with Wolfe’s connection to the university and passion for his artwork.

“This synergy between these two Larry Bird fans has produced a significant statue that generations of Sycamores and the Terre Haute community can be proud of,” he said.

While Bird said that the statue and honor means much to him, he wishes for something greater from it for others.

“I hope that future generations and young kids drive by here and maybe it will inspire one or two of them—hopefully, it will inspire a lot more—but, if we can just inspire one kid or two kids to reach their dreams like I did, I’ll be very happy,” Bird said.

Wolfe knows about working to reach dreams. He’s the boy who sat on his grandmother’s knee and dreamed of a life creating art. He also remains in his heart that 8-year-old boy who dragged the rusty rim home from the town dump then shot basketballs deep into the cold Indiana night. A part of him remains the growing Indiana boy who dreamed of playing professional basketball.

“I feel like every young boy in Indiana wants to be a professional basketball player or just loves the game,” Wolfe said. “It is something you dream about. In the end, I didn’t become a professional basketball player, but I did make a statue for one of the top players of all time.”

(Jennifer Sicking is a 2011 graduate of Indiana State.)

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