In the late ’70s, we had the fortune of getting to know the Larry Bird of Hulman Center before the rest of the nation came to know Larry Legend.
You saw a Larry Bird we in Boston never saw.
Oh, no, we’re not complaining. We were deliriously happy with the three MVPS, the annual berths on the All-League first team, and, of course, the 1981, 1984, and 1986 NBA championships. He’s the greatest forward who has ever laced up a pair of sneakers, and we were thrilled to have him in a Celtics uniform for 13 seasons. We wouldn’t have traded him for all the Magics and Michaels in the universe.
But, gosh darn it, you denizens of Hulman Center saw a Larry Bird we never saw, and we can hope you appreciate your good fortune.
The Larry Bird we knew was a pretty good shooter. But you folks got to see a different one.
“I was a lot better shooter in college,” he explains.
In terms of shooting, Larry Bird’s career can be divided into two parts, Pre-Softball and Post-Softball.
He was playing softball in the spring of 1979. The glorious senior season that had culminated in a trip to the national championship game in Salt Lake City was in the books. He had already been drafted a year earlier by the Boston Celtics, and the issue now was selecting an agent and negotiating a contract with the Celtics, which, admittedly, was not going to be an easy task.
Anyway, here he was, playing a friendly game of softball. He was attempting to snare a line drive in left field, and he got his right hand into the glove a bit too soon. The ball hit his right index finger, and the result wasn’t pretty.
It wasn’t a break, but a smash. The finger was a mess.
Not to point fingers or anything, but the repair job was botched. Larry Bird was left with a misshapen, unbendable, right index finger — on his shooting hand.
And he never said a public word. He played his entire Celtics career while somehow or other making an adjustment in his shooting that might very well have stymied 99 percent of the population. He then dislocated his right pinky in the 1986 playoffs, leaving that finger an equal mess.
From that point on he was operating with a shooting hand in which 40 percent of his fingers were impaired. That didn’t keep him from shooting .527 from the floor during the 1987-88 season, or from winning a celebrated duel with Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins by shooting 9 for 10 from the floor in the fourth quarter of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The public never knew. And you can be sure all this is news to all those competitors who were frustrated by, or who looked up to, the man they called “Larry Legend.” It turns out he was more of a mythical figure than they ever knew.
“It was just a different feel,” Bird says of the re-configured shot. “The ball came off the side instead of the fingertip.”
Oh, if it were only that simple. What happened to Larry Bird was a definite career-wrecker for the next 10 guys. Figuring out how to overcome something as potentially devastating as that is how one gets to become a Legend.
But back when the people of Terre Haute knew him, he was just plain Larry, a totally unpretentious kid from French Lick who would transform himself from just another Indiana high school hot shot into someone who would explode into the national sports consciousness. When he arrived, no one knew how it would all turn out—Larry most of all — but he did know one thing after spending a little time on the ISU campus: He had definitely come to the right place.
His college days had begun, as most fans knew, in Bloomington at Indiana University. From the first minute of the first day, he knew he had made a mistake.
He had gone to IU against his better judgment. It was almost as if he had no choice, no say, in the matter. When coach Bob Knight calls you, a loyal Hoosier, you’d damn well better come. So he went. He barely lasted a month.
He just didn’t fit; it was as simple as that. It had nothing to do with coach Knight, whose attitude toward his new recruit in that brief period of time could best be described as benign neglect. His experiences in pick-up basketball were not all that pleasant, but that wasn’t the worst part. IU was just too big, too bustling, and too filled with people with whom he had nothing in common. The next thing you know he was sticking out his thumb on Route 37—there should be a commemorative road marker —and heading home.
Working for the French Lick Rec Department is part of the Bird lore, but the fact is he always knew he’d be going back to school somewhere. ISU assistant coach Bill Hodges was an ardent recruiter, and Larry decided ISU was the place for him.
There was an adjustment period. Larry was not the most world-wise individual in those days. “The first year was tough,” he recalls. “It was a situation where I didn’t know anybody. I felt uncomfortable at first, but I still knew it was the right place.”
He’s talking about the social circumstances. The basketball part required no significant adjustment whatsoever.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I didn’t know much about college basketball when I arrived. But I do remember thinking early on ‘I can do what I want out here.’ I think I wound up averaging about 40 during the last 10 games.”
Early on in Bird’s Sycamore career, Sports Illustrated asked him to be its cover boy for the November 28, 1977 issue.
“I didn’t want to do it, of course,” he says.
It was, in fact, the last thing the publicity-shy Bird wanted. But you can imagine what it meant to the school, which had never before received this kind of national exposure. Larry Bird sat for the photo.
“When that magazine came out,” Bird recalls, “my whole world changed.” Yes, indeed. That cover propelled ISU into the national spotlight — and in the forefront was a kid from French Lick who was completely and thoroughly unprepared to become a celebrity. All he wanted to do was play basketball. All the rest was a royal pain in the you-know-what.
His junior year was a bit on the bumpy side. “We started off great, something like 14 and 0, but then there were problems within the team,” he explains. “It was tough going out there in the end.”
It’s true that the ISU season did fizzle out, but that didn’t matter to a national constituency that had taken notice of the team’s best player, this Bird kid, this 6’9″ forward who not only could shoot from anywhere and rebound with anyone but who made passes no forward had a right to make. By the end of the 1977-78 season, the word was out that there was a very special player at Indiana State.
Nowadays, the NBA draft is a big television spectacle and the scene in New York is festive, but in those days the draft was basically a glorified conference call. Larry Bird got word he had been drafted by the Boston Celtics while on the golf course.
The Celtics actually made a pitch to have him sign immediately, but he wasn’t interested. He was going to have a senior year, and he was going to graduate.
ISU would play and ISU would win and Larry Bird would have 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds and a half-dozen dazzling assists and, naturally, everyone would want to talk to him. Number one, he had nothing to say. Number two, he could feel the locker room vibe.
“I could see the resentment on my teammates’ faces,” he explains. “Nobody was talking to them. And they deserved their day in the sun, too.”
Larry decided he didn’t want to talk to anyone. The media members were instructed to go converse with Carl Nicks, Brad Miley, Alex Gilbert, Steve Reed, Leroy Staley, Bob Heaton … anybody but Larry. It was a perfect out for the team’s star, no?
“Yes,” he admits now. But it wasn’t just that. Those guys did deserve some publicity. “They were thinking, ‘Hey, we’re part of this team. We throw him the ball.’ But, yes, I was the last guy on Earth looking for attention.”
Those pesky reporters aside, Larry relished that season. And though he didn’t like the media process, that didn’t mean he was above manipulating the public through the media, a skill he would perfect as a Celtic. He talks about a time he thought the crowd was getting a little too laid back. “So I sent out the word. ‘That’s fine. Stay home. We don’t care if you come see us or not.’ Well, when we hit the floor for the next game, the crowd noise was unbelievable. I had chills.”
Your Larry could throw tricky bounce passes as he learned how to utilize that Hulman Center tartan surface. Your Larry loved to orchestrate the crowd during routs. And your Larry could flat-out shoot. What Hulman Center follower was surprised when Larry shot 16-for-19 in the national semifinals against Mark Aguirre and DePaul?
Things came to a head that final weekend in Salt Lake City. It was going to be Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson for the national title. It would be Michigan State, very much a part of the athletic aristocracy, vs. Indiana State, a total outlier and perfect representative of the Little Guy. The wait for the game was interminable. Anyone who was there will tell you that that Sunday and that Monday each seemed 72 hours long.
Larry was magnificent in the semifinal game against DePaul, but when game time arrived on Monday evening things had changed. “I went out with friends to eat after the game on Saturday,” he recalls. “But by 10:00 on Saturday night, it felt as if all the energy had gone out of my body.”
One thing he’ll always say is that the better team won. He is often asked how many times ISU might have beaten Michigan State if they had played 10 times. “That’s a tough one,” he says. “They were the best team we faced. Long and athletic. They defended me better than anyone.”
It was the most-watched college game of all time. It was also the beginning of a classic individual rivalry that would play out over the next 13 years.
And so the ISU season ended at 33-1. A strong argument can be made that no player was ever more singularly responsible for leading a team to the national championship game than the 1978-79 Larry Bird. “It was a special group of guys, and we accomplished amazing things,” he declares. “The good thing is that when we lost, we lost to a better team.”
Throughout his Celtics career, Larry Bird always spoke fondly of both ISU and Terre Haute. Make no mistake: being honored by Indiana State is as important to him as any honor he could ever receive.
“A statue is a little embarrassing,” he says, “but it is what it is. I love that school. I went there for two reasons: to play basketball and get an education. I did both. I fulfilled both dreams.”
He went on to establish himself as an all-time great. But you folks, and you folks alone, can say you knew him when he could really shoot.
(Bob Ryan is a retired columnist for the Boston Globe’s sports section. He has been writing for the Globe since 1968, covering all of Boston’s sports teams. Ryan is a regular panelist on ESPN’s Sunday morning roundtable, “The Sports Reporters.”)