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Flying to the Top

Posted on July 14 2016

Indiana State's 18-0 record is the best in the country and so is its 6-foot-9 forward, Larry Bird, but hardly anyone seems to be aware of it

Sports Illustrated: February 5, 1979

THE phone had been sitting there, stubbornly refusing to ring for what must have been a minute or more, when Ed McKee, the sports information director at Indiana State, finally began to stare disbelievingly at it. CBS Radio had just called, and before that The Providence Journal, and in between there were a lot of questions by. an insistent chap from The New York Post. "They all want to talk to Larry Bird," McKee said glumly, as the phone finally rang. "And Larry's not talking."

This time the call was from Nancy Petersen of the National Solid Waste Association. You know, garbage. Petersen said that the Solid Waste people wanted to do a feature on Bird for their monthly newsletter because they had heard that he used to work on a garbage truck back in his hometown of French Lick, Ind. That was four years ago, when Bird was trying to make up his mind whether to go back to college so he could become a zillionaire in the NBA or pursue a career as a filling-station attendant. Petersen told McKee that she would need an interview with Bird and that she would also like a picture of Larry "doing a dunk." McKee promised to see what he could do and hung up.

Well, hey, Nancy Petersen, tell the National Solid Waste Association, and the man from Glad, and anybody else who happens to ask, there ain't no flies on the Indiana State Sycamores. Last week they ran their record to 18-0 by defeating Southern Illinois 88-79 and Creighton 77-69. Not only did the victory over Creighton allow the Sycamores to remain undefeated, a distinction they share on the major-college level only with un-ranked Alcorn (Miss.) State, but it also came on the same day as losses by top-rated Notre Dame and No. 2 North Carolina. As Indiana State stood trembling on the threshold of the No. 1 spot in college basketball, courtesy of the wire service polls, a lot of people who don't live in Terre Haute—which is where the Indiana State campus is located and about the only place you can see the Sycamores on TV—were suddenly wondering: Who are those guys?

There are several good reasons why Indiana State has been the best-kept secret in basketball this year, and all of them trace back to Bird. Without much doubt, he has been the best college player in the country for two seasons. Going into last week, he was the nation's leading scorer, with 31.0 points a game, and stood third in rebounding, with 15.0 a game, and 19th in free-throw shooting, with an .878 percentage.

Bird, a 6'9½" forward, averaged 32.8 points a game as a sophomore, and even though his scoring dipped to 30 a game last year, he was considered such an extraordinary pro prospect that the Celtics used a first-round pick in last June's NBA draft to select him, hoping they either could persuade him to skip his senior year or sign him this spring before the 1979 draft is held on June 25. The Celtics have the sole right to bargain with Bird until 24 hours before this year's draft. Should they fail to sign him, his name will go back into the pool. He would then surely be picked by whichever of the two teams with the worst records in their respective conferences wins a coin toss to determine which chooses first in the draft. The toss will be held in April, and although Boston has exclusive negotiating rights until June 24, Bird and his agent will no doubt be able to subtly play off the winner of the flip against the Celtics and drive the bidding out of sight. The only way that strategy could fail to pay off is if the Celtics finish with the worst record in the NBA's Eastern Conference—a distinct possibility—and subsequently end up winning this year's flip.

Though Boston failed to sign Bird last summer, his talks with the Celtics dragged on so long that NBC's schedule of national games-of-the-week was announced before anyone knew if he would return to school this year. Indiana State was not on NBC's list, because the network felt that the Sycamores with—or, especially, without—Bird did not have a big enough reputation or sufficiently enticing opponents to draw a big audience. The result is that, unless NBC suddenly revises its schedule, Indiana State will appear on nationwide television only if it makes the NCAA tournament semifinals next month. "Should we ever get on national TV," says Sycamore Coach Bill Hodges, "I imagine the first thing that would surprise a lot of people is that Larry Bird is a white guy."

The color of Bird's skin is hardly a secret in the NBA, however. "There are so few outstanding white players in our league. They're very rare," says Pat Williams, the 76ers' vice-president and general manager, "and that makes Bird an asset. But with Bird, skin color is a secondary issue. The kid is very talented. If he were green, you'd still make a great effort to get him."

Pete Newell, chief scout for the Warriors, agrees that Bird is of considerable value to the NBA as a Great White Hope. "A white kid could be a drawing card," says Newell, "but he has to play well. The NBA is gradually losing its big-name white players. Jerry West has retired. John Havlicek quit last season, and Rick Barry has only a couple of seasons left. So Bird's marketability is increased by the fact he's white. He is also one of the great forwards of the last dozen years."

Southern Illinois Coach Joe Gottfried has said somewhat facetiously of Bird, "If this guy has a weakness, it's that he can't shoot the 20-foot jumper lefthanded." But most pro scouts agree that Bird is not particularly quick, is only so-so on defense and is a bit too reluctant to dribble under pressure. Still, Laker General Manager Bill Sharman calls Bird "one of the best college forwards I have ever seen." And Slick Leonard, coach and general manager of the Pacers, says, "I've seen two great passing forwards in my time. Rick Barry is one, and Larry Bird is the other. Bird seems to see guys before he even gets the ball."

"Normally it isn't Larry's scoring that beats you," says Creighton Coach Tom Apke. "It's his ability to pass and create opportunities for other players." Bird proved that Saturday when he had his worst shooting night of the season, scoring only 17 points, but led the Sycamores with nine assists and had several other spectacular passes fumbled or kicked by his teammates. Carl Nicks, the Sycamores' exciting junior guard, has learned to expect the unexpected from Bird. "You've got to watch him every minute," he says, "or he'll hit you in the nose with the ball."

Except for Bird, Nicks has contributed more to the Sycamores' surprising performance this season than any other Indiana State player. After a disappointing freshman season, Nicks was exiled last year to Gulf Coast Community College in Florida to work on his game. He averaged 22.4 points and was brought back to play guard for the Sycamores. He is scoring 19.7 points a game and helps keep opposing defenses from sagging on Bird.

Like most of his teammates, Nicks likes and admires Bird, but he is also bored by questions from reporters about Bird's personal life. "I don't understand why they don't want to ask me about me," says Nicks. "I can play." Hodges insists his players were so upset by the questions of one reporter that they asked not to be interviewed except immediately after games.

This stony silence began to set in when Bird announced last fall that he had been misquoted in a newspaper story and that, as a result, he would do no more interviews except on radio or TV. Not that Bird had ever been loquacious. When he agreed to return for his final year of college, his one requirement was that he not be forced to talk to the press, a proviso he did not strictly enforce until after the offending article. Bob King, the Sycamores' coach for the past three seasons, who allowed Bird to have his way in just about everything, endorsed Bird's silence. During the past seven months, however, King has suffered a heart attack and undergone brain surgery. He is not expected to coach again. Hodges, who was King's assistant and has masterfully guided the Sycamores in his boss' stead, has continued to indulge Bird to the extent that both he and many Indiana State players seem afraid of Bird. Last week Hodges responded to a question by saying, "I have no comment, because Larry and I have a good relationship, and I wouldn't want anything he reads in the paper to change that."

One of Bird's few printed interviews of late was given to the Indiana State cross-country coach and was published in Amateur Sports. "You gotta be careful what you say around sportswriters," Bird said, "because a lot of them want to find out what goes on inside you, the private you. They don't want to know how good a basketball player you are. They don't even want to talk about basketball. They're interested in knowing who your girl friend is, or they want to know...'Why did you work on a garbage truck?'...I'm not saying all writers are like that, but there sure are a few who fit that image."

Bird has never trusted strangers who ask a lot of nosy questions. And his life has been fraught with a series of personal tragedies and feelings of inadequacy. When he was a high school senior, he was recruited by a Florida college and was sent a plane ticket so he could visit the school. But when Bird arrived at the airport, he took one look at the airplane on the runway and was so frightened at the idea of flying that he turned right around and went home.

Bird then decided to attend Indiana University, which has an enrollment of 31,500; it took him only a week to realize that he was in over his head, and once again he bolted for home. Shortly after leaving Indiana, he enrolled at Northwood Institute, a 160-student junior college in West Baden, Ind., but he quit again, after only two months at the school. "He was very unsettled," says Northwood Coach Jack Johnson. "He had trouble attending class and was very undisciplined."

For the remainder of what would have been his freshman year, Bird had a job with the French Lick parks department, which included a stint on the celebrated garbage truck. It was during that year that Bird's father committed suicide, after which Larry was persuaded to return to school by Indiana State's recruiters. A brief marriage followed, but that ended in divorce in September of 1976. There were attempts at a reconciliation, but the only thing that resulted from them was a paternity suit—filed against Bird by his former wife Janet.

"Basketball is my whole life and it will always be my whole life," Bird has said. "I'm a lot smarter on the court than I am in life." Last Saturday afternoon Bird was talking to a friend about the adjustments he dreads having to make when he enters the pros. "I like the idea of playing basketball every night," he said, "but 1 don't know about the rest of it."

Little by little, the world outside French Lick seems to be discovering Larry Bird and, in terms of basketball, liking what it finds. For the moment, at the very least, the Sycamores look like they are for real. Bird's services are coveted by every NBA team, and there's a former chicken magnate in Boston who is probably spending sleepless nights thinking up new ways to throw money at him. Now, if only Bird would take a chance on the rest of the world, he might discover it's not a solid waste of time. Hey, Larry, ain't no flies on us.
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