There's a scene in Hoosiers where Gene Hackman's character, Norman Dale, tries to convince Jimmy Chitwood to join the Hickory basketball team.
Jimmy is shooting on a hoop at the end of a square patch of dirt. You can dribble once, maybe twice if you're lucky. Elbow tight, he shoots and shoots as Dale delivers a spiel on talent and winning, feeding the sharpshooter in the process.
Jimmy doesn't say a word. Entranced by the ball and basket, he doesn't miss a shot until Dale leaves.
This setting painted how I picture Larry Bird developing his basketball skills growing up in French Lick, Indiana. A patch of dirt and basket that molded Larry Legend into a college basketball superstar and all-time great.
Larry Bird at Indiana State
The hours spent practicing translated to success. Out of Springs Valley High School, Bird received a scholarship to play for the Indiana Hoosiers. Overwhelmed by Bloomington's size, Larry left shortly after arriving on campus. He returned to French Lick and took classes at Northwood Institute for a year before enrolling at Indiana State University in the more suitable town of Terre Haute in 1975.
Bird quickly made his mark.
In his first year, he averaged 32.8 points and 13.3 rebounds, leading the Sycamores to a 25-3 record. He rose to the national scene as a junior, acquiring the nickname "The Hick from French Lick" and famously covering Sports Illustrated. His numbers slightly dipped to a humble 30 points and 11.5 rebounds per game average, and ISU finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Larry's senior year holds a place among the best ever in college basketball history. Behind Larry's 28.6 points and 14.9 (!) rebounds per game and under head coach Bill Hodges' leadership, Indiana State rocked the Hulman Center with a 29-0 record on the way to the NCAA Tournament. They breezed through the MVC and earned a one-seed in the Midwest Regional. Wins came one after another, culminating in a Final Four matchup against DePaul in Salt Lake City. The Sycamores squeaked by with 76-74 victory to face Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans in the NCAA Championship game.
1979 NCAA Championship: Bird vs. Magic
The game started out close but Michigan State separated early and never relinquished the lead. They executed a game plan to converge on Bird whenever he approached the baseline to prevent him from getting the ball. It worked and limited Bird's impact on the game. The Spartans won 75-64 in the highest-rated and most-watched college basketball game ever. Bird finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Johnson scored 24 points and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Bird won Naismith College Player of the Year.
Bird and Magic met a few times after that, and it's wild to see two legends of the game go at it prior to their ascension to the NBA. Imagine if we got to see LeBron faceoff against Melo's Syracuse or Dwyane Wade's Marquette in the National Championship game prior to their NBA careers? Two future Hall of Famers going head to head for school pride and bragging rights. No wonder Magic and Bird had such a potent rivalry.
Compared to other long-tenured college stars like UCLA's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor) and Duke's Christian Laettner, Bird ranks right up there with them as far as significance. He averaged 30.3 points and 13.3 rebounds over the course of his career. Abdul-Jabbar and Laettner have national championships on him, but Bird single-handedly elevated Indiana State, in the midst of a mediocre stretch, to an undefeated contender.
They remain the only team to advance to the national championship game in their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Bird was selected sixth overall in the 1978 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics but delayed joining the team for a year. He won a few championships, collected a few NBA MVPs, and retired simply as "Legend". After his playing days, he returned to his home state to coach the Indiana Pacers for three years. He remains in an advisory role with the organization today after stints as president of basketball operations.
Larry experienced it all. From shooting on a farm, to college superstar, to the NBA Finals, to the Hall of Fame, to the front office. His time at Indiana State helped craft March Madness into what it is today. The wispy mustache was worn proudly by the Hick From French Lick, one of the best to ever do it.
This article was originally published April 10, 2020.
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