May 12, 1997
Larry Brossmer takes a drag on his cigarette, then takes a sip of his beer.
"You see Larry," he drawls, "you ask him if he still likes that fried turtle. He used to love that fried turtle."
are in Dubois, Ind., 12 miles west of French Lick, and we are in
Butchie's, one of Larry Bird's home-away-from-home haunts. We are among
Larry's kind of people. These are true Southern Indiana Hoosiers who
think that Bird's decision to come back to Indiana in order to coach the
Pacers is nothing less than a fulfillment of his destiny.
Dubois Herald is sitting on the bar, and the headline on the lead story
sums it all up: 'HICK FROM FRENCH LICK' COMING BACK TO HIS ROOTS.
Inside there is an Associated Press story you never saw in Boston.
"Larry Bird," writes one Steve Herman, "never forgot his Southern
Here in Butchie's, this is
not a news bulletin. "I just thought the last couple of years," adds Ron
"Doggie" Freedman, who tells tales of frog-hunting with Bird, "tall as
he is, we sent him out there wadin'. He's been edgin', waitin' to come
"But I am surprised he's comin' back to coach the Pacers," decides Brossmer. "He's got no experience at that big a level."
thought if he ever did go to coaching," muses Kimberly Fight from
behind the bar, "it would be at some grade school with kids."
kind of a place is Butchie's? Well, it's a kind of place where Kimberly
Fight hands back a significant portion of her tip on a cheeseburger
platter and a couple of beers. "I don't need that much," she announces.
"I'm not a greedy person."
This is Larry
Country, all right. Just inside the door is a mini Bird shrine. There
are Bird action photos, Bird posters, a pair of Bird game sneakers,
assorted autographed items, his collector's item Wheaties box, and
photos of Larry with Butchie, the owner, and local buddies.
people know a Larry Bird people in Boston don't know. It's a Bird his
new friends in Naples, Fla., don't really know, either. To these people,
it makes perfect sense that Bird would migrate back to the state where
he grew up, even if it's to take a job in Indianapolis, an honest-to-God
It doesn't surprise the regulars at
The Rafters in Terre Haute, either. This is a nondescript bar about a
mile and a half from the center of town up on Wabash Street, the kind of
place nobody just falls into at random. There are no highfalutin pub
sandwiches, appetizers, or microbrews at The Rafters. An order for a
draught brings a query from the bartender. "You want a 'draw'?" You look
around. Everyone is drinking from a can. There is just a pool table in
the front, a bar, a few tables on the side, and a back room that, on
this quiet afternoon, has tables and chairs stacked haphazardly.
is where Bird and his Indiana State buddies hung out back in the late
'70s, when Bird came strolling into Terre Haute unannounced to create a
basketball program all by himself. And it's where he can be counted on
to appear when he's in town for a summer golf tournament, or when he's
checking up on his hotel, Larry Bird's Boston Connection. Oh, sure, this
is Indiana, where Godliness and basketball are in an annual photo
finish, but in all their lives, there has been only one Larry Bird.
just an Indiana-type person," says Greg Criss, a long-time Rafters
patron. "He could walk in here right now and everyone would treat him
like one of the boys. That's why he's always comfortable in Indiana."
just think it was inevitable," said Criss's brother John about Bird's
return to Indiana. "I think it's what he wanted all along."
a mention of Bird's name puts a smile on the face of the Criss
brothers. "I remember the greatest night ever in this bar," Greg Criss
recalls. "Indiana State went up to Lafayette and just beat the hell out
of Purdue. Beat 'em by 20, 22, something like that. Lafayette's maybe
100 miles from here, but after the game, Larry and the team drove
straight here. I can still see Larry walking through that door, smilin'
and ready to raise hell. What a great night."
people have seen Larry go from being that shy Bird kid - Mike and
Mark's kid brother - to an international celebrity millionaire. They
truly knew him When. "The Birds were dirt poor," reminds Kimberly Fight.
"But they all swear that when he walks into their lives, absolutely
nothing has changed."
"He's just a regular
person, you know," says Doggie Freedman. "A person. He's just somebody
you go fishin' with. It's not what I am, it's who I am, and he's still
just Larry, an ordinary person."
are the immediate beneficiaries of Bird's decision to take the team's
coaching job, but there are tentacles everywhere. "Larry is the
basketball hero in Indiana," said Jerry Ebeyer, the sales manager of
Bird's car dealership (Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Chevy, Chevy Trucks, and
have we forgotten anything?) in Martinsville, some 25 miles southwest of
Indianapolis. "I think this will have a positive effect for us. We've
always been a kind of sightseeing stop for people who have known that
Larry had a dealership, and while we haven't had time to come up with a
plan yet, I'm sure we'll be coming up with a promotional campaign of
They may have to do some
remodeling to account for Bird's new position. The current showroom
floor is faux parquet. The walls are festooned with Bird posters, all
showing him in Celtic garb. The ceiling has replicas of the Celtics'
championship flags and retired numbers. There isn't a Pacer decal in
sight - yet.
Meanwhile, you can hear the
sound of cash registers cha-chinging in the big city. BIRD'S HIRE
PRODUCES MORE SALES FOR THE PACERS informs the Indianapolis Star. People
started calling about season-ticket packages the minute Bird said he
would take the job. The Pacers suddenly have more valuable radio and
television rights. All sorts of promotional campaigns are in the works.
The Pacers haven't just hired a knowledgeable basketball man to coach
their team. They have contracted a mega-celebrity. "There is a definite
buzz here already," said Justin Tracy, a bartender at the Alcatraz
Brewing Company, a popular downtown establishment. "It was kind of
depressing this year with the Pacers. I just hope Larry really can
coach. He doesn't have to be Pat Riley right off. But they have a solid
base of players, and there's no reason why they can't be contenders
"We've heard it all," says Eric
Stukenberg, the Alcatraz general manager. " 'He's never coached before.'
'They're just doing it to boost ticket sales.' But he's a smart guy. He
won't be a phenomenal success right off the bat. There'll be a learning
"It will be interesting,"
Stukenberg continues. "We're all looking forward to it. There was a big
dropoff in Pacer 'wannabes'. I think this is going to help both the
Pacers and the city. They want to build this new arena, and they think
Larry's name can help get it done. So, in a lot of ways, it's a good
It is hardly surprising that the
reaction in the big city is grounded somewhat more in the practicality
of it. They appreciate his folk-hero status, but they are equally
interested in the matter of his actually being able to coach this team.
Here they sense what Bird is all about. Back in his various heartlands,
they don't sense or think, they know. And they're happy now for the
simple reason that he is passing up the opportunity to live in either
Boston or Florida in order to come back home. "People around here treat
him as just another person," reminds Doggie Freedman. "He appreciates
that. You might not see him for three months, and he'll come in and say,
'Hey, whatcha been doin?' "
"They didn't need Larry in Boston, anyway," says Kimberly Fight, who identifies herself as a Kentucky fan. "Boston has Rick Pitino. You can't improve on perfection."
"What would he do in Boston with Pitino?"
inquires Greg Criss, back in The Rafters. "He'd get to make about three
decisions all year. This way, he gets to make 'em 82-plus games a
"He's not going to fail," maintains
Greg Criss. "Maybe some of those 22-, 23-year-old kids have forgotten
who he is, but the Reggie Millers know, and they'll listen to him."
way people look at Larry here," adds John Criss, "I honestly think he
could fall flat on his face and it wouldn't make any difference."
"Oh, they'll definitely give him some leeway," declares Greg.
Bird will be coming back. And the Indianapolis Star has welcomed him
with an editorial in which it quotes from Phillip Hoose's description of
Bird in his 1986 book, "Hoosiers, The Fabulous Basketball Life of
Indiana." "He is an image from Indiana's past. Back when language,
movement, and speech were direct. Back when basketball was all there was
in the winter."
Bird might not relate much
to that description. He's just a guy who's eager to get started in his
new life, and since you're asking, when's the last time you saw fried
turtle on the menu anywhere in Boston?