Larry Bird Apparently Likes His Turtle Fried

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."

We 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.

Friday's 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 Indiana roots."

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 back home."

"But I am surprised he's comin' back to coach the Pacers," decides Brossmer. "He's got no experience at that big a level."

"I thought if he ever did go to coaching," muses Kimberly Fight from behind the bar, "it would be at some grade school with kids."

What 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.

These 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 city.

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.

This 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.

"He's 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."

"I 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."

Just 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."

These 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."

The Pacers 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 some kind."

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 again."

"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 curve.

"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 fit."

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 year."

"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."

"The 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.

Now 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?


FLCeltsFan said...

Great story. Yeah, I can't imagine Larry ever getting along with Pitino. Complete opposites. In hindsight, Larry made the right decision.

Lex said...

washed his hands of the whole mess

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