September 7, 1997
Larry Bird won't be in the stands today when the Patriots invade the RCA Dome to play the Colts.
"It's unbelievable," says Bird, the new coach of the Indiana Pacers. "But I've never been to a pro football game. I've never been to a pro hockey game, either. I guess I'm not much of a sports fan."
Bird grew up in a state that had no pro football, no NBA basketball, and no major league baseball. Long known only as home of the Indy 500 and the best high school basketball tourney in America, the Hoosier State has made big strides in the last 20 years and hopes to be an important part of the American pro sports landscape in the next century.
. . . but the Colts still can't sell out their home opener, and citizen Bird doesn't go to the games.
"We didn't have the Colts when I grew up the Colts moved from Baltimore in 1984," says Bird. "I was a Green Bay Packers fan because my brothers liked them. A lot of people in French Lick liked the Bears."
Bird didn't see a pro basketball game until he was in the seventh grade and then it was an ABA game, featuring the Kentucky Colonels against the Indiana Pacers. He traveled to Kentucky to see the Pacers because Freedom Hall was closer to French Lick than Indianapolis.
"I never did go to Indianapolis," he says. "It was 100 miles away. Hell, we didn't have a car. That's a long walk. The first time I came here was in 1974 for a high school all-star game."
Now he is a $ 4 million-per-year NBA coach and his new hometown is trying to earn big league status. Bird is being marketed as a man of the people and there are expectations that he'll take the Pacers deep into the NBA playoffs next spring. The Colts almost made the Super Bowl two years ago, and it's the Pacers' turn to put Indy on the pro sports map.
"This place is getting bigger and better," says Bird. "It's a sports town. We've got the Twisters in indoor soccer. We've got Triple A baseball. The Pacers and the Colts. We've got those sports bars now. Downtown restaurants. This town has changed. We used to come down here and everything would be closed up at 9. Now it's really alive. They've really turned this place into a good sports town."
Eighteen years ago, Bird started making trips with the Celtics to Market Square Arena. Playing in Indy was special.
"I remember all of it," Bird says. "It seemed like I couldn't see the rims here. But I always wanted to beat these guys. I knew my mom would come to those games because she was scared to fly. I just wanted to win this game more because I knew all my friends and everybody was watching. One time the Pacers beat us bad here 130-101, March 29, 1983. It was embarrassing. I told my mom that we'd kick their ass the next night in Boston and we did.'
The Celtics won the return match by a score of 142-116. Bird scored 53 points.
In those days, Indianapolis was still decidedly small-time. Pacers management hung a curtain over the upper sections of Market Square Arena to make the place look full. There was no NFL football and you couldn't get a nonstop flight from Boston to Indianapolis (Bird played in the pre-charter days of the NBA).
"We had to fly USAir and they didn't have a first-class section," remembers Bird. "Poor Bill Walton and Chief. It would take them a half-hour just to stand up after sitting cramped like that for a couple of hours. We knew we wasn't going to get much out of them the next night."
Today Bird lives with his wife and two children in Carmel, Ind., a half-hour drive from downtown Indianapolis. He's keeping his place in Naples, Fla., but has rid himself of the Boston apartment he used while working for the Celtics. He won't be back in New England until Jan. 18, when the Pacers play the Celtics in the New Garden.
"If we was going into the old Garden, it would be completely different," he says. "That would be tougher. But the New Garden is like any other place, other than the fans. Thousands of them people I seen every night are still there. It'll be difficult, but I'm gonna come in there for one reason and that's to win a basketball game."
His Market Square Arena office is small and there aren't any pictures on the walls.
"What do I want pictures on the walls for?" he asks. "Do I need before-and-after pictures of Glenn Ordway?
"I'm excited about this job. I know what it's all about. The one good thing is that I've got a group of guys willing to do what I want them to do. I don't have guys who're worrying about stats."
And he's not too worried about the Patriots-Colts game today in his hometown.
"I want to see the Patriots do well," says the Pacer coach. "I wish both teams luck, but I don't know much about it. I know New England scores a bunch of points and the Colts have had trouble selling out."
The Colts haven't sold out their home opener in any of the last eight years and today is no exception. Keeping his NFL record intact, Bird will be on a plane to Florida when the Patriots and Colts take the field.