Big Bird

February 26, 1979
Larry Bird was driving a garbage truck in his hometown of French Lick, Ind., when Bill Hodges, then the assistant basketball coach at Indiana State University, decided to pay him a visit. Hodges remembered Bird as a high-school all-star and knew he had the ability to turn a mediocre team into a winner. But Bird had already tried college and dropped out. He wasn't interested in trying again - until a week after Hodges's pitch. "The people in town never let Larry forget that he'd quit," said Mrs Georgia Bird, a widow who works as a short-order cook at Flick's Cafe. "I asked God to do something. And when Bill Hodges came to my front door, it was like all my wishes were answered."

Four years later, Bird is the hottest property in college basketball, and Hodges is head coach of Indiana State, a disciplined, hard-working team that is ranked No. 1 in one national poll, No. 2 in the other. The story of Larry Bird and Indiana State is packed with enough romance and drama to sustain a paperback novel. Yet both the star and his team are the subjects of trivia questions. Where is Indiana State located? What is the team's nickname? Terre Haute and the Sycamores are the answers.But don't get too nosy. 

Flawless: The big reason why Indiana State remains the mystery team of college basketball is Bird himself. A solid, 6-foot 9 1/2-inch forward, he is a dead shot and a beast under the boards, averaging 28.6 points and 15.1 rebounds per game. His passing is practically flawless, and he has the kind of hustling, unselfish attitude that would make any pro coach drool. It would be unfair to suggest that Bird can't talk as well as he plays. The problem is that he just doesn't talk at all, and sportswriters are about as welcome as a losing streak at Indiana State, making it difficult for the team to receive much publicity, favorable or otherwise.

Bird vowed silence last fall, when he was misquoted in a newspaper story. Soon, the rest of the Sycamores got upset answering questions about Bird and not themselves, and they closed the locker room to the press. That left coach Hodges to work double shifts with the sportswriters, and even he now spends a lot of time complaining about coverage of Bird's life off the court. "There are just two things Larry wants," says Hodges. "No. 1 is his degree, and to be a good pro basketball player is No. 2"

Both goals once seemed remote. During his senior year at Springs Valley High School, Bird was recruited by a Florida college but was too scared to fly there. So he enrolled at Indiana University, stayed a few weeks and headed home. "It was the size of the school that made him leave," says Hodges. "He was 17 when he went there, and he wasn't ready to go from a town of 2,000 to a campus of 31,000. He was devastated."

Instant Hit: Bird then tried Northwood Institute, a 160-student junior college in West Baden, Ind., where he lasted only two months. Back in French Lick, he got a job with the town's parks department, and it was during that year that Bird's father committed suicide. Shortly after, Hodges persuaded Bird to come to Indiana Satate. A brief marriage followed ending in a messy divorce. "I'm a lot smarter on the court," Bird has said, "than I am in life."

Bird was an instant hit at Indiana State, averaging 32.8 points per game and leading the Sycamores to a 25-3 record. He averaged 30 points per game last year, but his team lost the Missouri Valley Conference title by 2 points to Creighton. The betting is that Bird and his teammates will win their conference title this time around, and they are eager to prove themselves in next month's national championship tournament. A lot of fans aren't convinced that Indiana State deserves the No. 1 ranking, despite its undefeated record. The reason: the Sycamores have beaten but one team - Purdue - ranked in the top twenty.

Hodges readily admits that some teams have more talent, but he says: "Our guys know their roles on the court and play within themselves." On offense, Bird gets strong support from his guards, Carl Nicks and Steve Reed, and all the Sycamores play a gambling, man-to-man defense that can't be disregarded by powerhouses like Notre Dame, UCLA and North Carolina.Whatever becomes of Indiana State's championship dreams, Bird is certain to be a millionaire soon. The Boston Celtics drafted him last year, but Bird decided to stay in school. If the Celtics hope to keep him, they must sign Bird before this year's draft in late June. The going price? About $4 million - and that isn't just talk.

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