One Look at Bird's Act Starts Heads Shaking
Larry Bird plays the No. 1 city game with such panache that you'd swear he was weaned on the playgrounds of New York City, Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia.
The Indiana State basketball star is from French Lick, Ind., and he is so skeptical of big cities that he turned down a $1 million contract offer from the Boston Celtics a year ago to stay in college one more season. Bird is also wary of the media and prefers not to give interviews.
Bird, if you haven't heard, is a 6-foot-9 1/2 player who can stick it in an opponent's face with either hand, whip the ball over his head or behind his back, throw it between his legs or play it cool and just drill in casual jump shots from 20 feet.
His game has flair, pizazz and plain old rim-rattling excitement.
"You better look in your thesaurus for a word to describe that," an Indiana State student offered after a splendid Bird pass led to an easy dunk by a teammate. "He can make your pen run dry, can't he?"
Larry Bird is, quite simply, probably the best nonprofessional basketball player in America. He is a pleasure to watch, a master of every phase of the game.
Here in Terre Haute, they will rant and rave at how the Sycamores, who ran their record to 21-0 Tuesday night with a 100-79 victory over Darke, should be ranked No. 1 instead of No. 2 behind Notre Dame.
The Sycamores are good. Any team that wins 21 in a row has to be good. But the Sycamores do not play an impressive schedule, and they probably lack the depth and overall quickness to be a real threat to the Notre Dames, Dukes, UCLAs and Louisvilles come NCAA tournament time.
Indiana State plays in the relatively weak Missouri Valley Conference with Bradley, Creighton, Drake, Tulsa, New Mexico State, Southern Illinois, West Texas State and Wichita State. None of them have been in the top 20 this season.
Purdue is the best team Indiana State has played and that was in the second game of the season.
Do not let that detract from Bird's feats, however. He is the real thing. Bird is strong and quick, ambidextrous, a great leaper, an uncanny shooter and a Pete Maravich-like passer. A sense of anticipation descends whenever he touches the ball -- you know something is going to happen.
"Bird can do everything there is to do on a basketball court, but his greatest asset is his temperament," said Drake Coach Bob Ortegel."His temperament enables him to never get caught up in anything but total concentration.
"What do you try to take away from him?
"His shoes. That's the only thing that can stop him."
Bird leads the nation in scoring with a 30.3 average and is third in rebounding with 15.2 a game. But until you've seen him pass the basketball, you have no idea of his completeness as a player.
The Drake game was typical Larry Bird. He scored 33 points, had 10 rebounds, 10 assists and four steals.
His points came rather quietly on an array of long jumpers, offensive rebounds and short, turnaround jumpers.
Most of his assists, however, bordered on the spectacular, and many of them brought down the house in plush Hulman Center.
Early in the game, Bird rifled an incredible 30-foot, left-handed, over-the-shoulder, blind pass to teammate Carl Nicks, who was alone under the basket for an easy two points.
Later in the half, Nicks missed a jump shot and the rebound caromed to the free-throw line. Bird leaped over a clump of players and, in one motion, while in the air, palmed the ball and rocketed a pass underneath to Alex Gilbert, who slam-dunked it.
In the second half, Bird threw a successful length-of-the-court bounce pass as he was falling out of bounds. And, finally, late in the game, he lofted a perfect, arching, 75-foot pass for an easy breakaway layup for another teammate, Leroy Staley.
As great as Bird is, he doesn't dominate Indiana State's offense. He just fits in with the flow of it.
If he had the outlook of a Jeff Lamp or Lloyd Free he could score 50 points a game, but that isn't Bird.
He moves extremely well without the ball and has that Moses Malone knack for positioning himself under the offensive boards.
"Larry is a great player, no one can take that away from him," said Staley, "but he's making the rest of us known, too. He's a real team player. I've got enough bent-up fingers from all the passes I wasn't ready for to prove it."
Bob King, the Indiana State athletic director, was the basketball coach until illness forced him to turn the team over to assistant Bill Hodges before the season. He says, "Larry has great court sense. He just always knows where everybody is."
Bird did not always know where he wanted to be, however. He first enrolled at Indiana University, but stayed only a week before being turned off by the size of the school. He then went to tiny Northwood Institute in West Baden for two months before dropping out.
He returned to French Lick and got a job working on a garbage truck.
With the urge to play ball gnawing at him, he enrolled at Indiana State the following season.
NCAA transfer rules forced Bird to sit out the 1975-76 season. Then he averaged 32.8 points as a sophomore and 30 as a junior, leading the Sycamores to 25-3 and 23-9 records, respectively, and berths in the NIT.
Because his original college class graduated last June, Bird was eligible for last season's National Basketball Association draft.
Red Auerbach, seeing a reincarnation of Dave Cowens, drafted Bird in the first round, making him the sixth player selected in the entire draft.
Bird, however, decided to stay in school. The Celtics have until June 24, the day before the 1979 draft, to sign him. If they cannot, he will be thrown into the 1979 draft pool and will be up for grabs.
Being a rising white star in a black man's game and the best college player today, Bird can practically write in his own zeroes on a contract.
His drawing power is evident. The last three games at Hulman Center have set single-game attendance records -- the Drake game drawing 10,513 -- and Indiana State will make its first appearance on national television Feb. 25 against Wichita State.
When the Sycamores beat Tulsa on the road last week, 1,500 jubilant students paraded to ISU President Richard D. Landini's home and threw him into a snowbank in a victory celebration.
Landini loved it.
Bird's supporting cast is led by the speedy junior-college transfer Nicks, with his 19.4 point average, and Gilbert, a 6-7 junior college transfer who is third in scoring and second in rebounding on the team.
Despite his enormous basketball skills and the adulation heaped on him by the student body, the media, professional scouts and opposing coaches and players, Bird is still an engma.
He is uncomfortable on airplanes, dislikes big cities and is wary of people he doesn't know.
When he was still talking to the press, he preferred to discuss basketball and nothing else.
"Basketball is my whole life and it always will be my whole life," he said. "I don't want to talk about the past or the future. I just want to talk about right now. There's nothing so special about me. I'm just a guy."
Mel Daniels, assistant Sycamore basketball coach and former Indiana Pacer star, says Bird's approach to the press "will hurt him at first, but he'll learn after awhile. The only trouble he will have in the NBA will be getting used to the rigorous schedule. The game itself will be no problem for him."
It never has been.