Larry Bird is quick to remind you he is only human. Incapable of any superpowers or magic, he promises, French Lick’s Larry Joe Bird’s talent is simply the product of a man who worked incredibly hard to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Larry Bird recalled his days with the Celtics during the unveiling of his statue on the campus of his alma mater, Indiana State. (Justin Barrasso/WEEI.com)
“I was always told I wasn’t big enough or strong enough to compete against the best,” Bird said. “I heard it in high school, I heard it in college and I heard it in the pros, so I’d keep working harder. That’s what pays off. I guess things worked out pretty well.”
This past weekend, Indiana State University recognized Bird’s contributions to the game of basketball by unveiling his 15-foot bronze statue on campus outside ISU’s Hulman Center. While the day was tremendous for the Sycamores, the city of Terre Haute, and the basketball-crazed state of Indiana, Bird admitted that a big piece of his heart still belongs to Boston.
“Boston has the best sports fans I’ve ever seen,” Bird said. “They live it and breathe it. I was so honored to be able to put on a jersey and play at a place where they cared. One of the best lines I ever heard, I think it was in ’86 against Houston, and we were going into Game 6 [of the NBA Finals]. The crowd was absolutely going berserk, and this was an hour before the game. Some of the guys were still shooting before they came back into the locker room. One of them said, ‘I’m telling you, them fans want blood out there and they don’t care whose it is. We lose, and it’s our blood!’ And man, was he right, the place was rocking that night.”
Before the statue unveiling on Saturday morning, Indiana State first honored Bird with a “Larry Legend” scholarship dinner on Friday night. Hosted by Jackie MacMullan, the program was broken into four quarters focused on Bird’s career in high school, college and the NBA, and his time as a coach and an executive as team president of the currently undefeated Pacers.
Bird’s statue was unveiled a week after the city of Boston recognized Bill Russell with his own monument. As the two most famous Celtics of all time, Bird feels a connection to Russell, but he was quick to point out that, while both men wore the Celtics jersey for 13 seasons in their careers, only one earned 11 championship rings.
“If anybody deserves a statue, it’s Bill Russell,” Bird said. “We all looked up to him. He set the bar so high for all of us. He’s had such a great career and a lot much success. I’m really happy for Bill, not only for his statue, but for Bill the man. He’s a great man.”
The ceremony started with a look back at Bird’s roots with the game of basketball, a connection that now is more deeply intertwined than ever. Bird’s coach at Springs Valley High School, Jim Jones, served as a mentor, and Bird noted that lessons his coach taught him in 1970 still hold true today.
“Coach Jones spent a lot time with us as young kids and showed us how to play the game the right way,” Bird said. “He was telling us, no matter how long you stay out here or how many jump shots you shoot, there’s always somebody out there doing a little bit more. That guy in my life was Magic Johnson. Maybe that’s why he got the ring from the NCAA tournament back in 1979.”
Indiana State won its first 33 games of the 1979 NCAA season, only tasting defeat in the championship game against Johnson’s Michigan State squad.
“This [statue] is an honor for me and also my teammates in ’79,” Bird said. “Basketball is a team game, and that year, for some reason, God looked down on us and said, ‘Hey, let’s let them guys have a nice run this year together.’ Going into that season, we had no idea what was about to happen.”
Bird conceded that he remembers the losses far more crisply than he ever recalls his victories. Even 34 years after midnight struck on ISU’s heavenly season, the pain of losing in the final continues to hurt.
“You never get over that,” Bird admitted. “It’s impossible when you get your heart broken. The pain eases but never goes away. I knew going into that game I was going to have to play the best game I ever played in my entire life, and I didn’t do it. I let us all down. They were an excellent team and they proved it that night.”
Redemption occurred five years later at the Boston Garden. Bird’s Celtics triumphed over Magic’s Lakers in a grueling seven-games series for the 1984 NBA championship. Amidst the locker room celebration, Bird shared with CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger that he won partially for the city ISU calls home.
“When I left Terre Haute, I left with sadness. Terre Haute was good to me. I can remember the day I loaded up my car and took off driving to Boston,” Bird recalled. “There was still the sting from ’79, so just playing against the Lakers with Magic was great. Even that series didn’t start off well for us. We lost the first game at home and the second game, Gerald Henderson had to have a big steal to go into overtime, and the third game we got beat by 32. It didn’t look good at the time, but somehow pulled it out in seven games.”
Former Celtics teammate Bill Walton joined Bird at the statue unveiling ceremony to offer support — and be the subject of Bird’s barbs. (Justin Barrasso/WEEI.com)
The battles with Magic never seem to end. Michigan State built a beautiful 12-foot statue of Johnson in 2003, but that is a good three feet shorter than the statue of Bird in Indiana.
“That’s probably why he didn’t show up today,” Bird joked.
Bird’s sense of humor appeared at the most perfect of moments. Bird cherishes his opportunities to needle Hall of Famer Bill Walton, and poked fun at the big redhead all weekend.
“Bill Walton was my hero years ago,” Bird said. “Then one night we got to play against him in LA when he was playing with the mighty Clippers. The game was about two minutes old when Bill turned to the referee, and said [in a high pitched, whiny voice], ‘Tell Bird to stop pushing me, he won’t stop pushing me!’
“Sometimes,” Bird explained, “it’s better not to meet your heroes.”
In addition to Quinn Buckner and Joe Klein, Walton was one of three of Bird’s Celtics teammates to make the journey to Terre Haute for the ceremony. Despite Bird’s jabs toward him, Walton spoke highly — reverential, almost — of his dear friend.
“Playing basketball with Larry Bird was like singing with Jerry Garcia,” Walton gushed. “It was like talking science with Albert Einstein, or talking history with Eugene Debs. It was just absolutely fantastic. I never played with a better player than Larry Bird.”
Walton, who credits Bird with rejuvenating his basketball career and life, embraced the opportunity to reminisce about Number 33.
“I never saw a player — ever — who was able to ignite the home crowd like Larry Bird,” Walton said. “His ability to inspire, his ability to include. I can still remember my very first Celtic game at the Boston Garden. At the very end of the game, we were going to win unless we missed our free throws. So I’m inbounding the ball and I throw it to Larry, who gets fouled immediately and hits two free throws. Very next time, the same exact thing — throw it to Larry and two more free throws. Next time, Larry’s guarded so I throw it to [Dennis Johnson]. D.J. knocks down two free throws. The next time, Larry’s guarded, D.J.’s guarded, so I throw it to Danny Ainge, who’s the best free throw shooter on the team. And as Danny was walking up to shoot his free throws, Larry walks over to me and says, ‘Hey, Walton, I know this is your first game here, but if you want to stay on this team, you throw the ball to me every time.’ There was nobody like Larry Bird.”
Any ceremony for Bird would be incomplete without a tribute to Celtics legend Red Auerbach.
“I met Red in the summer [of 1978] through All-Star games,” Bird remembered. “Back then, I didn’t know anything about the draft. I can remember walking off a golf course and somebody telling me I got drafted by the Celtics. My reply was, ‘What’s that mean?’ ”
Auerbach also made an appearance during Indiana State’s NCAA tournament run, speaking to Bird almost cryptically before the Sycamores’ Midwest Regional game against Arkansas. After ISU lost, Auerbach wanted Bird to finish the 1979 season with the Celtics. (The C’s had drafted Bird a year before he finished his college career.)
“He said, ‘Look, we drafted you. We like you. As soon as you’re done here, we’d love for you to sign and come out and play the rest of the season with the Celtics.’ I’d never heard anything like that. I didn’t know a lot about the NBA or contracts, but he was trying to get me to sign before the next draft came up. If he didn’t, I would have went back into the draft again.
“As I went through the year, more and more people were talking about it, but my focus was here at Indiana State. It had to be because I had a lot of work that was unfinished. I had an opportunity to leave after I was drafted, but I had some things I wanted to finish up.”
While he will never be completely comfortable with fame, Bird understands why people are enamored with the way he played and is thankful for people’s admiration.
“The journey basketball took me — all the way from high school through college, through the pro era and to today — is unbelievable,” he said. “I know what it means. I know how it touches a lot of people’s lives. For me to have a statue is unbelievable. I didn’t come here for that. I came here to get an education and play the game I truly love.”
Just like he did with basketball, Bird encouraged people to find what they love most in the world and dedicate all of their heart and soul into its success.
“If you dedicate yourself to something you truly love,” Bird said, “your dreams will come true. I’m living proof of that.”