The small southern Indiana community of French Lick has been a mite upset recently. According to Mrs. Georgia Bird, who works part time at Flick's Restaurant downtown and ought to know, "Everybody is moaning and groaning" because her son Larry, who plays up the road in Terre Haute, is not leading the country in scoring.
It is no wonder that Bird, a junior forward at Indiana State, and his points per game are the subjects of constant concern among the 2,059 folks in French Lick. He is the town's celebrity, having gone in the last couple of years from driving a garbage truck and hunting mushrooms thereabouts to playing basketball in Bulgaria and getting his picture on magazine covers in Italy, not to mention the U.S. of A. Bird was the top scorer for a while this season, but his average has dropped a bit lately, and folks are naturally wondering if something is wrong. Maybe he should practice shooting a rubber ball through a bottomless coffee can again, the way he did as a kid.
Well, you can relax, French Lick, because Bird is going through a little slump, that's all. He said so himself last week, and you know Larry, he wouldn't be saying a word to anybody if there was a serious problem. After all, a 29.8 average isn't that bad (he is still fourth in the country) when you consider the double coverage he has been getting both on and off the court. Larry even says he'd be happy with just two points a game if Indiana State keeps on winning.
A winning team is precisely what Bird promised in 1975 when he decided to return to college and play basketball for the Sycamores. "Indiana State may not be very good right now," he told Assistant Coach Bill Hodges, "but it will be when I get there."
Because he was technically a transfer from Indiana University, which he had attended briefly in 1974, Bird could not make good immediately on his pledge. He redshirted during the 1975-76 season, and the Sycamores went 13-12. But last year Bird averaged 33 points and 13 rebounds a game and led Indiana State to a 25-3 record, the best in the school's history. In recognition of these accomplishments, the Sycamores were invited to the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Houston, and Bird received a letter of congratulations from the man who almost became his coach, Indiana's Bobby Knight.
This season Indiana State is doing even better. By defeating Tulsa 78-59 and Drake 92-80 last week, the Sycamores raised their record to 12-0, took the lead in the Missouri Valley Conference and threatened to improve on their No. 6 national ranking. As for Bird—despite a 45-point outburst at Drake that came within two of his career high—his scoring and rebounding (11.6, 18th best nationally) figures are down a little from last season, but he continues to be just about the best-passing, quickest-thinking and smoothest-operating big man in the country. Bird plays with instinct and intelligence, moving adroitly without the ball, following his shots and making important steals. He is a complete player.
Indiana State's rapid rise with Bird follows a familiar pattern in college basketball. Every season seems to produce an upstart from nowhere making fast tracks to somewhere. Jacksonville did it with Artis Gilmore. Southwestern Louisiana with Dwight Lamar, Austin Peay with Fly Williams and, just last season. North Carolina-Charlotte with Cornbread Maxwell. Even though the Sycamores were a college division team as recently as 1971 and suffered consecutive losing seasons in 1974 and '75, they have a long tradition that those other surprise teams lacked. Since Indiana State began keeping statistics in 1923, all but one of its coaches have had winning career records, including one John R. Wooden, who worked there in 1947 and '48.
Indiana State's present coach, 54-year-old Bob King, is continuing that custom, although five years ago it seemed he would never coach again. He had quit the profession in 1972 after building New Mexico into a national power with 10 straight winning seasons and four postseason tournament appearances. But along the way he also developed a knee ailment that caused such acute pain that he had to be driven from the dressing room to the playing floor in a golf cart. Even today, after operations on both knees, he stands slightly bowlegged and walks stiffly. "It was obvious I couldn't do the job as a coach anymore, so I quit and became an associate athletic director." King says. When he was passed over for the athletic director's job at New Mexico in 1974, King decided his best prospects lay elsewhere. He applied for and got the athletic directorship at Indiana State.
"I was told my main concerns should be getting the school into a conference, moving the football team into Division I and developing a winning basketball team," King says. The last item on that list was particularly important, because the Sycamores had just begun playing in the new Hulman Center, where a successful team would be needed to fill the 10,220 seats. Following the school's second straight 12-14 season in 1975, the administration decided the best way to meet that requirement was to get Gordon Stauffer to resign and make King the coach. Mission accomplished. In 2½ seasons King has fashioned a 50-15 record and a 29-game home-court winning streak, and attracted an average attendance at Hulman of 9,155. "Actually it was a lot harder at New Mexico than it was here," King says. "That really took some doing, but with so many good players in this part of the country, we should be able to have winning teams."
Appropriately, the very first recruiting trip made by King's assistants, Hodges and Stan Evans, was 90 miles to French Lick and Bird's front door. The doorstep was as far as they got; Larry was not at home and his mother refused to let the coaches come in. Hodges still recalls Mrs. Bird standing behind the screen saying, "Why are you bothering him? He doesn't want to go to school. Leave him alone."
The two coaches were not about to leave Bird alone. They cruised around town looking for their recruit, knowing full well there could not be too many 6'9" teen-agers in French Lick. Sure enough, they found him coming out of a laundromat with his grandmother. "We went to his grandmother's house and talked for an hour," says Hodges. "Even though he didn't agree to come to Indiana State until a week later, I felt sure then that he would."
Probably the happiest person about all of this was Mrs. Bird, who had wanted Larry to attend Indiana State when the school's previous coaching staff had visited him the year before. "Larry was pressured into going to Indiana by people in town who wanted him to play in the Big Ten," she says. "I was dying to say to Bobby Knight, 'Why don't you leave him alone, he doesn't want you,' but I never did. Then, when Coach Hodges came the next year, it was like an answer to a prayer, because I knew Larry had the talent but he wasn't using it. He was hanging around here, working for the town collecting garbage and painting park benches. But Larry wanted me to tell everybody he wasn't available, and I told Coach Hodges just that. The difference was that Indiana State was more persistent than the other schools."
Unlike some players who have transferred from Indiana in recent seasons, Bird's problems were strictly those of a small-town boy unable to adjust to a campus with 33,000 students. Indiana State, which is one-third the size, was more to his liking.
Even so, there were adjustments that had to be made once Bird got to Terre Haute. He could practice but could not play in the games. He had to go to class even though, as he says, "I ain't no genius in school." And finally there was the marriage to a hometown girl that ended in divorce seven months later. But adjust he did.
Despite his success with Indiana State and the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the University Games last summer. Bird remains a country boy. Simple tastes, simple pleasures. Formal to Bird means taking his Caterpillar hat off. When someone asked him what he liked most about his summer with the United States team in Europe, he said, "Landing at the Terre Haute airport when I came home." At the same time, he is sensitive to any suggestion that he is a country bumpkin. "If you call him Goober it really makes him mad," says one of Bird's teammates.
Unlike most athletes today, who strive for recognition as flesh and blood people instead of numbers on a score sheet, Bird only wants to be known as a player. "Basketball is my whole life," he says. "I don't want to talk about the past or the future." Characteristically, he also refuses to discuss what he considers to be "personal stuff, like 'Who's your girl friend?' and 'What does your brother do?' and 'What are you doing tomorrow?' " This strong sense of privacy not only isolates him from nosy strangers but also makes it difficult for him to communicate with the people who are closest to him. "Larry only tells you exactly what he wants you to know," says his mother. "You can't tell him nothing," says Sycamore Forward Harry Morgan. "He's got a head like a brick wall." The Indiana State coaches even seem disinclined to give Bird instruction, much less raise their voices to him.
If Bird is receptive to anyone, it is King. "Whatever Coach King would want me to do, I'd do it," he says. About the only thing King seems to want his star to do is play exactly the way Bird wants to play. Because of Bird's reticence and the close wraps his coach keeps him under, professional scouts, who would love to make Bird a high first-round draft choice at the end of this season, find talking to him even more difficult than other people do. On the few occasions that King has let Bird fly around in the open, he has said only the things the coach would want to hear, such as his most recent pronouncement on the pros: "They ain't got enough money for me."
Bird has led Indiana State in scoring—or tied for the lead—in 36 of the 40 games he has played for the Sycamores. Next comes Morgan, whom Bird calls "the best player on the team." Morgan does average 20 points a game—he is the only other Sycamore in double figures—but talking is the only thing he is better at than Bird. He spews out all manner of opinions, anecdotes and inner feelings, including his disappointment at the fans' disdain of his self-created nickname, Wild Dunk. "I guess it just don't turn nobody on," he laments.
Until the Tulsa game another of Indiana State's strengths was its two centers, 6'11" DeCarsta Webster and seven-foot Richard Johnson, who were combining for 13 rebounds and 11 points a game. Now there is one. Johnson broke his foot by merely running out for pre-game practice; he will be in a cast for at least four weeks. Webster is best recognized by his loping pace and the Greek fraternity letters tattooed on his arm. "Kappa Alpha Psi," he explains proudly. "Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain are members, top." Maybe so, but you couldn't tell it by reading their arms.
The other starters are Guards Jim Smith, a good penetrator who averages nine assists a game, and Leroy Staley, who has shown occasional scoring ability with five games in double figures, including a high of 22 against Purdue.
In blowing out the Boilermakers 91-63, the Sycamores played their best game of the year and served notice to the state's big schools—Notre Dame and Indiana as well as Purdue—that there is a new power vying to be No. 1 in the eyes of basketball-crazed Hoosiers. Now that Indiana's other teams have all lost three or more games, the Sycamores can make a strong claim to being tops on their home turf, but their national stature seems more difficult to gauge because they have generally played inferior teams the last two seasons. That Indiana State has won so handily—by a margin of more than 22 points a game this year—is impressive, but eight of the victories have been played at home.
Thus it was not surprising that the perils of the Sycamores' first conference road' trip gave King considerable concern last week. "This is the most important week in the history of Indiana State basketball," he said. It seemed a strong declaration, considering the five wins Tulsa and Drake had between them, but that's the way King is. "He'll say the same thing next week," an Indiana State fan predicted.
The Sycamore players are confident that the best is still to come. "We're skating a little bit right now," Bird said after the Tulsa game, "but I honestly don't think we'll get beat."
They better not, or there will be a lot of moaning and groaning in French Lick.