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The hick from French Lick

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sometimes legendary athletes are forever linked with their teammates, like Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, or Tinker to Evers to Chance, the famous double play combo of the Chicago Cubs, but sometimes that association is defined by their adversaries---such as boxers, Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier, golfers, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, and basketball's, Larry Bird and "Magic" Johnson.

Larry Bird grew up in a small rural Southern Indiana community (leading to his nickname, 'The Hick from French Lick'), in a somewhat dysfunctional family. Due to his father's problem with alcohol, he lived for periods of time with his grandmother.

Basketball was a passion for young Larry Bird. It was his release from the stress in his life, and he spent hours in the high school gym, and when chased out of the gym he retreated to his driveway basketball hoop, where he developed his shot, endlessly practicing, even by the light of the alley street light. He was also blessed with the body of a basketball player, eventually attaining the height of 6'9". Talent and hard work made him a star on the French Lick High School basketball team. He left the school with the all-time scoring record.

Coming out of high school, Bird attracted great attention, even in basketball crazy Indiana. He was recruited by a number of colleges, but chose the University of Indiana in 1974, where Bobby Knight already was seen as something of a super coach. However, Bird, from a small school in a small town, was not happy at IU. The school was too big and he was homesick, and he saw Bobby Knight as a bully. After only three weeks Bird quit the Hoosier team and dropped out of school -- much to the disappointment of his grandmother.

Bird spent a year working for the City of French Lick, picking up garbage, doing street repair, and mowing lawns. When the 1975 school year came around, he accepted (with the urging of the female members of his family) a scholarship offer from Indiana State U at Terre Haute -- a smaller school, with quality coaches, a combination more to his taste.

Bird's impact on the Indiana State team was immediate. Before he came the Sycamores had never been to a Division I, NCAA tournament. In his senior year he led the team to the finals of "The Big Dance." That year ISU lost to a fine Michigan State team, led by one Earvin "Magic" Johnson. But ISU had played well, and fulfilled its role as giant killer to the other major Universities they played in the tournament. Bird's legacy was firmly planted.

After college, Larry Bird was the sixth pick in the draft by the Boston Celtic basketball team -- the same draft that saw Magic Johnson as the first overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers. Thus the stage was set for some of the finest games of the 1980s, between the Lakers and the Celtics -- a rivalry between two of the all-time basketball greats -- two great competitors on the basketball court, who became life-long best friends off the court.

Either the Johnson led Lakers or the Bird led Celtics captured eight NBA Championships in nine years in the decade of the 1980s. At a time when the National Basketball Association was going through a troublesome period, they are credited with infusing lifesaving blood into the league, which was continued, and even exceeded by Michael Jordon in the decade of the '90s.

During the time that Larry Bird was at Indiana State U., Dr. Chris Buethe (better known to the folks around McCook as "Cactus" Chris Buethe, cowboy poet) was a professor at ISU. While Chris was at best an acquaintance of Bird, Chris' colleague, John, a fellow professor, was quite close, their wives being long time best friends, and he kept Chris current on Bird's career, after the Indiana State star had gone on to join the Boston Celtics. Through this contact Chris came to have a great admiration for Larry Bird.

One time, while Bird was in Boston, John had an educational conference in Boston and he and his wife were invited to be guests in the Bird home while in Boston. The wives were able to catch up on each other's family news and John was able to attend a Celtic practice with Bird.

John had always known that Bird was spurred on by his love of the game, the competition, and a deep seated desire to achieve, more than the money he was paid (In all his years with the Celtics Bird never had a serious dispute with management at contract time). Still, John was more than a little surprised when the two drove to Boston Garden (the Celtic basketball arena) in Bird's 15-yeard old pickup -- the same as he had driven in Terra Haute as a student. The surprise was compounded when they drove into the parking lot and pulled into Bird's private space near the players' entrance -- sleek BMW's and Maseratis on either side. Bird told John that he was able to bank 100 percent of his salary. He explained that he had been able to live (even afford a luxury car) on the endorsements that his agent had been able to obtain for him. He seemed to enjoy living beneath his expected standard of living.

One time my wife, Jean and I were able to visit the Buethes while he taught at ISU. For lunch we went to "Larry Bird's Boston Connection,"a convention center with a large restaurant. It was quite an experience, and a lot of fun. The walls were liberally decorated with hundreds of blown-up magazine covers, which featured Larry Bird's picture. Diners could practice their free-throw shooting at several basketball stations while they waited for their meal, and the sandwiches were named after famous Bird teammates or foes (such as the Magic Johnson).

Indiana had their Pacers, but Bird remained a popular hero in Indiana, especially Terre Haute.

Bird had a 14-year career, all with the Boston Celtics. During that period he endeared himself to the good people of Boston, and to the world of professional basketball generally -- with good reason. In those 14 seasons he was an NBA All Star 12 times. He was the League's MVP 3 times, and led Boston to 3 NBA Championships. In 1992 he was a member of the USA "Dream Team" at the Barcelona, Spain Olympic Games (which Bird has called his proudest honor -- to represent his country on the world stage.)

Bird had the respect of his contemporaries in the NBA, who often ridiculed him for "being slow", and not "able to jump," and "trying to compete as a white man in a black man's game." But Larry Bird could dish it out as well as take the abuse, and was known as one of the game's best "Trash Talkers," baiting an opponent while he set up a spectacular shot at his expense, or goading him into an awkward situation. But the reality was that Bird could deliver on his gibes. Over a 14-year career he shot 49 percent from the field, 88.6 percent from the free throw line (on two years he shot in excess of 93 percent), and 37.6 percent from 3-point range. What made his 3-point shots so effective was that so many came in clutch situations, at the end of a game, and very often determined the outcome of the game.

But Bird could not outplay Mother Nature, and for most of his career he suffered from back problems that often almost immobilized him off the court -- but did not cause him to miss very many games, where he played (with pain) as if he were perfectly healthy.

After the 1992 Olympics, Bird retired as a basketball player. He served as a special assistant to the Celtic's President for five years, then accepted the job of head coach for the Indiana Pacers for three years, before moving into the front office, as Pacers' President, a position he served until his retirement in 2012, citing health problems as his reason for retiring.

Evidently Bird's work ethic carried over to his coaching and business career. To date he is the only person in NBA history to be named as MVP as a player, to be named Coach of the Year, and to be named Executive of the Year.

Hopefully, he will have many happy retirement years. He's earned them.

Source: NBA.com Larry Bird bio, New York Times story on Larry Bird

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By