When March Went Mad
An excerpt from Seth Davis' book on the 1979 NCAA title game
Inside Larry Bird's recruitment and how he ended up at Indiana State
After leaving Indiana, Bird was content to pick up garbage in French Lick
From the Book, WHEN MARCH WENT MAD: The Game That Transformed Basketball by Seth Davis. Copyright © 2009 by Seth Davis. Published by arrangement with Times Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
Larry Bird had been intensely shy ever since he was a youngster. According to Jim Jones, his former high school coach, Larry once flunked an English class because he didn't want to give a speech. When his older brother, Mark, was leading Springs Valley High School to a state sectional championship, Larry didn't go to the games because he didn't like crowds. Even his mother, Georgia, used to say that Larry was the only one of her six children whom she often couldn't tell what he was thinking. "Larry only tells you exactly what he wants you to know," she once said.
Larry's upbringing was not exactly the best training ground for facing the klieg lights of the national media. "It would have been difficult to find anyone less prepared to be interviewed than I was when I got to Indiana State," he wrote in Drive. The Birds were among the poorest families in French Lick, which was located in the poorest county in the state, Orange County. Throughout Larry's childhood, his father, Joe, was in and out of jobs as he battled alcoholism. He finally landed steady work at the Kimball Piano Factory in town, where he worked as a wood finisher for eight years. Georgia Bird often worked two jobs at a time, usually as a waitress. The Birds rented seventeen houses in eighteen years until they finally bought a house on Washington Street.
"My kids were made fun of for the way they dressed," said Georgia. "Neighbor boys had basketballs or bikes. My kids had to share a basketball. A friend of Larry's would say, 'If you can outrun me down to the post office, you can ride my bike for ten minutes.' Larry used to run his tail-end off."
Though by all accounts Joe was a loving father, he and Georgia fought often, especially when his excessive drinking brought on more financial hardship. They divorced when Larry was sixteen. Joe's alcoholism was apparently caused, or at least exacerbated, by posttraumatic stress disorder that resulted from his tour of duty for the U.S. Army in Korea. The experience gave Joe such violent nightmares that Georgia warned family members never to touch Joe when he was sleeping, lest he wake up suddenly with his fists flying.
According to Georgia's sister, Virginia Smith, who wrote a memoir describing Larry's childhood, some of those arguments turned physical. "One summer day [Georgia] arrived at our farm sporting a beauty of a black eye and a cut, which had required stitches, above the eye," Smith wrote. "Although she was pregnant, Joey had hit her, breaking her glasses and forcing her to flee. The next day, Joey came to our farm, sincerely sorry for his actions. He always was regretful for any harm he caused, after he sobered up."
Much like Larry, Joe Bird was a quiet, remote person who didn't like being in large crowds. Even some of those closest to Larry didn't know Joe. "I would see Larry's dad at games, but he never sat," says Jan Condra, a former Springs Valley cheerleader whom Larry began dating during their senior year. "He would stand at the end of the gym by himself under one of the goals. I don't believe I ever spoke to him."
But Larry knew full well that his father, like nearly everyone in French Lick, was a huge Indiana University basketball fan. As Larry started putting up huge numbers on the basketball court his senior season at Springs Valley -- he averaged 31 points and 21 rebounds in 1973-74 -- he began hearing from everyone in town that he should attend college in Bloomington. Not surprisingly, he was uncomfortable receiving all the attention. When Bird saw his name in a local newspaper, he complained to his new coach, Gary Holland, "Why can't we get Beezer's name in the paper some too?" (Holland had replaced Jim Jones, who had retired; James "Beezer" Carnes was Larry's best friend and teammate.)
His reclusiveness also made him a tough target for recruiters. One day, Denny Crum, the head coach at the University of Louisville, came to town and challenged Bird to a game of H-O-R-S-E. If Crum won, Bird would have to visit Louisville, about sixty miles away. Bird said okay. Then he beat Crum in about eight shots. Larry never did make the trip.
The school he most wanted to attend was Kentucky. Bird went with Holland and his parents on an official visit to Lexington, but Wildcats coach Joe B. Hall, who had been to Springs Valley to see Larry play, didn't offer him a scholarship. "People give Joe B. Hall hell about that, but I'm close friends with one of Joe's assistants, and he said when you talked with Larry Bird, he wouldn't talk to you; he wouldn't look at you," Bill Hodges says. "Ain't no way a Kentucky player can get by like that. They'd eat him alive."
Bird's eye-popping high school numbers eventually caught the attention of Indiana coach Bob Knight, who dispatched his assistant, Dave Bliss, to French Lick to see how good the kid really was. "He was wonderful to watch because he would pass the ball better than anybody on the floor, he would shoot the ball better than anybody on the floor, and he would try harder than anybody on the floor," Bliss says. Developing a relationship with Bird, on the other hand, wasn't easy. Aside from one occasion when Bird shared his preferred hobby of mushroom hunting ("I'd never heard of it. I'm a Protestant from upstate New York," Bliss says), most of Bliss's contact was with Jones and Holland.
Knight also attended several of Larry's games himself. During one conversation in Holland's office, Knight asked Larry which other schools he was considering. When Larry mentioned Indiana State as a possibility, Knight shot back, "If you're thinking about going to Indiana State, you shouldn't bother coming to Indiana."
It wasn't until the spring of 1974, when another player Knight was recruiting opted for the University of Cincinnati, that Indiana officially offered Bird a scholarship. Sensing that Bird still needed some prodding, Knight took the unusual step of asking three of his own players to drive to French Lick and meet Bird for lunch. John Laskowski, Kent Benson, and Steve Green made the trip and ate with Bird and Jones at a local Pizza Hut.
When they returned to Bloomington, Knight asked Laskowski how it went. "Well, Jim Jones seems like a really nice guy," Laskowski said. "But that Larry Bird, he didn't say a word."
Bird decided in April to sign with Indiana. That moment was a matter of great civic pride for his community, but those closest to Bird sensed his heart wasn't in it. "I know he respected Bob Knight, but I really think he went because other people pressured him to go," Beezer Carnes says. "He's the type of guy who doesn't like to let people down."
Bloomington is only fifty-six miles from French Lick, but for Bird it might as well have been a world away. When he arrived during the summer of 1974, he found himself rooming with Jim Wisman, a six-foot-three guard from Quincy, Illinois. Wisman's father was a mail carrier, and though his family was by no means wealthy, he seemed plenty well-to-do in Bird's eyes. "I made a mistake rooming Bird with Jim Wisman," Knight later said. "Bird had no clothes, and Wisman's closet was full. Wisman was real smart and could speak well. Bird was not, and couldn't, at age eighteen." Though Wisman generously told Larry he could wear his clothes whenever he wanted and even lent him money from time to time, Larry knew that couldn't last. On several occasions, he called home and told Georgia he wanted to leave, but she convinced him to stay.
When it came time to scrimmage with the older players, Larry thought he was treated badly by some of the team's veterans -- especially Benson, who went out of his way to haze Bird and give him the full freshman treatment. "The philosophy in the old days was, until you prove you're ready to be on the team, then you're just a freshman," Laskowki says.
"A lot of times he was fairly unhappy with his performance [in the pickup games]," Wisman said. "Larry was much more relaxed when he could just go off and shoot. That's where he was really at home."