Five Sycamores and 20 years ago
Bird, Indiana State shook up college hoops in 1979
Posted: Saturday March 27, 1999 12:55 AM
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (CNN/SI) -- They were a bunch of kids playing for an obscure school in a relatively anonymous conference. This was not typical major college basketball.
The season before, little Indiana State University had put together a respectable 23-9 record, but no one seemed to notice. But by the end of the 1978-79 season, these kids would help show the world that a team from the small town of Terre Haute, Ind., could play some big-time basketball.
A real-life "Hoosiers" it was trying to be.
"We had a great college team. We had guys who came out and played within themselves every night," said ISU star Larry Bird, who introduced himself to the world that fateful season. "It was a great opportunity for us to do something at a school that has never been done before."
But even the Sycamores had no idea what was in store for them.
While Bird was clearly the superstar on a team of role players, he kept a selfless attitude and a ferocious work ethic -- two traits that rubbed off on the rest of the Indiana State team.
"I know my specialty was defense," Brad Miley said. "On that team and a lot of people said, 'How did you guard guys like Sidney Moncrief or people like that?' Well, I wasn't seeing anything different than playing against Larry. I'm like, 'God, I see this everyday in practice.'"
"The guy could do it all, so we were hanging on for dear life," reserve Bob Heaton said. "I mean it was a fun ride and Larry took us all the way but, he realizes as everybody else does, it obviously took the other four players."
Players like Carl Nicks, an eventual NBA first-round pick himself, and Alex Gilbert. The chemistry, seemingly, was there.
However, the team's fabric almost was torn to shreds before the Sycamores even played a game.
Coach Bob King, who was recovering from an offseason heart attack, suffered a brain aneurysm that sidelined him for the season. That gave the job to an untested assistant, Bill Hodges, four days before practice began.
"It was a little bit chaotic to say the least," said Hodges, who would become the only individual to win more than 30 games in earning a trip to the NCAA finals in his first season as a head coach. "But the chemistry was just really good. Those kids got along, they listened to Larry better than the year before. Nobody was jealous. You know, the chemistry was just excellent."
It showed. Indiana State exploded out of the gate, reeling off 12 straight wins before encountering a tough New Mexico State team.
It was a game that proved the Sycamores' season was destined for greatness.
"We went to New Mexico State and we were down. We had been ahead, and then we just missed free throws and easy shots in the second half and got behind," Hodges said. "We were two points behind with three seconds to go and they were at the foul line.
"And we didn't have the 3-point shot back then. Well, sure enough they missed the free throw and Bobby Heaton took a shot from midcourt. ... I think that was when the mystique started."
Heaton's shot tied the game that the Sycamores eventually won in overtime.
The anonymous school from rural Indiana was beginning to gain recognition around the country, but it still didn't make the players household names.
"I had some friends out in Denver who had heard about this Larry Bird, but they never saw him on TV," Heaton said. "So they thought he was black. They didn't know he was a white man from southern Indiana. They just assumed that anyone who could rebound and shoot and do it all. They were surprised."
Bird had already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as "College Basketball's Secret Weapon," and by then the secret was out.
The Sycamores swept through the Missouri Valley Conference tournament with their perfect record intact. ISU began to believe quietly within themselves that they were unbeatable.
"We didn't actually say it, but everybody was on the same page," Hicks said. "No one is going to beat us. We played too good defensively for anyone to beat us. And we all knew that."
The Sycamores were a team that had been in Division I since for only seven seasons. They had never even been to the NCAA Tournament.
Destiny? They thought so.
"I'll never forget, Al Maguire asked me, he said, 'Now don't you think it'd be better off, you'd be better off to lose a game?'" Hodges said. "I said, 'Why? What did you ever learn from losing?'"
Indiana State's magical ride continued in the NCAA Tournament. With ISU trailing Arkansas and time running out, the right-handed Heaton lofted an off-balanced, left-handed runner that hung on the rim before finally falling through -- catapulting the team into the Final Four.
Bird then had his best game of the tournament against DePaul, connecting on 16 of 19 shots from the floor, as the Sycamores escaped with a two-point win to set up "The Game."The Sycamores were 33-0, but were considered the underdogs against the mighty Michigan State Spartans. The game was touted as perhaps the biggest in college basketball history. That night, with the title on the line, the Sycamores got caught by a Michigan State defense that bottled up Bird as Magic Johnson's Spartans rolled to a 75-64 victory.
Bird was held to just 19 points on 7-of-21 shooting. He added 13 rebounds. As Bird sat at the end of the bench, the game's outcome already decided, he sobbed into a towel -- a very public display of emotion for a very private man.
The positive impact of that one season, however, lingers for most of them. It was a season in which they stepped out from behind the shadow of their Hoosier brethren and took center stage themselves.
"It opened a lot of doors and made them easier to walk through," Miley said. "And still the bottom line is, we both have families and we both have kids and that game was important, but yet we have our own lifestyles and our own priorities in this day and era."
Now the boys of '79 are men. Many have found their way back to Indiana. Some never left. There's a physical education teacher, a financial analyst, a beverage wholesaler ... and a legend.
What they did as a team in one near-perfect season 20 years ago may not affect their lives today, but all of them know they were a group of guys who shocked the world and helped propel college basketball to the lofty position it now enjoys.
"I never will forget the one time my daughter came home from school, she was in the first grade, and she says, 'Uh, dad, Jimmy Jones, or whatever his name was, he said that you're a celebrity and you used to play ball and all this stuff with Larry Bird,'" Heaton said. "And I said, 'Yes, Allison, so what do you think of that?'
"She said, 'Well, I just told him that he's a nobody, he's just my dad.' And so I said, 'Keep that point of view and you'll go far in life.'"
The Sycamores sure did in '79.
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