Except for Bird, Nicks has contributed more to the Sycamores' surprising performance this season than any other Indiana State player. After a disappointing freshman season, Nicks was exiled last year to Gulf Coast Community College in Florida to work on his game. He averaged 22.4 points and was brought back to play guard for the Sycamores. He is scoring 19.7 points a game and helps keep opposing defenses from sagging on Bird.
Like most of his teammates, Nicks likes and admires Bird, but he is also bored by questions from reporters about Bird's personal life. "I don't understand why they don't want to ask me about me," says Nicks. "I can play." Hodges insists his players were so upset by the questions of one reporter that they asked not to be interviewed except immediately after games.
This stony silence began to set in when Bird announced in the fall that he had been misquoted in a newspaper story and that, as a result, he would do no more interviews except on radio or TV. Not that Bird had ever been loquacious. When he agreed to return for his final year of college, his one requirement was that he not be forced to talk to the press, a proviso he did not strictly enforce until after the offending article. Bob King, the Sycamores' coach for the past three seasons, who allowed Bird to have his way in just about everything, endorsed Bird's silence. During the past seven months, however, King has suffered a heart attack and undergone brain surgery. He is not expected to coach again. Hodges, who was King's assistant and has masterfully guided the Sycamores in his boss's stead, has continued to indulge Bird to the extent that both he and many Indiana State players seem afraid of Bird. Last week Hodges responded to a question by saying, "I have no comment, because Larry and I have a good relationship, and I wouldn't want anything he reads to change that."
One of Bird's few printed interviews of late was given to the Indiana State cross-country coach and was published in Amateur Sports. "You gotta be careful what you say around sportswriters," Bird said, "because a lot of them want to find out what goes on inside you, the private you. They don't want to know how good a basketball player you are. They don't even want to talk about basketball. They're interested in knowing who your girlfriend is, or they want to know [such things as] 'Why did you work on a garbage truck?'...I'm not saying all writers are like that, but there sure are a few who fit that image."
Bird has never trusted strangers who ask a lot of nosy questions. And his life has been fraught with a series of personal tragedies and feelings of inadequacy. When he was a high school senior, he was recruited by a Florida college and was sent a plane ticket so he could visit the school. But when Bird got to the airport and took one look at the plane, he was so frightened at the idea of flying that he turned around and went home.
Bird then decided to attend Indiana University, which has an enrollment of 31,500; it took him only a week to realize that he was in over his head, and once again he bolted for home. Shortly after leaving Indiana, he enrolled at North-wood Institute, a 160-student junior college in West Baden, Ind., but he quit again, after only two months at the school. "He was very unsettled," says Northwood coach Jack Johnson. "He had trouble attending class and was very undisciplined."
For the remainder of what would have been his freshman year, Bird had a job with the French Lick parks department, which included a stint on the celebrated garbage truck. It was during that year that Bird's father committed suicide, after which Larry was persuaded to return to school by Indiana State's recruiters. A brief marriage followed, but that ended in divorce in September of 1976. There were attempts at a reconciliation, but the only thing that resulted was a paternity suit—filed against Bird by his former wife, Janet.
"Basketball is my whole life, and it will always be my whole life," Bird has said. "I'm a lot smarter on the court than I am in life." Last Saturday afternoon Bird was talking to a friend about the adjustments he dreads having to make when he enters the pros. "I like the idea of playing basketball every night," he said, "but I don't know about the rest of it."
Little by little, the world outside French Lick seems to be discovering Bird and, in terms of basketball, liking what it finds. For the moment, at the very least, the Sycamores look like they are for real. Bird's services are coveted by every NBA team, and there's a former chicken magnate in Boston [John Y. Brown, then the Celtics' owner] who is probably spending sleepless nights thinking up ways to throw money at him. Now, if only Bird would take a chance on the rest of the world, he might discover it's not a solid waste of time. Hey, Larry, ain't no flies on us.