Bird concedes that his biggest worry is the renewed glare of the spotlight. "Larry still hates all the attention," Walsh says. "The fact he's putting himself back in the limelight gives you an idea of how serious he is about coaching." As a player, Bird could choose when to speak to the media, and when he was injured or unhappy, his resolve not to cooperate was well-known. Throughout his years in the NBA, Bird refused to sit for photo shoots, a ban that extended to the coffee-table book the league released in 1996 to celebrate the 50 players named the best of all time. Every living member of the top 50—except Bird—posed for an updated picture. "I guess I wasn't available," he says.
Now Bird poses. The Pacers are a small-market team hoping to obtain public financing for a new arena, and he is its most marketable asset. He recognizes that he must smile for the camera, answer the questions, sign the autographs, relinquish his privacy. "The one thing I always hated was when I went someplace and 150 kids came charging at me," Bird says. "I don't like crowds. Never have. And the unexpected has always bothered me."
His refuge has long been French Lick. When he'd pull into the driveway there after another long NBA season, his mom, Georgia, would charge out of the four-bedroom house that Larry had built in 1980. Georgia would hug him and inform him that a hot meal was on the stove. He rarely told his buddies he was home, but word spread quickly. Bird needed to look in only a few places for his friends: at the Hoosier or the Jubil, two local bars with cracked linoleum floors, molded ceilings and dust on the windows, or al Brownie's filling station, where he'd pull up a chair, crack open a soda and catch up on the comings and goings.
In the mornings Bird would jog through town, then loop home and shoot some baskets. He always made a point of dropping by to see his granny Lizzie Kerns, who invited him to live with her in his senior year of high school because his childhood home was too crowded to sleep six kids. Kerns begged him to quit pro basketball because he had suffered too many injuries, but he would smile, thank her for lunch and slip a $50 bill under the plate.
Bird loved to take care of the people who never asked him for anything. Once, when he was with Hill in the Denver airport, a friendly Celtics fan struck up a conversation. In passing, the fan mentioned he was stranded in Denver with no money. Bird handed him $200. "But if he had asked," says Hill, "I don't think Larry would have given him a dime."
The same rules applied back home. Old friends who came looking for a handout just because "Larry is rich" went home empty-handed. "I never liked people who came saying, 'What can you do for me?' " says Bird. "That's not how I was raised."
In 1979 French Lick named a street after Bird. At one time the townsfolk took up a collection for a limestone statue of him, but the man who spearheaded the drive fell upon hard times, and the project wasn't completed. Truth was, as much as people were proud of Larry, they were just as proud of Georgia, who worked two jobs (as a waitress and a cook) to keep her family afloat after her husband, Joe, committed suicide in '75.
Bird has no trouble blending back into the tattered yet proud fabric of his hometown, where his dad taught him how to throw a football and to stick up for his own. "I never really understood the whole French Lick thing until I went down there," says Rick Carlisle, a former Celtics teammate whom Bird selected as one of his assistants on the Pacers coaching staff. "Larry knows literally everyone in that town by name—and that's all they need. He's one of them."
Outsiders who try to penetrate Bird's world don't stand a chance. Strangers asking directions to his house often find themselves halfway to Louisville before they realize they've been duped. In the mid-1980s, when Bird was one of the hottest athletes in the world, phone calls to him in French Lick went through Georgia. Sometimes a teammate was calling, or his agent, Bob Woolf, or one of his endorsement reps. Didn't matter. Nine times out of 10, Georgia would glance at Larry lounging on the couch and inform the caller, "I haven't seen him. I don't think he's in town...."
Many of Bird's classmates have moved away. Thus Bird's closest friends in French Lick are older men who have lived in the town for decades. Rex Stackhouse laid pipe on the Alaska pipeline. Sam Sanders was a house painter. They talk very little basketball when Bird's around, concentrating instead on hunting and how the fish are biting. Stackhouse has taken up winemaking, a hobby in which he's gotten Bird involved. The notion that he spends time with Bird to breathe celebrity air is laughable to him. "Anyone who thinks I hang around Larry so he'll buy me a beer doesn't know him very well," says Stackhouse. "Hell, Larry never has any money on him. I've bought more times than he has."