During Bird's years with the Celtics, it wasn't uncommon for French Lick residents to bump into Boston's finest. Carlisle was a regular. So was center Rick Robey. Chris Ford brought his eight-year-old son to French Lick, and Bill Walton hitched a ride into town with Bird and former teammate Quinn Buckner after they won the 1986 championship. Their trip included a 3 a.m. stop in Bloomington, the home of Indiana University, where Walton and Bird begged Buckner, a Hoosiers alumnus, to hand over Indiana coach Bob Knight's home phone number for an early wakeup call. (Buckner declined.) When they reached Bird's boyhood home in French Lick, Walton knelt down, scooped up some dirt from the front lawn and placed it in a jar. He later sprinkled the dirt on his backyard court in San Diego.
"I'll never forget that trip," says Walton, "The sun was just coming up, and we're sitting in Larry's house. His mom was cooking us breakfast. Then all of a sudden his buddies pull in, back from a hunting trip. The back of the truck was full of dead deer and empty bottles of Jack Daniel's. That's French Lick in a nutshell."
French Lick has changed some in the 11 years since Walton made his pilgrimage. The Hoosier burned down, although the Jubil still stands. Bird's family has experienced some passages, too. His brothers are scattered: Mike, 45, has moved to Cambridge, Mass.; Mark, 44, lives in nearby Terre Haute; Jeff, 32, and Eddie, 28, are in Indianapolis. Larry's sister, Linda, 42, still lives in French Lick. Lizzie Kerns died in 1989 at 83. Now, when Larry pulls into his driveway, Georgia no longer ambles out of the house to greet him. A year ago, at 66, she died of Lou Gehrig's disease.
Georgia had been feeling poorly for some time, but she didn't much like doctors, so she had Larry and Dinah drive her to the hospital to meet with her physicians. "Typical Mom," Larry says. "I told her, 'Do you want me to lie to you, or tell you the truth?' She wanted the truth. I told her if she had anything she really wanted to do in the next six months, she better get to it."
Georgia hated to fly, but she hopped a plane to Larry and Dinah's house in Naples to see Connor and Mariah. She flew to Memphis to visit an old friend. In her final months, as disease ravaged her body, she didn't stray from French Lick. For her kids, who spent their childhoods feeding off her strength, it was a heartbreaking end.
Not long after his mother died, Bird turned 40. The new gathering spot in French Lick became his massive garage. There his tools were carefully stacked and his cars and boat were neatly stored. He set up a card table and chairs for his buddies, and as he sat there, he wondered aloud what he should do next. He was too young to play charity golf for a living. He was driving Dinah and the kids crazy. Coaching? Why not? Dinah had asked. Why not?
The downside of Bird's alliance with the Pacers was his break with the Celtics. For the past two years his frustration with the Boston franchise had been building. He made suggestions in team meetings that were ignored. Deals he thought were foolish went through. The Celtics, he felt, were going in the wrong direction. Team owner Gaston maintains Bird could have been involved with the Celtics in any capacity he wanted, but Bird says he never believed that. "[The owners] had already made up their mind what they wanted," he says, "and it wasn't me."
Last spring Gaston asked Bird to make up a list of coaches to succeed M.L. Carr. Bird submitted the names of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino (who eventually got the job) and Pacers coach Larry Brown (now with the 76ers), but his first choice was Kansas coach Roy Williams. "I wanted Williams so bad," Bird says. "He was the perfect guy. I envisioned him leading the Celtics to their next championship. But I knew he probably wouldn't take the job for another four to five years."
Gaston examined the list and settled on Pitino. The only way Pitino would forsake Kentucky for Boston was if he was given a substantial financial package and total control of basketball decisions. That would leave no role for Bird. Pitino publicly declared he would not be interested in the Boston job unless Bird was involved in some capacity. Bird says by then he had already realized his time in Boston was up, and he told Pitino that. "I wasn't about to let someone else make the decisions and have me take the blame for them," Bird says. "That's how it was being set up. I think Paul Gaston sort of wanted me there, but he didn't want me to have control."
Meanwhile, when Bird contacted Indiana last April to ask permission to speak with Brown about Boston's vacancy, the Pacers, in turn, asked permission to speak to Bird about their potential coaching opening. When he said he'd consider it, Indiana's owners, Mel and Herb Simon, immediately decided to do whatever it took to land Bird. For his part, Bird quickly determined the only place he would coach was Indiana. It was home. Although he had no special attachment to Indianapolis, his visits there as a player had been memorable, in part because friends from French Lick would drive up for the game. Primarily because of her fear of flying, Georgia traveled to Boston only four times, but during Larry's career she didn't miss a Celtics-Pacers game in Market Square Arena. She took it badly when the Celtics lost and was not above hollering at the officials when she thought they had wronged her son. "I always had trouble in this arena," Bird says. "I couldn't shoot here. I'd come in thinking, God, can I pick up the basket tonight?"