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A Player For The Ages
Frank Deford
March 21, 1988
Boston's Larry Bird, in what may be his finest season, gets Red Auerbach's vote—over Bill Russell—as the best ever
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March 21, 1988

A Player For The Ages

Boston's Larry Bird, in what may be his finest season, gets Red Auerbach's vote—over Bill Russell—as the best ever

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Available at this shrine are more than 100 Larry Bird mementos, including Larry Bird golf balls, Larry Bird shower curtains, Larry Bird playing cards (he's the joker), Larry Bird chocolates and Larry Bird clothes for Ken (Barbie's significant other).

Max Gibson, a Terre Haute businessman, is Bird's partner in the hotel venture, and, says Bird, Gibson is the closest thing to a father figure he has had in his life since his own father died. Larry, the fourth in a family of six children, has always gotten along well with older men. But he's zealous in making sure that anyone—of any age—who would cozy up to him is not just poaching on his fame or fortune.

Except for Dinah, an FBI agent's daughter, who was born in New York, and whom he met at Indiana State, all of Bird's best pals go back to French Lick. They were the boys with whom he fished for bluegill or looked for mushrooms under the elm trees or played basketball. "Cars or girls—they didn't interest Larry at all," says Gary Holland, his coach at Springs Valley his senior year. Sundays, for example, Bird would meet up with Tony Clark and maybe another guy or two and they would drive off to some bigger town where there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, pick up a big bucket, and then come back to the Valley and play ball all day. Nights, Tony says, they would just "cruise around to see who's around."

Essentially, when he's back in French Lick in the off-season, Bird lives much the same life, only Dinah makes a prettier sidekick. They rise when the spirit moves them—Bird is a legendary sleeper—and while she jogs, he works out at the high school, using the equipment he donated. Then after lunch he'll get in some golf or tennis. Or maybe they'll play tennis together. After dinner Larry and Dinah hang out and have a few beers around the Valley. "We're usually in bed by nine o'clock," he says.

Could he live this sort of existence year-round after he's through playing? Bird shakes his head at this question, and his tiny little mouth drops open in amazement. "Why not?" he says. In the Celtics' media guide, Bird's biography reads "favorite food is steak and potatoes...favorite TV show is Bonanza...."

Why not indeed?

They've always played basketball in rural Indiana. The hoop, without a net, was over the barn door. Hoosiers . When the U.S. was more regional, and simpler, that was Indiana. Why, 35 or 40 years ago, if you walked under the big red neon EAT sign and entered John Henry's luncheonette in French Lick and said that basketball would become a city game played mostly by blacks, you would have been considered as nutty as if you had said that someday the Japanese were going to make more watches than the Swiss.

But just because blacks now fare better in the upper echelons of the game doesn't mean that people don't still love basketball in Indiana. Wayne Embry, the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a black man who grew up playing basketball in the Midwest, says, "I resent comments that basketball is a black man's sport. It's an American sport, and that's how the world ought to acknowledge it."

The game program published by Springs Valley High supports this view. Its section on the history of Black Hawk basketball contains eight paragraphs. Larry Bird appears in the seventh. He's not bigger than basketball in the Valley, even if he may be the greatest basketball player in the history of humankind.

French Lick (pop. 2,265) remains isolated from urbanity, even suburbanity; it's situated approximately in the middle of a rustic triangle formed by Evansville, Ind., and Louisville, Ky., to the south and Bloomington to the north. No interstate reaches French Lick. The houses going up the hill are of white clapboard, and the Lions Club meets the first and third Tuesdays every month at the Villager.

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