The small southern Indiana community of French Lick has been a mite upset recently. According to Mrs. Georgia Bird, who works part time at Flick's Restaurant downtown and ought to know, "Everybody is moaning and groaning" because her son Larry, who plays up the road in Terre Haute, is not leading the country in scoring.
It is no wonder that Bird, a junior forward at Indiana State, and his points per game are the subjects of constant concern among the 2,059 folks in French Lick. He is the town's celebrity, having gone in the last couple of years from driving a garbage truck and hunting mushrooms thereabouts to playing basketball in Bulgaria and getting his picture on magazine covers in Italy, not to mention the U.S. of A. Bird was the top scorer for a while this season, but his average has dropped a bit lately, and folks are naturally wondering if something is wrong. Maybe he should practice shooting a rubber ball through a bottomless coffee can again, the way he did as a kid.
Well, you can relax, French Lick, because Bird is going through a little slump, that's all. He said so himself last week, and you know Larry, he wouldn't be saying a word to anybody if there was a serious problem. After all, a 29.8 average isn't that bad (he is still fourth in the country) when you consider the double coverage he has been getting both on and off the court. Larry even says he'd be happy with just two points a game if Indiana State keeps on winning.
A winning team is precisely what Bird promised in 1975 when he decided to return to college and play basketball for the Sycamores. " Indiana State may not be very good right now," he told Assistant Coach Bill Hodges, "but it will be when I get there."
Because he was technically a transfer from Indiana University, which he had attended briefly in 1974, Bird could not make good immediately on his pledge. He redshirted during the 1975-76 season, and the Sycamores went 13-12. But last year Bird averaged 33 points and 13 rebounds a game and led Indiana State to a 25-3 record, the best in the school's history. In recognition of these accomplishments, the Sycamores were invited to the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Houston, and Bird received a letter of congratulations from the man who almost became his coach, Indiana's Bobby Knight.
This season Indiana State is doing even better. By defeating Tulsa 78-59 and Drake 92-80 last week, the Sycamores raised their record to 12-0, took the lead in the Missouri Valley Conference and threatened to improve on their No. 6 national ranking. As for Bird—despite a 45-point outburst at Drake that came within two of his career high—his scoring and rebounding (11.6, 18th best nationally) figures are down a little from last season, but he continues to be just about the best-passing, quickest-thinking and smoothest-operating big man in the country. Bird plays with instinct and intelligence, moving adroitly without the ball, following his shots and making important steals. He is a complete player.
Indiana State's rapid rise with Bird follows a familiar pattern in college basketball. Every season seems to produce an upstart from nowhere making fast tracks to somewhere. Jacksonville did it with Artis Gilmore. Southwestern Louisiana with Dwight Lamar, Austin Peay with Fly Williams and, just last season. North Carolina-Charlotte with Cornbread Maxwell. Even though the Sycamores were a college division team as recently as 1971 and suffered consecutive losing seasons in 1974 and '75, they have a long tradition that those other surprise teams lacked. Since Indiana State began keeping statistics in 1923, all but one of its coaches have had winning career records, including one John R. Wooden, who worked there in 1947 and '48.
Indiana State's present coach, 54-year-old Bob King, is continuing that custom, although five years ago it seemed he would never coach again. He had quit the profession in 1972 after building New Mexico into a national power with 10 straight winning seasons and four postseason tournament appearances. But along the way he also developed a knee ailment that caused such acute pain that he had to be driven from the dressing room to the playing floor in a golf cart. Even today, after operations on both knees, he stands slightly bowlegged and walks stiffly. "It was obvious I couldn't do the job as a coach anymore, so I quit and became an associate athletic director." King says. When he was passed over for the athletic director's job at New Mexico in 1974, King decided his best prospects lay elsewhere. He applied for and got the athletic directorship at Indiana State.
"I was told my main concerns should be getting the school into a conference, moving the football team into Division I and developing a winning basketball team," King says. The last item on that list was particularly important, because the Sycamores had just begun playing in the new Hulman Center, where a successful team would be needed to fill the 10,220 seats. Following the school's second straight 12-14 season in 1975, the administration decided the best way to meet that requirement was to get Gordon Stauffer to resign and make King the coach. Mission accomplished. In 2� seasons King has fashioned a 50-15 record and a 29-game home-court winning streak, and attracted an average attendance at Hulman of 9,155. "Actually it was a lot harder at New Mexico than it was here," King says. "That really took some doing, but with so many good players in this part of the country, we should be able to have winning teams."
Appropriately, the very first recruiting trip made by King's assistants, Hodges and Stan Evans, was 90 miles to French Lick and Bird's front door. The doorstep was as far as they got; Larry was not at home and his mother refused to let the coaches come in. Hodges still recalls Mrs. Bird standing behind the screen saying, "Why are you bothering him? He doesn't want to go to school. Leave him alone."