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FLYING TO THE TOP
Bruce Newman
February 05, 1979
Indiana State's 18-0 record is the best in the country and so is its 6'9½" forward, Larry Bird, but hardly anyone seems to be aware of it
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February 05, 1979

Flying To The Top

Indiana State's 18-0 record is the best in the country and so is its 6'9½" forward, Larry Bird, but hardly anyone seems to be aware of it

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The phone had been sitting there, stubbornly refusing to ring for what must have been a minute or more, when Ed McKee, the sports information director at Indiana State, finally began to stare disbelievingly at it. CBS Radio had just called, and before that The Providence Journal, and in between there were a lot of questions by. an insistent chap from The New York Post. "They all want to talk to Larry Bird," McKee said glumly, as the phone finally rang. "And Larry's not talking."

This time the call was from Nancy Petersen of the National Solid Waste Association. You know, garbage. Petersen said that the Solid Waste people wanted to do a feature on Bird for their monthly newsletter because they had heard that he used to work on a garbage truck back in his hometown of French Lick, Ind. That was four years ago, when Bird was trying to make up his mind whether to go back to college so he could become a zillionaire in the NBA or pursue a career as a filling-station attendant. Petersen told McKee that she would need an interview with Bird and that she would also like a picture of Larry "doing a dunk." McKee promised to see what he could do and hung up.

Well, hey, Nancy Petersen, tell the National Solid Waste Association, and the man from Glad, and anybody else who happens to ask, there ain't no flies on the Indiana State Sycamores. Last week they ran their record to 18-0 by defeating Southern Illinois 88-79 and Creighton 77-69. Not only did the victory over Creighton allow the Sycamores to remain undefeated, a distinction they share on the major-college level only with un-ranked Alcorn (Miss.) State, but it also came on the same day as losses by top-rated Notre Dame and No. 2 North Carolina. As Indiana State stood trembling on the threshold of the No. 1 spot in college basketball, courtesy of the wire service polls, a lot of people who don't live in Terre Haute—which is where the Indiana State campus is located and about the only place you can see the Sycamores on TV—were suddenly wondering: Who are those guys?

There are several good reasons why Indiana State has been the best-kept secret in basketball this year, and all of them trace back to Bird. Without much doubt, he has been the best college player in the country for two seasons. Going into last week, he was the nation's leading scorer, with 31.0 points a game, and stood third in rebounding, with 15.0 a game, and 19th in free-throw shooting, with an .878 percentage.

Bird, a 6'9½" forward, averaged 32.8 points a game as a sophomore, and even though his scoring dipped to 30 a game last year, he was considered such an extraordinary pro prospect that the Celtics used a first-round pick in last June's NBA draft to select him, hoping they either could persuade him to skip his senior year or sign him this spring before the 1979 draft is held on June 25. The Celtics have the sole right to bargain with Bird until 24 hours before this year's draft. Should they fail to sign him, his name will go back into the pool. He would then surely be picked by whichever of the two teams with the worst records in their respective conferences wins a coin toss to determine which chooses first in the draft. The toss will be held in April, and although Boston has exclusive negotiating rights until June 24, Bird and his agent will no doubt be able to subtly play off the winner of the flip against the Celtics and drive the bidding out of sight. The only way that strategy could fail to pay off is if the Celtics finish with the worst record in the NBA's Eastern Conference—a distinct possibility—and subsequently end up winning this year's flip.

Though Boston failed to sign Bird last summer, his talks with the Celtics dragged on so long that NBC's schedule of national games-of-the-week was announced before anyone knew if he would return to school this year. Indiana State was not on NBC's list, because the network felt that the Sycamores with—or, especially, without—Bird did not have a big enough reputation or sufficiently enticing opponents to draw a big audience. The result is that, unless NBC suddenly revises its schedule, Indiana State will appear on nationwide television only if it makes the NCAA tournament semifinals next month. "Should we ever get on national TV," says Sycamore Coach Bill Hodges, "I imagine the first thing that would surprise a lot of people is that Larry Bird is a white guy."

The color of Bird's skin is hardly a secret in the NBA, however. "There are so few outstanding white players in our league. They're very rare," says Pat Williams, the 76ers' vice-president and general manager, "and that makes Bird an asset. But with Bird, skin color is a secondary issue. The kid is very talented. If he were green, you'd still make a great effort to get him."

Pete Newell, chief scout for the Warriors, agrees that Bird is of considerable value to the NBA as a Great White Hope. "A white kid could be a drawing card," says Newell, "but he has to play well. The NBA is gradually losing its big-name white players. Jerry West has retired. John Havlicek quit last season, and Rick Barry has only a couple of seasons left. So Bird's marketability is increased by the fact he's white. He is also one of the great forwards of the last dozen years."

Southern Illinois Coach Joe Gottfried has said somewhat facetiously of Bird, "If this guy has a weakness, it's that he can't shoot the 20-foot jumper lefthanded." But most pro scouts agree that Bird is not particularly quick, is only so-so on defense and is a bit too reluctant to dribble under pressure. Still, Laker General Manager Bill Sharman calls Bird "one of the best college forwards I have ever seen." And Slick Leonard, coach and general manager of the Pacers, says, "I've seen two great passing forwards in my time. Rick Barry is one, and Larry Bird is the other. Bird seems to see guys before he even gets the ball."

"Normally it isn't Larry's scoring that beats you," says Creighton Coach Tom Apke. "It's his ability to pass and create opportunities for other players." Bird proved that Saturday when he had his worst shooting night of the season, scoring only 17 points, but led the Sycamores with nine assists and had several other spectacular passes fumbled or kicked by his teammates. Carl Nicks, the Sycamores' exciting junior guard, has learned to expect the unexpected from Bird. "You've got to watch him every minute," he says, "or he'll hit you in the nose with the ball."

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