Now that Larry
Bird has shot, passed and tight-lipped his way to the NCAA final four in Salt
Lake City, the tournament committee should tell the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to
get ready. No matter what Bird and his Indiana State buddies do this week,
there will be plenty of cause for a few verses of the Hallelujah Chorus.
Sportswriters will be happy to say bye-bye, Birdie because they can't get one
word out of him. Opposing coaches will be delighted, because they can't beat
him. And the NBA will be overjoyed that Bird finally is ready to bring his game
into the league.
Bird was his
typical self—remarkable—last week as the Sycamores provided an affirmative
answer to college basketball's most pressing question: Is Indiana State for
real? On Thursday night, in the Midwest Regional semifinal in Cincinnati, the
6'9" Bird's all-round game accounted for 29 points and five assists in a
surprisingly easy 93-72 win over Oklahoma. He then scored 31 to lead the
Sycamores to a 73-71 victory over Arkansas that, ironically, was decided on a
shot that should have been hauled away on the garbage truck that Bird used to
drive back home in French Lick, Ind.
So now the team
from Terre Haute is only two victories away from completing a most improbable
success story. Ordinarily, considering that Americans are suckers for underdogs
and small towns, it would be hard for anyone to pull against Indiana State at
Salt Lake City. But there will be some other teams there bidding just as hard
for the nation's heart. Upstart DePaul surprised UCLA to earn the semifinal
spot opposite Indiana State for Ray Meyer, their aged, beloved and unsung
coach. And in the championship game, the Indiana State-DePaul survivor will
have to solve either the Magic of the Mideast Regional winner, Michigan State,
or the mystery of the surprising Eastern champ, Penn.
arrived in Cincinnati with something to prove to the skeptics among the
nation's journalists and fans. The prevailing notion has been that while Bird
is a great player, Indiana State had built its 30-0 record at the expense of a
bunch of weak teams. In the semis, Indiana State figured to get a stiff test,
at last, from Big Eight champ Oklahoma.
The game was
close until Sooner Center Al Beal got a third foul with 7:43 to play in the
first half. With Beal out, Bird led a spurt in which State turned a 33-30
deficit into a 45-37 halftime lead. In all, Beal played only 17 minutes before
fouling out, which allowed the Sycamores to outrebound Oklahoma 50-22.
Across from the
Indiana State bench, Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton munched popcorn and looked for
Sycamore weaknesses he might be able to exploit. The Razorbacks and their jewel
of a guard, Sidney Moncrief, had earned their way into the final with a 73-62
win over Louisville. The Cardinals were uninspired until the Hogs took a
17-point lead midway through the second half. Then, with head dunker Darrell
Griffith on the bench and a madman named Roger Burk-man in his place,
Louisville woke up and used a press to lead 56-55 with 5:50 to go. Now it was
time for Moncrief to take charge, and he scored seven of his game-high 27
points in the next three minutes. Steady again, Arkansas pulled away.
The morning of
the final game, Sutton tried to digest Bird with his bacon and eggs-over-easy.
"You're not going to stop him, but you can slow him down," he said.
"Where he hurts you most is with his passing. He's the best passer for a
big man I've ever seen. We're going to start Alan Zahn on him, but we'll put
Moncrief on him after a while. Sidney should do a good job, except inside,
where Bird's got five inches on him. When we have the ball, we're going to try
to be patient. Their defense is good for five or six passes, but then they have
a tendency to get unaggressive."
A few hours later
Sutton was nervously watching the end of what had been a beautiful game. His
plan had worked at least well enough that the score was tied 71-71, and
Arkansas had the ball. All the Hogs had to do was hold it until a few seconds
remained and turn Moncrief loose. Once again he had been splendid, with 24
points and eight rebounds. But Moncrief never got the chance to win the game,
because Arkansas turned the ball over with 1:08 to go.
Now it was
Indiana's turn to hold for one shot. "We decided to try to get the ball to
Larry," State Coach Bill Hodges said. "If he could get something, fine.
If not, we'd have to take it to the other side and see what we could
Bird had scored
25 points in the first 27 minutes of play. Then Sutton decided it was time to
put Moncrief on him. That created a tempting mismatch in height, but Indiana
State smartly elected to take what Arkansas gave instead of trying to force the
ball to Bird, who was rarely left open for an easy pass by the quick and
tenacious Moncrief. Bird scored only six points down the stretch.