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Bird laughs a little bit and holds up his right index finger. "This," he says. The finger is shaped much like a boomerang, permanently bent toward his thumb at a 45-degree angle. Two operations have failed to straighten it; he can bend it only halfway to his palm. "I didn't have this in college," he says. He broke it playing softball the summer before his rookie year, trying to catch a wicked line drive off the bat of his brother Mike. "Mike hit a shot that knuckled like nothing I ever seen and that sucker hit my finger and I dropped it. So I picked it up and threw to second base, only the ball tailed up and away and clear over the second baseman, and Mike went all the way to third base laughing like anything. I had to laugh, too, because I didn't know why the ball did that until I looked down at my hand and saw my finger broken at about a 90-degree angle."
How great a baseball player would Mickey Mantle have been if he hadn't torn up his knee early in his career? One wonders what kind of shooter Bird would be now if he had a straight finger.
"That's what Red was telling me when I was trying to sign," Bird says.
Larry Bird was born in French Lick on Pearl Harbor Day, 1956, and he'd just as soon let the personal stuff go at that. The folks in the beautiful old hillside resort town honored their favorite son by renaming Monon Street as Larry Bird Boulevard, and they acknowledge the fact that Georgia Bird had to work all her life to raise her daughter Linda, 26, and five sons, Mike, 29; Mark, 28; Larry; Jeff, 17; and Eddie, 14. (Larry's father and mother were divorced in Larry's junior year in high school; his father committed suicide about a year later.) But they don't say much else. Close friends have been conditioned to say nothing more. Larry is a town treasure, and even though the townspeople would love to use his fame for their own fortune, as their elders once used the famous mineral springs to attract the cream of American society, they refrain. "I could tell some stories about some real nice things Larry has done but I wouldn't unless Larry said it was O.K.," says one close family friend. Another, a restaurateur, has thought of how his business would improve if he renamed his place "The Bird's Nest," but he knows Larry wouldn't go for it. "I'll say this much," the man says, "you won't find a finer person than Larry. He hasn't changed one little bit. He comes back here in the summer every year and doesn't want anyone to know he's around except his closest friends."
Mrs. Bird isn't working at the moment, and has been troubled with blood clots in her legs. She has worked in just about every restaurant in town and several of the factories. Her most recent job was as a dietary supervisor at a local nursing home. If you think the mother of a basketball millionaire shouldn't have to work, you don't think the way the Birds do.
"Larry thinks I should work," she says. "He believes everyone should work. That's how he got to be such a good player. My kids were made fun of for the way they dressed. Neighbor boys had basketballs or bikes. My kids had to share a basketball. A friend of Larry's would say, if you can outrun me down to the post office, you can ride my bike for 10 minutes.' Larry used to run his tail-end off."
Now that Larry has made it, Mrs. Bird says she has never had it so good. The only thing she'd like is a new home. "Just once I'd like to have one without scratches in the wall or a warped door," she says. But that's easier said than done. There was a house she would like to have had—which a friend had passed up for $55,000. Mrs. Bird called a broker to inquire about it, and said her son Larry would be home soon to look it over. Suddenly the price jumped to $80,000. When Larry heard about it, he told his mother, "If that's the way it's gonna be, Mom, forget it. We ain't gonna pay more just because I'm a ballplayer."
"That's Larry," Mrs. Bird says with equal measures of parental pride and puzzlement.
For Bird, the pain of public exposure has been great from the beginning, when all he wanted to do was play ball. He didn't know what to make of the college recruiters who came to town. No sooner had he checked into Indiana University in 1974 than he checked right out. Same thing at Northwood Institute in West Baden, Ind., a few months later. In his first 18 years Bird never was farther than 40 miles away from French Lick for more than a weekend.
When Bird finally found himself a home at Indiana State in 1975, it was only through the persistence of Bill Hodges, the assistant basketball coach who would become ISU's head coach in Bird's senior season. "If it wasn't for Coach Hodges, who knows what I'd be doing today?" says Bird.