TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- The new bronze statue of Larry Bird stands more than 17 feet high. Or as Indiana State president Dr. Daniel Bradley said at the dedication Saturday, it “dwarfs the 12-foot structure at Michigan State.”
That’d be Magic Johnson.
Bird came home this weekend. There was the dinner that raised nearly $400,000 to endow a scholarship in his name Friday. A statue ceremony Saturday, with former Boston Celtics teammate Bill Walton in the audience wearing a “Larry Legend” T-shirt. And after that, Bird sat on the front row of the Hulman Center, clapping as the Sycamores defeated Ball State 82-73 in their season opener, and standing for the school song.
“I never dreamed of anything like this. That’s why it’s so special,” he told the crowd at halftime, as the fans chanted his name. “I had some of my best years right here in this city.”
It was 35 years ago that Bird led the 33-0 Sycamores into the national championship game, where they lost 75-64 to Michigan State; the first Bird-Johnson showdown and the preamble to all the Celtics-Lakers battles to come. It remains to this day the highest-rated televised college basketball game of all time.
The marriage of the small-town basketball workaholic and Indiana State was a defining moment for this school. The Sycamores have won one NCAA tournament game in the 34 years since. They have not forgotten him here, and that includes the kids. It was a group of students, having taken a look at the Magic Johnson statue in East Lansing, Mich., who inspired the fund-raising drive for a Bird monument.
They made only one stipulation -- it had to be taller than Johnson’s. So you have to look up to see the No. 33 statue, now forever launching a jump shot at the south end of the Hulman Center.
Among the student notes on the wall Saturday:
“Welcome back to the beginning.”
“Thanks for putting us on the map.”
Bird would rather bite into a cactus than stand at a microphone in front of a crowd, but this day was different. He mentioned his regret that he has not been back more often. “Nobody to blame other than myself.” And he said what this meant to him.
“I’ll never be comfortable about [the spotlight], but this is part of who I am and what I do,” he said “The best thing about this statue is when I was told it was student-driven. That got me excited. I’m not a guy that tries to self-promote. All I want to do is just get the job done and move on.”
He was less worldly as a college student. Take the NBA draft that opened the gate for him to a Hall of Fame career in Boston. “I didn’t know anything about the draft,” he said. “I can remember walking off the golf course and somebody telling me I was drafted by the Celtics. My reply was, 'What’s that mean?’ ’’
He found out soon enough. Now times are good for Bird. He has returned as president of the Indiana Pacers, and they’re the last unbeaten team left in the NBA. But his Indiana State era was center stage Saturday.
“A lot of kids today dream of being in the NBA,” he said. “Coming from a small town in southern Indiana, I didn’t have any dreams of where my future was going to take me.
“My goal every day was to outwork everyone, not only on the opposing team but on my own team.”
At Indiana State, that got him to the championship game, where Johnson was waiting. Johnson had 24 points that night, Bird 19 on 7-for-21 shooting. Time has not healed the legend who lost.
“You never get over that,” he said. “It’s impossible to get over it when you get your heart broken. The pain eases but it never goes away. I knew going into that game that I was going to have to play the best game I’d ever played in my life, and I didn’t do it. I let us all down.”
Bird has never watched a replay of the game. Will he ever?
“No. I know the outcome,” he said.
But as of Saturday, he has a taller statue.