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Mike Lopresti | | January 20, 2019

40 years after first Bird vs. Magic showdown, 1979 Indiana State team celebrates iconic NCAA tournament run

Throwback Thursday: Larry Bird

TERRE HAUTE, Ind.  They’re aging men now, the Indiana State Sycamores of 1979, who helped create the night when the Final Four came of age. Some of them are grandfathers. But they were all here Saturday, Larry Bird and the rest, and their 40th reunion even came with its own theme.
“When March Went Mad.”
Wait a minute. Didn’t March do that last spring, when the Loyola Chicago Ramblers showed up in the Final Four — them and their nun? Correct. And who should be on the court this very Saturday as the opponent? Loyola. Sister Jean didn’t make the trip, but her Ramblers are on the move again. The rain-on-the-reunion 75-67 victory over Indiana State Saturday was their fifth win in six games.

It was, then, a day for the past in the Missouri Valley Conference, and the present.
In a special section at one end of Hulman Center, men in their 60s shared old stories, recalling the tumult of 40 years ago. That’s when they shocked the basketball world by coming within one night of a perfect season, and a national championship game transformed into three unforgettable words — Bird vs. Magic.
The Final Four has never been the same. The Spartans’ 75-64 win in an epic first showdown between two giants — Johnson had 24 points, Bird 19 and 13 rebounds — was the highest rated TV college basketball game ever. It still is. Given the modern proliferation of broadcast outlets to divide the audience, it likely always will be.

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"It’s a celebration of our history,” Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin was saying before Saturday’s festivities began. “You look at what that run meant to college basketball, and what it meant to the national embrace of the Final Four.
“That kind of reminds me of another recent Final Four run.”

Watch Bird and Magic battle for the '79 championship

Indeed, on the court this day, a few rows below the ’79 Sycamores, there were college kids from Loyola, aiming to relive their own fantasy of last spring.  It was an intersection of MVC Cinderella stories, yesterday and today, with a near-full house driving through a winter storm to be there.
"Nothing short of an absolute big-time atmosphere,” Loyola coach Porter Moser would call it afterward, even as he stressed the obvious Final Four connection between his team and the day’s honorees had not been a part of the Ramblers’ preparation. Because the Final Four — last April’s, 1979, any Final Four — has been taken off the discussion table, for a team fighting to establish its own identity.

“Not one time did it come up that they were honoring a Final Four team, and we’re a Final Four team,” Moser said. “We weren’t playing that team.”
No, but that team was the one who got the big cheers Saturday.

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Bird drew the loudest, of course. He’s the one with the 15-foot statue outside the arena, forever to be taking a jump shot in the direction of downtown Terre Haute, built that size intentionally to be taller than Magic Johnson’s statue in Michigan. A last stab to beat those ’79 Spartans . . . in something.
There Bird was Saturday, standing for his school song. Posing for pictures with the Sycamores’ mascot. Telling the crowd during the post-game ceremony about Bob King, the coach who recruited him to Indiana State, but missed the 1978-79 season because of health issues.
“One thing I couldn’t understand, when we’d have a game at home, I’d jump in my car. Bob King would follow me home. I never got that,” Bird said. Being a clever one, Bird would go inside, wait for King to drive off, then head out to be a college kid.
Some things haven’t changed. Bird didn’t talk to the media that season, saying he wanted more attention put on his teammates. Same thing this weekend. No interviews, please. But it was not that long ago, when he did discuss the open wound from 1979. “You never get over that. It’s impossible to get over it, when you get your heart broken. I knew going into that game that I was going to have to play the best game I’d ever play in my life, and I didn’t do it. I let us all down.”

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He had his 19 points and 13 rebounds, but also was 7-for-21 with six turnovers — an injured thumb might have had something to do with it — and had never forgotten it. Probably didn’t this particularly Saturday, either.
But what about these other guys, who played their part in one of college basketball’s ultimate fairy tales-come-true?  As Loyola guard Clayton Custer said outside his locker room, as the post-game ceremony went on, “I don’t know much about the rest of their team. I know a lot about Larry Bird.”

How about the five-term state representative from southern Indiana? Bob Heaton mentioned that anyone driving around here a few months ago might have seen his campaign signs for re-election. Maybe some of the voters remember what he did that golden winter of ’79, coming off the bench to change Indiana State history with two baskets.
The first was a game-tying banker from midcourt at the buzzer at New Mexico State, saving a loss and preserving the Sycamores’ unbeaten regular season. Indiana State won 91-89 in overtime, even with three starters — including Bird — fouled out.
“When that ball was about halfway there, it looked like it was going to go over the backboard,” Heaton said Saturday. “What completed the shot is that we were able to win in overtime.”

The team went to Tulsa from there, and after the next day’s practice, every Sycamore had one chance to reenact Heaton’s half-court shot. They all missed, except one. Larry Bird. At the reunion Saturday, Heaton was asked to try it again himself during a second half timeout. Short.

Heaton’s other shot — not as spectacular, but infinitely bigger — beat Arkansas at the buzzer in the Midwest Regional championship game. With the score tied 71-71, Bird was supposed to get the ball, but was covered. So the right-handed Heaton, fearing his shot was about to be blocked, put it up left-handed. It hit one side of the rim, then another, and fell through. An Indiana State team that began the season unranked and had never been in the NCAA tournament before was 32-0, and in the Final Four. Now Heaton’s grandkids watch it on YouTube. “I never thought after 40 years we’d still be taking about that game,” he said.
But no wonder we are. It was one of the greatest NCAA tournament games ever played. Arkansas shot 63.8 percent, committed only 10 turnovers, and lost. Indiana State shot 56.4 percent with seven turnovers, and Bird scored 31.
Or how about the second leading scorer on the team? Carl Nicks was Robin to Bird’s Batman, but when needed, could take the lead role. Bradley triple-teamed Bird that season and he took only two shots, for four points. Nicks scored 31, and the Sycamores rolled by 19.

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Only two Indiana State players — including Bird — have had their uniform numbers retired. Nicks will soon be the third.
“Forty years ago, we made history. I’m just real proud of that. That’s something nobody can take away from us,” he said. “When I was coaching eighth grade basketball, I always told my kids, `Go Google me and Google that (Michigan State) game.’ They’d say, `You lost that game, Coach Nicks.’ We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time. To me, we won. I was there. I’m from the south side of Chicago and I was at the Final Four.
"I thought about that last year when Loyola was making that run. We blazed that trail.”
Ask Nicks his most prized possession from 1979, and he quickly holds up the finger where he wears the national runner-up ring.
“Right there, that’s it. I look at that and I have joy, and I also want to cry.”
Or how about the head coach, who wasn’t even supposed to be the head coach?
Two weeks before practice began, King suffered a brain aneurysm. Suddenly, Bird’s senior season was in the hands of 35-year-old assistant Bill Hodges. It took 34 games for him to endure his first loss. What a way to start a career.

"It went downhill from there,” Hodges said Saturday. He never could get the Bird-less Sycamores back to the tournament, and was gone in three years. He bounced around the game, coaching Mercer, teaching history, striking up a friendship with Jud Heathcote, the Michigan Stater who beat him in 1979. It took Hodges years before he could watch that game again, and when he did, his first reaction was that he needed to call timeout earlier. He also did some high school coaching, and led a team to the state championship game. He lost.
“I tell people that’s just my plight in life. I guess that’s the way the Good Lord meant it to be,” he said. He’s 75 now, a contented man with a white beard who plays golf in Florida five days a week. This weekend was his first trip back to Indiana State in 30 years. “It seems like it was a lifetime ago,” he said of 1979. “Some of the memories slip, but you still remember the important ones.”
Such as the challenges of the first few weeks, when the Sycamores were so suddenly his.

“It was hard to start out with. The biggest problem was, I never had to deal with the media. They was rough. And Larry wouldn’t talk to them, so that just made it much harder on me. But the coaching was not a problem. 

“There was a time early in the season when we weren’t getting done what I wanted to get done defensively. So I went and got Coach King. He was well enough to come and watch us practice and after a half-hour, I went up and talked to him and he told me what we were not doing right, and we changed it. It was smooth sailing from then on.”
That's what they still remember here, and cherish.
“This team probably did more for a community than any team in any sport at any level,” current coach Greg Lansing said to the 79ers during the ceremony. “Look at the people in the stands. Forty years later, that’s still your legacy. People still love you.”

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At Loyola, they know a little about an underdog’s love from the public. It was poured upon the Ramblers last spring, but this is a new year with new challenges, even with three of the five top scorers — Custer, Marques Townes and Cameron Krutwig — back. They started 7-6, but things have changed. Loyola has been on a shooting tear since league play began, and more new Ramblers are growing into their roles. Loyola is 12-7 overall and tied for the lead in the MVC.
“Look at the other plays some of the other guys made (Saturday). It wasn’t Townes or Custer making the huge plays down the stretch,” Moser said. “We’re starting to get deeper again. That’s what was good about us last year, we developed depth.
“I think early on, we were answering one million questions. Our whole focus right now is getting better, and we are. We’re not stuck in the mud.”

Loyola’s players, darlings of the nation last March, have had to learn something about the price of fame.
“We all know these teams want to beat us, just because of what we did last year,” Custer said. “But I think we put too much pressure on ourselves at the beginning of the year. We thought we needed to be great. There’s more noise around our program now. Now we’ve gotten to the point where we just don’t listen to that.
“I think in the off-season it was cool. Everybody was all excited about it. We were like, wow, this is what it feels like to be at a school where basketball’s important. But once the games started and you lose a couple, sometimes you hear, `they’re a one-hit wonder, they were a fluke last year.’ Then it kind of hurts.”
Saturday was about legacies, and the mixture of emotions college basketball can bring. 
  Indiana State went 33-1 in 1979 and wanted so badly to be 34-0. Sitting in Hulman Center Saturday, several of those Sycamores flashed back to the night in the same place after their Final Four, when they returned to Terre Haute and were stunned to find a full arena waiting to honor them. Finishing second suddenly didn’t matter.
“You’ve treated us like kings,” reserve Bob Ritter told the masses that night “We’re just sorry we couldn’t bring the crown home.”
The crowd was still cheering Saturday, 40 years later. Just like the crowd will likely be four decades from now at Loyola, honoring the 2018 Final Four Ramblers at their reunion. That thought didn’t cross the minds of the 2019 Ramblers, who have other things to worry about at the moment. A lot was going on Saturday in Terre Haute.

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