Larry Bird was a co-star of one of the greatest college basketball national championship games ever – Bird vs. Magic, when the undefeated Indiana State Sycamores took on the co-Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans in the 1979 championship. Bird was one of the best scorers in the country, a big forward who led the way for the Sycamores from the Missouri Valley Conference to the biggest national stage.
The vitals for Larry Bird
School: Indiana State
Weight: 220 pounds
Years active: 1976-79
NCAA tournament record: 4-1
Career averages: 30.3 points per game, 13.3 rebounds per game, 4.6 assists per game, 53.3% shooting
What was Larry Bird's record in college?
Indiana State went 81-13 during the three seasons in which Larry Bird played for the Sycamores. Indiana State nearly became the most recent undefeated national champion, reaching the 1979 national title game with a 33-0 record.
What was Larry Bird's offensive game like?
While Bird was most known for his scoring, he had a well-rounded game that included double-digit rebound totals and unselfish passing. "He's 6-9, was the nation's second leading scorer and that's not all," wrote The Evening Sun's Bill Tanton. "He's a great passer and an excellent rebounder. He even plays defense, although that's not what's causing the NBA Boston Celtics to salivate over him."
In an effort to stop Bird, Bradley coach Dick Versace installed what was referred to as the "Bird's Nest Defense," where two defenders would guard Bird and the other three defenders would cover the four other Sycamores. Bird took just two shots that night and made both, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, while he helped teammates Carl Nicks and Steve Reed score 50 combined.
While Indiana State coach Bill Hodges was frustrated with the style of defense, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, Bird wasn't concerned about his lack of shots. Hodges said of Bird, "His only personal goal this year was to lead the nation in rebounds."
In Bird's own words, here's the value he placed on ball movement: "My feeling about passing is that it don't matter who's doing the scoring as long as it's us. I just think when a man is open, he should get the ball whether it's 30 feet out on the wing or underneath. We had guys last year who didn't care about passing. They thought scoring was more important, but passing is important."
What were some of Larry Bird's best games?
Larry Bird played in the NCAA tournament just once, in 1979, but he made the most of it. He scored 136 points in five NCAA tournament games, leading the Sycamores to the national championship game, where they fell to the Michigan State Spartans. The following comes from The Tampa Bay Times:
His best NCAA tournament game came in the Final Four against DePaul, when he scored 35 points with 16 rebounds and nine assists (all were NCAA tournament highs for him) while shooting 16-of-19 from the field. That came in spite of Bird playing with a fracture in his left thumb in the Final Four after getting hurt against Arkansas.
He was brilliant against the Razorbacks with a a 31-point, 10-rebound game in the regional finals.
Bird had a double-double in all five NCAA tournament games he played in that year. Bird scored a team-high 19 points for the Sycamores in the 1979 national championship game but it wasn't his most efficient performance as he was just 7-of-21 from the field and 5-for-8 from the free-throw line. Bird passed Otis Birdsong to become the NCAA's fifth-leading scorer of all-time with a free throw early in the championship game.
Bird was often checked by Magic Johnson in Michigan State's 2-3 matchup zone in the epic clash of two all-time greats. Bird would typically start offensive possessions on the right block, where he would utilize the right corner of the floor, the fre- throw line extended and the opposite wing.
You can watch the full replay of the '79 title game below.
Other notable performances by Bird include his career-high 49 points against Wichita State in February 1979, scoring 29 points in the first half against Butler in December 1978, just 10 months after he dropped 47 on the Bulldogs on the road.
What awards did Larry Bird win in college?
Here are some of the awards Larry Bird won in college:
- 1978 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year
- 1979 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year
- 1979 Midwest Regional Team
- 1979 All-Tournament Team
- 1979 Consensus All-American
- 1970s All-Decade Team
- NCAA Tournament All-Time Team
- Named a top-15 player in the 75 Years of March Madness Celebration
However, Bird was all business in spite of the awards he won and the fanfare he received. His focus was on the court.
From The Evening Sun:
"At 9 o'clock yesterday [Bill] Hodges went to wake up Bird for a brunch at which he was to receive the Player of the Year Award. 'Coach, I'm dead,' moaned Bird. 'Can I stay in bed?' Hodges allowed Bird to sleep in, which annoyed the folks who sponsored the brunch and the award, and some in the media.
"By noon, Bird appeared at a press conference, a rarity in his scheme of things.
"'You appear to be enjoying this,' one reporter commented.
"'Wrong,' said Bird."
What records did Larry Bird set in college and where does he rank among historical greats?
Here are some of the records and historical rankings that Larry Bird achieved at Indiana State:
- A member of the 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound club: 2,850 points and 1,247 rebounds
- Indiana State's all-time leading scorer (2,850 points)
- Indiana State records for most points in the first half, second half, in a game, at home, on the road, in a loss
- Highest scoring average in the 1979 NCAA Tournament (27.2 points per game)
- Most rebounds and highest rebound average in the 1979 NCAA Tournament (67 rebounds, 13.4 rpg)
- Indiana State-record 35 points in an NCAA tournament game
- Indiana State-record 16 field goals in an NCAA tournament game
- Indiana State-record 84.2 shooting percentage in an NCAA tournament game (min. 10 attempts)
- Indiana State-record 83.3 free throw percentage in an NCAA tournament game (min. 10 attempts)
- Indiana State-record 16 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game
- Tied for first in semifinal history with 16 made field goals against DePaul
- Second-leading scorer in the country in 1978: 30.0 points per game
- Second-leading scorer in the country in 1979: 28.6 points per game
- Third-leading scorer in the country in 1977: 32.8 points per game
- Sixth all-time (since 1973) in rebounds in a season: 505 rebounds (1979)
- Tied for seventh with a two-game Final Four rebound total of 29 rebounds in 1979
- Eighth in Final Four history with an 84.2 shooting percentage against DePaul
- Tied for eighth all-time in career rebounding average: 13.3 rebounds per game
- Ninth in NCAA tournament history (since 1973) with 67 rebounds in a single NCAA tournament
- Tied for 13th all-time in double-doubles in a season: 28 double-doubles (1979)
- 15th all-time in career scoring average (min. 1,400 points): 30.3 points
- 16th all-time on the NCAA career scoring list: 2,850 points
- Tied for 23rd all-time in career double-doubles: 68 double-doubles
- Tied for 24th all-time in points in a season: 973 points (1979)
- Tied for 24th all-time in consecutive double-doubles in a season: 16 double-doubles (1979)
What did people say about Larry Bird?
Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote after watching him in the Final Four: "I could not believe The Bird."
The Evening Sun's Bill Tanton: "At the beginning of the season, Indiana State was picked third or fourth in its own conference. Now the Sycamores are 33-0, they are ranked No. 1 in the country, and they are one win from the title. Their coach, Bill Hodges, is in his first year, the first rookie ever to take an undefeated team to the tournament final. But everyone knows why Indiana State is where it is. It's because of Bird."
The New York Times' Dave Anderson: "[Bill] Hodges likes to say that his primary contribution to the Sycamores this season has been 'not messing up Larry Bird.'"
Indiana State coach Bill Hodges on the notion that man-to-man defenses might slow Bird down: "If we go against a UCLA or a Notre Dame later on and they play man-to-man, that's when you'll see how tough Larry really is."
Indiana State teammate Carl Nicks: "It's a tremendous feeling to play with him ... he brings out the best in everybody. If I could, I'd like to play with him forever."