By the rules, it is possible Larry Bird will play for Indiana State this week and the Boston Celtics next week. Would such an occurrence surprise Bird's coach, Bill Hodges?
"Oh, yes," Hodges said.
The lack of equivocation was startling. The Celtics have exclusive rights to Bird only until June 24, after which date he might, be drafted by another team, say the woebegone Chicago Bulls. One would think the Celtics would pile money in million-dollar stacks to get Bird today.
Why, Coach, the certainty that Bird will not join the Celtics as soon as Indiana State is done with its work in the NCAA tournament?
"He has to do student teaching at West Vigo High," Hodges said.
I'm not making this up, sports fans. That's what the coach said. Larry Bird, the player of the year, a big Cousy, the great white hope, is going to teach P.E. in a Terre Haute suburb rather than take the Celtic money now.
It is eternally fascinating in sports to hear the stories men devise as covers for big-bucks negotiations. O. J. Simpson wanted to play in the sun, he said -- until he saw that Buffalo's snow was green with 700,000 dollar bills a winter. Bill Walton wanted to be near The Grateful Dead, he said, because he loved the group's mellow music -- expecially in harmony with a cash register's ringing bells.
Not that there is a bias here against seven-figure salaries for athletes. I know several sports-writers, sainted creatures all, who would change jobs for seven figures, or even six. If Larry Bird can get $5 million from the Celtics, wonderful. But please don't tell us he hs to teach P.E. in West Vigo.
His team, No. 1-ranked Indiana State, plays Oklahoma Thursday night in the NCAA's Midwest Regional here. Louisville and Arkansas also play. When Indiana State loses or, less likely, when it wins the national championship, Bird will be under pressure to sign with the Celtics.
Because his original college class graduated a year ago, Bird was eligible for last season's draft. The Celtics, gambling they could sign him before the next draft, chose Bird in the first round. He was the sixth player taken. This extraordinary move was made because Bird is extraordinary: A 6-foot-9 white man who can shoot from outside, passes the ball wonderfully, rebounds and scores inside.
Instead of signing with the Celtics last year, Bird chose to play this season at Indiana State.
A small-town guy, he quit Indiana University after a week because it was too big. His father committed suicide; his marriage ended in divorce; he dropped out of a tiny college; he worked in a parks department (where he drove a garbage truck for a while) and then enrolled at Indiana State, where all he wanted was to play basketball and be left alone.
He won't talk to the press. The press pries into his private life, he says, and it makes mistakes. He only speaks to television and radio reporters on those occasions when he is presented an award. Then inkstained wretches working for five figures, or even four, are allowed to hear Bird speak.
Such a day came along in Chicago this week.Bird was presented the Adolph Rupp award as the Associated Press player of the year. He has been portrayed as a country bumpkin, an Ozark Ike in sneakers, but up there in the Windy City you knew right away this ain't no hayseed. This guy Bird can count money.
"If I can't come to terms with Boston and Chicago drafts me, I'd be happy to play with the Bulls," he said. "... I'd love to play with Artis Gilmore."
A lot of people think the Celtics have Bird wrapped up. Even Bird's coach, Hodges, said today, "They have a helluva a shot at signing him."
The Celtics have played it low key, in deference to Bird's personality. Red Auerbach, the Celtic president and general manager, has visited Terre Haute once, then to do a game telecast with Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtic coach last season. Together, they interviewed Bird.
Later Auerbach said, "He is a big Cousy. I never thought I'd compare anyone with Bob Cousy, but Larry Bird has those great hands and great vision... Cousy was more spectacular but this kid can do it all... we'd love to have him. He can step into the starting lineup of any team in the league."
Praise from Caesar. Then the present Celtic coach, Dave Cowens, dropped by with two of his players, Rick Robey and Jeff Judkins, friends of Bird from a college all-star trip. "They all went out with Larry one night," Hodges said. "They didn't talk any basketball, I think. Probably talked about girls."
Cowens also looked at three hours' worth of film on Bird.
"The Celtics have just been class," Hodges said.
And now Bird, no hayseed, is planting doubt with his chatter about the Chicago Bulls.
Somewhere, Celtic owner John Y. Brown Jr. must be counting out millions and, while doing that, also consulting his resident sports exert, Phyllis George, soon to be his wife. When the Celtics made their recent trade for Bob McAdoo, giving away three top draft choices, few Bostonians understood the foolish deal.
Until, that is, they remembered a TV interview with Phyllis George the day before the trade was announced.
Bob McAdoo is my favorite ball-player," she said into the camera.
Boston eagerly awaits her appraisal of Larry Bird.