Praise be, I have seen with mine own eyes and I believe, I do beeee-lieve.
The Larry Bird we see on the TV screen is wonderful. In person, he is better than that. This guy can flat play with anybodyhs basketball. At the risk of boring customers who have come here today to hear how insane Indiana State fans are over Bird -- we'll get to some Bird legends soon enough -- I want you to see this beautiful play he made.
Basketball can be art. It is 10 strong men in motion. It transcends sport when one of those men creates a moment of pure joy. Here is Larry Bird, a giant closer to 7 feet tall than he is to 6 feet, running at full speed, dribbling the basketball, about to do an artist's work.
He comes down the middle of the free-throw lane. On either side, an Indiana State teammate rushes toward the basket. One Oklahoma defender stands guard against these three, and it is Bird's job, because he has the ball, to deceive the defender and force him into a move that will leave open someone's path to the basket.
Bird makes a tiny jerk of his head to the right. That might mean to intends to pass to the right. But then he tilts his head left. His right hand, dribbling the ball, seems to move to the ball's right side. All of that means he now intends to pass the ball to his left, and the defender, having divined this, leaps out there to intercept the pass.
Maybe Bird knows how he did it, or perhaps only the Lord knows, but somehow Bird moved his hand from the ball's right side, brought it over the top and to the left side, and then, looking to his left, he passed the ball to the right producing an easy layup for his wide-open teammate.
It was one of those plays, accomplished in a microsecond, that causes spectators to say, "Did you see that ?"
Someone once asked Julius Erving to explain a move he made and Dr. J said, "It just happened, that's all." Genius needs no explanation. You enjoy, enjoy. The Doc is a leaper whose most memorable creations are midair spectaculars, but Bird, who cannot fly, is as much fun to watch because he invents passes that no one else dreams of.
He will be at it again Saturday, when Indiana State takes on Arkansas at 2 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) for the NCAA's Midwest Regional championship and a trip to the final four. There will be many magic moments courtesy of Larry Bird.
I also promised legends, and legends there should be for a 6-foot-9 1/2 forward from a town of 2,300 people who averages 30 points and 15 rebounds a game while becoming college basketball's player of the year and, probably, a $4 million pro.
"Superman," a 6-year-old boy said in Terre Haute, Ind., when a TV interviewer asked him who his favorite person was.
"No, I mean a real person," the interviewer said.
"Larry Bird," the boy said without hesitation.
Terre Haute, home of Indiana State, believes Larry Bird is Superman.
After a drawing March 31, some lucky Bird lover will win Bird's road uniform that he wore in the 1976-77 season. The Sears Roebuck store has the uniform on display in a glass case.
When Terre Haute's weekly newspaper, The Spectator, put out a special basketball issue with Bird in color on the cover, it sold 7,200 copies at 40 cents each. Mike McCormick, a lawyer who writes sports for The Spectator said, "They should have printed lots more. In the black market now, they're going for $2 each."
Indiana State's publicity man, Ed McKee, said he sold 1,000 programs every home game and could have sold twice that many. "Everybody wanted to keep track of Larry's points," he said. "It worked out nice. Larry is No. 33, and No. 32 in the program is Eric Curry, who hardly plays -- so people used Curry's space to mark down Larry's baskets."
The TV sportscaster, Billy Packer, is infamous in Terre Haute. His crime was criticizing, on the air, the Sycamores' schedule, saying it wasn't strong enough to prepare them for a national championship. He made things worse by sending a telegram of explanation in which Bird was spelled "Byrd."
To those of the critical persuasion, McCormick, writing in The Spectator, said, "All I can say is, 'Go to hell'."
Last summer, playing golf, Bird made a hole in one.
"But it was only a 128-yard hole," said McKee, almost apologizing.
Bird is an outfielder on the Terre Haute Platolence 500-Carpetland All-Star slow-pitch softball team. In 20 games, he hit 12 home runs and batted in 48 runs. Small boys entered the dugout during games in pursuit of his autograph.
Kurt Thomas, the best gymnast in the United States, also attends Indiana State. He occasionally works out next to a high-school physical education class taught by student teacher Larry Bird. The class happens to be gymnastics, and Thomas, who is 5-5, has said, "Larry Bird is better at gymnastics than I am at basketball."
"We're tried to get the two of them together for a picture," said McKee. "It would be used in every newspaper and magazine in the country. But Larry just says he'd rather not.He doesn't have anything against Kurt, it's just his way."
Bird's way is simplicity. His I-won't-talk-to-the-press philosophy is not borne of meanness or arrogance. What he likes is basketball and little else. The University of Louisville Coach Denny Crum, recruited Bird as a high-school senior at French Lick, Ind. Bird said he wasn't interested in Louisville but Crum insisted he should visit the school.
Finally, Crum struck a bargain. They would play a game of "Horse." If Crum, once an outstanding guard at UCLA, won the game, Bird would visit; if Bird won, no visit. Bird, shooting first, moved nearly 40 feet from the hoop -- a range Crum thought impossibly out fo reach for this gangling 6-9 guy.
From 40 feet, Bird made five straight shots. No visit.
Bird once came out of an emergency room where he had been treated for back spasms to make 11 of 12 shots and score 29 points to beat Creighton. Against Houston's All-America guard, Otis Birdsong, Bird was 19 for 28. In his last 90 games, Bird has scored more than 20 points 84 times.
"Larry is a very simple, down-to-earth young man who has all the qualities of a young man you would want to be on your side if you went to Russia to fight a war," said his coach, Bill Hodges. "He's extremely loyal. He's hard-nosed. He's mentally tough. He's intelligent beyond his years."
McCormick, the lawyer-sportswriter, said he will never forget a game in which Bird had 47 points and needed two more for a school record. It was the last home game for senior John Nelson, a seldom-used reserve. Nelson missed a shot and Bird got the rebound. Instead of putting it back in for the record, Bird tossed the ball back to Nelson, who again missed. Again Bird rebounded and gave the ball to Nelson, who missed yet again.
McCormick and he cried at the sight.