Larry Bird, one of the most iconic figures in the history of basketball, left an indelible mark on the sport during his time at Indiana State University.
From his humble beginnings in French Lick, Indiana, Bird would go on to become a key figure in revolutionizing the way basketball was played, and his time at Indiana State played a crucial role in shaping his legendary career.
In this article, we will delve into the fascinating story of Larry Bird’s journey at Indiana State, where he transformed the Sycamores’ basketball program, created memorable moments in NCAA history, and built the foundation for his storied NBA career.
Early Years and Enrollment at the University of Indiana
Larry Joe Bird was born on December 7, 1956, in the small town of French Lick, Indiana. In his early years with the Celtics he gave himself the nickname the Hick from French Lick based on his hometown. Sophisticated opponents like Dr. J. were not buying the idea that Bird was any kind of hick.
His Dad Joe was a Korean War vet who drank a decent amount and never held steady employment while Bird was young. His Mom Georgia worked waitressing jobs to keep food on the table for Bird and his five siblings.
Bird developed an early passion for basketball. His dedication to the sport began in his childhood, as he spent countless hours practicing in his driveway and at the local gymnasium.
Bird’s talent for basketball became evident during his time at Springs Valley High School. Bird grew quickly in high school shooting up from a 6’1 sophomore to a 6’7” senior.
He finished his senior season averaging more than 30 points and 20 rebounds per game for his hometown Springs Valley high school.
But Larry Bird was not the legend he would become at that point.Embed from Getty Images
He was not named Mr. Indiana Basketball and was only on the 3rd Team All-State. Many observers of Indiana high school basketball didn’t believe he had faced strong enough competition at tiny Springs Valley to deserve those honors.
Even still, by his senior season more than 200 coaches had contacted Bird, most of them offering scholarships to play ball. Coming from small town Indiana, Bird got an offer he couldn’t refuse: the University of Indiana.
Getting an offer to play for IU was the dream of most kids in Indiana. Bob Knight had taken over and was starting the Golden Era that would see undefeated seasons and national championships for the team in the sport that was nearly religion in the state.
The adults in French Lick wanted Bird to take the offer. He had misgivings: he was not as enticed by the pageantry and attention of big-time college ball as others might have been. And Bird wasn’t sure his own headstrong style would mesh well with the dictatorial Knight.
But when you’re an eighteen-year-old kid in rural Indiana and everyone says this is the opportunity of a lifetime, it’s hard to pass up. Bird did not.
He enrolled at the University of Indiana on a basketball scholarship in the fall of 1974.
Larry Bird Indiana State: The TransferEmbed from Getty Images
Larry Bird lasted only 24 days at the University of Indiana. He never played a single game for the Hoosiers.
Reports about the reasons for Bird’s quick exit conflict. Some say that Larry could not handle the transition from tiny French Lick to the much-bigger and busier Bloomington, Indiana.
Others say Bird was still reeling from his father’s death by suicide within the last year. That would certainly be understandable.
Still other reports say that Bird just quickly realized that IU was a poor fit for him. It seems to me that he was an 18-year-old kid far away from home in a very different environment than he was used to and decided, as so many in his circumstances have, that he wasn’t ready for this.
Bird went back to French Lick and started working construction jobs to make ends meet.
A year later in 1975, Bird decided to give college basketball another chance and enrolled at Indiana State University, a smaller, more intimate campus located in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Bird joined the Sycamores’ basketball program under head coach Bob King, a decision that would prove to be transformative for both Bird and the Indiana State basketball team.
Larry Bird at Indiana State: The First Two YearsEmbed from Getty Images
Larry Bird sat out a year after his transfer to Indiana State but established himself as a total force in the Missouri Valley Conference right away for the Sycamores when he did start playing.
Bird averaged 33 points and 13 rebounds per game his first year playing for Indiana State. He would continue putting up mind blowing stats for all three of his college seasons. He averaged 30 points and 11.5 boards per game in his second year and 29 points and 15 boards per game as a senior.
For his career, he averaged 30.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game, establishing himself as one of the most dominant college basketball players of his time
Larry Legend’s arrival at Indiana State University marked the beginning of a new era for the Sycamores’ basketball program as well.
Prior to Bird’s arrival, the team had experienced limited success, but with Bird on the court, the Sycamores quickly emerged as a competitive force.
Over the course of his three seasons at Indiana State, Bird led the team to an impressive 81-13 overall record, elevating the program to national prominence.
The team had an immediate transformation improving from 13-12 the year he sat out to 25-3 the first year he played. The team finished 23-9 in his second season.
Because of the rules of the NBA Draft at the time, the Boston Celtics took a chance and took Bird 6th overall in the 1978 NBA Draft after his second season at Indiana State.Embed from Getty Images
Bird never declared for the draft. But the rules at the time said players could be drafted if their high school class was graduating college. Bird sat out two years, so he was eligible.
It was a risk for the Celtics. Since Bird had never declared for the draft, he had the right to go back to ISU and finish his career, which he did.
If he did not sign with the team after his senior season, he’d be free to re-enter the draft the next year. In the end, it all worked out quite nicely for Red Auerbach, who seemed to know what he was doing.
Larry Bird Indiana State: His Senior Season
The 1978-1979 season was the best yet for Larry Bird at Indiana State. His first two seasons were great for Bird individually and really good for the team.
In his senior season, it all came together. The team went undefeated in the regular season and their conference tournament. They were the #1 seed in the Mid West Bracket of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The 1979 NCAA Tournament would prove to be the pinnacle of Bird’s college basketball career.
With Bird leading the charge, the Sycamores made an improbable run to the championship game, defeating formidable opponents such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and DePaul along the way.
Bird’s stellar performance throughout the tournament captivated the nation and cemented his status as one of the all-time greats in college basketball history.
The climax of the 1979 NCAA Tournament came when Indiana State faced off against Michigan State, led by another future NBA legend, Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
The showdown between Bird and Johnson attracted a record television audience and began the rivalry between the two that would transform the NBA into the league that it is today.
The final game was not as competitive on the court as some other great NCAA Finals. Michigan State played zone defenses that smothered Indiana State and Bird struggled to shoot: he was 7-21 from the field and finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds.
Johnson finished with 24 points and the Spartans won 75-64. It would be the highest rated single basketball game in the U.S. for decades.
Larry Bird Indiana State: Aftermath
Magic Johnson went on to be the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft.
Bird, as we discussed above, had already been chosen by the Boston Celtics after his junior season. It was a daring risk that looked like it had paid off for the C’s.
But Larry Bird was determined to make them pay. Bird held out for a record contract after his sensational senior season at Indiana State with the knowledge that he had the right to re-enter the draft if the Celtics did not pay up.
After some bitter negotiations, they did just that. Bird signed a record rookie contract and proceeded to earn every dime of it.
Bird transformed the Celtics immediately into a winning team, just as he had the Sycamores of Indiana State. He would go on to win three championships and three NBA MVPs.
He and Magic Johnson would completely change the league from an afterthought in the minds of many sports fans to the second biggest league in American sports.
The year before they entered the league, Conference Finals were being shown on tape delay late at night. By the time the two retired, the league was in a different stratosphere financially and in terms of fan interest.
Check Out My Other Larry Bird Articles!
I am not just a writer. I am a fan. A Celtics fan. You can tell by just how many articles I have written about the 1980s Boston Celtics, and Larry Bird in particular. Check them out below!
I wrote about Larry Bird’s defense here. He was better than you think!
I wrote about his college years at Indiana State here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s nicknames here. The Hick from French Lick was a good one!
I wrote about Larry’s time on the Dream Team here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s draft class here.
I wrote about his rookie season here.
I wrote about his best teammates of all time here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s prime here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s Finals record here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s championships here.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.