By Howard Greninger
Terre Haute Tribune-Star
Larry Bird hasn’t seen it yet, but thousands of Indiana Pacers fans and Indiana State University supporters on Tuesday night saw his 15-foot bronze statue in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse atrium, 12 days before it will be unveiled outside Hulman Center in Terre Haute.
Bird said he is waiting for the Nov. 9 statue dedication at ISU to see his larger-than-life likeness, when he will rejoin many of his teammates from the 1978-79 NCAA runner-up team.
“Obviously, it is very exciting,” said Bird, speaking before Tuesday night’s game, the Pacers’ season opener. “I am not a self-promoter. Sounds like a lot of students at Indiana State wanted to get this thing done and they did.”
Bird — who went on to star in the NBA with the Boston Celtics and to coach and now supervise the Pacers — vividly recalled his years at ISU, where he played basketball from 1976 to 1979.
“It definitely was a special time,” he said of that era. “I remember just about every game. We had a lot of success there, especially my senior year. I had a lot of fun in Terre Haute and always love to go back there, so it will be special.”
Asked if he will be emotional about seeing the statue, Bird chuckled and responded, “No, because I don’t dream about these things, never have. I have always felt, ‘Why me’’ For me, it is something that has never really happened. I am sort of embarrassed by the fact that they are doing something like this, but still I understand it. We had a great run in ’79. It was really the start of ‘March Madness’ and we played against a great team [Michigan State for the NCAA championship] that night,” Bird said. “I just feel honored to be able to play basketball at an institution where I felt very comfortable and was able not only to do well on the court, but off the court.”
Bird said he had a lot of help in the classroom.
“I had some teachers willing to take their time, like they do with all student-athletes, and help us as much as they can. Then when it came to playing basketball, you just try to improve your game every day, try to win every time you go out there,” he said.
While he has not seen the statue, Bird does know it is taller than a statue of Magic Johnson, the former Michigan State star he faced in the NCAA title game and then in the NBA when Johnson played for the Los Angeles Lakers.
“It should be. Come on,” Bird said. “This is obviously very special because it goes back to my college days. Then I got to Boston and really get my career started as a pro. I had a good group of teammates, [and] everyone knew their role. They knew I was going to shoot it every time, all they had to do was rebound and play defense.”
The statue’s sculptor, Bill Wolfe, said he hopes Bird likes his work when he does view it.
“’I hope that Larry feels that I captured the essence of him as he is pulling up for a [jumpshot]. I hope he feels honored and is pleased with it,” Wolfe said. “I wanted to get the feel of Larry up in the air, the overall flow of the long-range shot, shooting a basketball and getting his form.
“Of course, there is a definite look that Larry had when he shot that, which was a little different than other shooters, so I tried to capture that. I probably have Larry bulked up a little more than he actually was in college at ISU,” Wolfe said. “I wanted to get the flow of his hair and overall flight and movement out of the sculpture. It is 2,000 pounds of bronze, and I tried to get that into a flowing movement. You have achieved something, I think, if you can get that accomplished. I think I did that. I am happy with it.”
Before the Pacers’ game, spectators pulled out cell phones to take photos of Bird’s statue alone or with people posing in front of it.
One such spectator was Andy Hadley of Terre Haute.
“I was there after Larry Bird, but [ISU] had a great influence on my life, so much I came back to Terre Haute after vowing I never would come back to Terre Haute when I graduated,” said Hadley, who grew up in Chicago, graduated from ISU in 1988 and currently works for NNR Global Logistics in Indianapolis.
Michael Thompson and his wife, Peggy, both of Nashville, know all about Bird. Their son Brayton is a 2010 graduate of ISU, and Michael Thompson was an assistant basketball coach at Brownstown Central High School. Thompson later served as superintendent of the Marshall, Ill., school district from 2004 to 2006.
“When I was a young coach, Larry was a senior in high school at Springs Valley, and we played against him. He pretty much beat us to death,” Thompson said while viewing Bird’s statue. “Larry was a senior with long, floppy hair and he was really skinny. What I remember about him as a high school kid, he just knew where the basketball was going to be.
“You couldn’t keep him off the offensive backboard because of his ability to get there. I had scouted him several times, and I was just amazed at his ability to see the basketball court, things you couldn’t teach kids.”
Russell S. Hesler, principal at Greencastle High School, came to the Pacers’ game with his son, Ben.
“I remember watching Bird. When I was in college, ISU had Bird, [gymnast] Kurt Thomas and [wrestler] Bruce Baumgartner. It was the best of athletics,” Hesler said. “Larry is a good friend and good representative of Indiana State University and just a good all-around guy.”
In 1979, the year the Sycamores lost their only game of the season to Michigan State 75-64 in Salt Lake City, Bird was named the National Player of the Year, as the Sycamores finished 33-1.
After ISU, Bird became an all-star NBA player for the Boston Celtics, a U.S. Olympian and the only person to win the NBA Player of the Year, NBA Coach of the Year and NBA Executive of the Year awards.
Funding for the statue to be erected at ISU started in 2007 with The Larry Legend Foundation, a student organization. Its goal was to raise $135,000 for a 13-foot statue — more if the statue were higher. The final cost was $153,000, Wolfe said.
ISU will host a two-day event next month, including a dinner, to raise money for the Larry Legend’s Scholarship Fund and to dedicate the statue. The scholarship dinner is Nov. 8; Jackie MacMullan, a former Boston Globe columnist who now works for ESPN, will be the emcee.
The public can attend the ‘Honoring a Legend Program’ immediately after the dinner. Doors will open for that program at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $33 for the upper section and $133 for the lower section of Hulman Center seating.
Proceeds from the evening will go to Bird’s scholarship fund.