When you think of Larry Bird and his life story, most basketball fans will probably hit the same beats. The famed forward cut his teeth at Indiana State, thrusting the Sycamores into the national spotlight. He then signed with the Boston Celtics, winning both championships and individual honors. Then, in retirement, Larry Legend joined the Indiana Pacers, proving he could shine as a coach and executive.
Bird’s brief stay in Indiana, however, is little more than a footnote. He was supposed to play for the Hoosiers but barely spent any time on campus before throwing in the towel and heading home.
And while that stint at Bloomington might seem insignificant — the striker never suited up for an official game — he still left campus with an invaluable lesson.
The history lesson is in progress.
Larry Bird learned to shoot a jumper back in Indiana
Based on his NBA exploits, it’s easy to think of Larry Bird as an unstoppable force who could confidently handle any situation. As a teenager, however, adjusting to life in Indiana proved to be quite a challenge.
“Bird was intimidated by what he experienced on campus,” Dan Shaughnessy wrote in his 2021 book, Wish It Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics. “The preppie people at IU had nothing to do with the people back home in French Lick and West Baden. They had silver and polish. Bird had neither. He still hadn’t boarded a plane.
Basketball, which could have been a sanctuary in a difficult period, was not much more welcoming.
“[Head coach Bob] Knight didn’t have time for freshmen and Bird didn’t get much love from star players on campus,” Shaughnessy explained, noting that Kent Benson had come to regret the choice. “Indiana’s freshman rookies were barred from Assembly Hall workouts, so Bird sometimes played two-on-two outside with college stars Scott May and Bobby Wilkerson.”
Although it sounds like a less than ideal lab, Larry Legend was undeterred. In fact, he came out of those sessions with a valuable lesson under his belt.
This is where Bird borrowed and refined May’s cuffed sweater. A weapon designed to create space for a player without great jumping ability, May’s recoil was the most critical lesson Bird learned from his brief time in Bloomington.
And that time on campus was brief. Bird spent less than a month in Bloomington before returning home. He never played a game for the Hoosiers.
That wasn’t the only lesson Bird learned under less than ideal circumstances.
While the idea of Larry Bird learning a key part of his game on the tarmac may seem like a quaint artifact from a bygone era, his Bloomington experience was not unique. In fact, the famous attacker took a crash course in the language of garbage under similar circumstances.
When he was growing up, Bird loved basketball and played whenever he could. This included going to the hotel near his home and going to court with the workers. Playing against grown men could have been a difficult, even overwhelming experience, but the future NBA star enjoyed it.
“Between games they smoked their Kool cigarettes and drank their beer, but great guys,” he recalled. “They treated me very well. When I arrived, if someone needed a break, they threw me in there, and I was there for the rest of the day. But they were very good players. They really weren’t great. They always seemed to let me come in and play with them, and I always enjoyed that because I always watched that group of guys. They had great kinship, they got along really well …Score meant very little, but lots of talk, lots of fun.
And when you consider how much trash Larry Legend brought to the NBA, he certainly never forgot those experiences.
At the risk of seeming to glorify the good old days when people went to school uphill back and forth in the snow, these two situations tell you everything you need to know about Bird and what made him great.
Most kids — he was apparently around 10 during those games — couldn’t hold his own against grown men, but Bird did more than just hold his own. He took the opportunity and took some important lessons with him. Even when he got to the pros, Larry Legend didn’t stop having fun. (Dealing with the striker and dealing with his trash talk may not have been fun for everyone, but the Celtics surely enjoyed it).
Likewise, traveling to Indiana and being relegated to two-on-two games on outdoor courts might have been an overwhelming experience, but Bird learned a valuable lesson away from campus. He was never the most athletic man around, but he could turn off the lights; mimicking a back jumper turned out to be a perfect match for his skills.
If you’ve spent any time around sports, you’ve probably heard countless clichés about how adversity reveals someone’s true character. And while that’s not always true, it certainly seems to be working for Larry Bird. Faced with a tough college experience – as you’ll recall, the No. 33 even put basketball aside to become a garbage collector after leaving Bloomington – he wasn’t broken. If nothing else, it made it better.
Who knows, without that jump back in NBA history, it might look a little different.
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