Larry Bird’s Greatest Shot Was The One He Didn’t Take

The record shows that four decades ago, a wayward boy quit basketball at IU, then at another school. But that’s only part of the story. Larry Bird’s decision to walk away from the game didn’t just become the stuff of legend—it set him on the path to become one.

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The screen door slammed in Bill Hodges’s face. The mother of the basketball player he had driven to see didn’t want to hear his pitch. “He’s not here,” she said. “Why don’t you coaches just leave my son alone? He doesn’t want to go to school, but everybody just keeps on bothering him.”

After Larry Bird left Indiana University, he spent several months at home in French Lick.
After Larry Bird left Indiana University, he spent several months at home in French Lick.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler

Hodges and Stan Evans—both Indiana State University assistants—retreated from the tiny home. Down the gravel drive sat a makeshift carport with a backboard and basketball goal, and about 50 yards below that lay train tracks. Miss a shot here, and the ball might catch a rock, bound down the bank, and be gone for good. But the shooter the coaches sought in the spring of 1975 didn’t miss.

Hodges refused to give up. He had played basketball in a small Hoosier town, Zionsville, and figured there wasn’t a ballplayer in all of Podunk he couldn’t recruit. I’ve been you, kid. He was certain they’d spot the player they were looking for somewhere in French Lick, Indiana. “Hell, Stan,” said Hodges, “there can’t be more than one in this town. Six-foot-eight? Big blond kid? We’ll find him.”

Hodges and Evans drove up and down the main drag and side streets of French Lick and its twin town, West Baden, but the “big blond kid” proved elusive. They pointed the car toward Terre Haute, resigned to try again another day.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Hodges. “There he is—there.”

A leggy boy carrying a basket of clothes had emerged from a laundromat, followed by an old woman who, Hodges guessed, couldn’t be any taller than 5-foot-2. The coach introduced himself to the odd couple and offered his hand to the player. The boy hesitated—his hands were grimy from working on his truck—and looked at the ground. Hodges began his spiel, explaining that he wanted to talk about playing for the Sycamores. But the 18-year-old, who had quit two colleges in the last five months, wasn’t interested. He had to go back to fixing his truck, he said, and get Granny and her laundry home.

“Why, Larry,” she said, “these nice gentlemen have come all this way to talk to you. Now, you invite them up to the house to have some iced tea.”

He grumbled.

Larry!

The coaches soon found themselves making small talk while the grandmother, Lizzie Kerns, poured the drinks. The player stared at the floor and brushed off Hodges’s recruiting patter. He had a job working for the Town of French Lick. They painted curbs, cleaned the parks and picked up stray limbs, and, on Thursdays, went home-to-home collecting garbage.

“What are you going to do?” Evans asked. “Hang off the back of a garbage truck all of your life?”

The player sniffed—he liked the job and his co-workers—and Hodges wisely steered the subject back to basketball. But the boy continued to deflect, glancing away when he spoke: “Kevin Carnes—you ought to be recruiting him.” Carnes, a friend, was a year older and had been a high-school star, too. Hodges agreed to give him a look; he needed a point guard. On second thought, the player said, Carnes might not be a good fit. He was married, and Carnes’s wife might not be interested in him going off to school.

“Too bad,” the boy continued. “Kevin would’ve been a helluva player if he’d gone to college.”

Hodges had had a door shut in his face earlier. Now he sensed a window was opening.

“Larry,” he said, “that’s what they’re going to say about you.”

With that, Larry Bird finally looked up.

 

Basketballs slap the floor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers, on a fall afternoon days away from the team’s preseason opener. On one side of the court, players—some returning from last year’s roster and others hoping to make the cut—practice free throws. At the far end of the floor, the team’s president, Larry Bird, sits alone at a table making assessments, deciding futures.

Decades removed from his playing days, Bird, the Pacers' president, remains the franchise's most recognizable asset.
Decades removed from his playing days, Bird, the Pacers’ president, remains the franchise’s most recognizable asset.

Photo by Tony Valainis

Since chronic back pain forced Bird’s exit from the court in 1992, the former Boston Celtic could have retired many times over. Yet he can’t quit basketball. After scouting and offering player evaluations for the Celtics, Bird joined the Pacers as coach in 1997, earning Coach of the Year honors in 1998. In 2000, he led the Pacers to their only NBA Finals appearance, and then retired after the season. Three years later, he returned to the franchise as president of basketball operations. He held the job from 2003 to 2012, left again (supposedly for good), and then reclaimed his spot last season.

In some ways, he’s the Pacers’ most attractive asset. In an ESPN poll released earlier this year, Bird was named the 30th–most popular athlete despite not playing in more than two decades. None of the current Pacers (or past ones) was ranked higher than their boss. But Bird, NBA Executive of the Year in 2012, is far from being a figurehead—or, God forbid, a mascot.

Several of the players shooting foul shots today after practice exemplify front-office moves from Bird that have made the team a title contender the last few seasons: Center Roy Hibbert—sometimes dominant, always enigmatic—was acquired in a draft-day trade, as was George Hill, the versatile  guard from Indianapolis. Bird grabbed veteran power forward David West, a dependable presence in the locker room and on the stat sheet, off the free-agent market. Bird’s biggest coup to date, though, came on the 10th pick in the 2010 NBA draft: Paul George, a player on the cusp of superstardom currently grounded by a walking boot.

But none of those players is Bird, as he sometimes reminds them in not-so-subtle ways. “I can’t believe my team went soft,” he told a reporter after losing a game to the Miami Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. “S-O-F-T.” Seemingly fashioned from farm implements and floor burns—the man once bloodied his uniform in an all-star game (Hoosier Dome, 1985)—the only soft thing about Bird’s game was his shooting touch. Still is. At a team shootaround, “He picked a ball up that had rolled over,” George told SLAM magazine. “He rolled up his sleeves and made about 15 in a row, and just walked out like nothing just happened. It was the craziest thing I’ve seen. We were speechless. We didn’t know whether to keep shooting or just to end practice. It was sweet, man.”

A small group of reporters gathers behind a rope near a hallway leading to the locker room in hopes of pulling a player or two aside for a quote. Dutifully, the giants pair off with the journalists, sharing mundane bits of this and that—a rote transaction that will be performed ad nauseam over the coming 82-game season.

Candace Buckner, beat reporter for The Indianapolis Star, waits for her interview in a chair by the Fieldhouse seats. Without warning, the veteran NBA scribe lifts both of her feet off the floor, balls her fists, and pulls her arms tight to her chest, enrapt with lottery-winning glee by the sight of a man who has just sauntered out of the gym.

Larry Legend, she mouths.

Named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1996 and elected into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1998, Bird won three NBA championships, three league MVP crowns, and Rookie of the Year honors during his 13-year career with the Celtics. Along with Magic Johnson, Bird is widely credited for resurrecting the popularity of a professional game that was moribund when he entered the league in 1979.

But there was a time when Larry Legend was just Larry, when one of the greatest to ever play the game was willing to give it up, a crossroads overshadowed by the end of Bird’s story: lasting fame.

Bird turns 58 this month. Time has lined and ruddied and puffed the Hall of Famer’s face. But the shy quirk of a hollow-cheeked teen remains intact. Bird looks down and away or over one of his shoulders when asked questions. And suddenly the unbelievable seems believable: Forty years ago, this man was a boy who passed on a chance at big-time basketball; a brief moment, from the fall of 1974 to the spring of 1975, when the small-town star left Bob Knight’s Indiana University Hoosiers before a single game and returned home to become—

“—a construction worker,” Bird says. “I thought I might do construction work. It’s hard work. It’s tough work. But I like that. I always figured if things didn’t work out, I’d go into construction.”

He pauses and chuckles.

“Thank God that didn’t happen.”

No, with the blessing of hindsight, it’s clear Bird couldn’t quit basketball then any more than he can now. But four decades ago, those months away—mistakes and all—made it possible for him to become his own man. The brazen choice to return home didn’t just become the stuff of legend; it’s what set Bird on the path to become one.

 

Born in 1956, Bird arrived one year before the most dramatic moment in the history of Springs Valley High School basketball. French Lick and West Baden’s schools consolidated in 1957, and in the first season after the merger, the Blackhawks advanced to the final four of the state tournament, where they fell to the eventual champion. Bird wouldn’t appear on the Valley’s basketball radar for another 16 years, and in the interim he spent as much time putting up hay for area farmers and stocking shelves at the local grocery as he did on the court.

Bird and his father, Joe, were best friends and fishing buddies. Joe was a Korean War veteran who worked mostly in construction and had difficulty maintaining regular employment. He drank, some speculated, to numb the trauma he had experienced during his time in the service.

Bird, here a sophomore, was a well-kept secret for most of his basketball career at Springs Valley High School.
Bird, here a sophomore, was a well-kept secret for most of his basketball career at Springs Valley High School.

Photo courtesy Springs Valley High School

Bird’s mother, Georgia, worked long hours as a cook at a restaurant called Flick’s and filled the family’s financial gaps by making trips to the bank for loans—usually $50 at a time for grocery money. “She’d come in one week for the money and be back the very next to pay it off,” says Wayne Ferguson, who worked for the bank. “I would’ve given her the money out of my own pocket if I could’ve. I’d known her since I was a boy, and she was a wonderful person—solid as a rock.”

Bird was expected to contribute, too. The fourth of six children, he helped in the cafeteria as a fourth-grader, and by the seventh grade was working 40 hours a week after school at Agan’s Market, a little store connected to the restaurant where his mother cooked. After the boy finished sweeping and mopping or cleaning the butcher counter, Bird’s employer paid him a few dollars and then let him fill a brown paper bag with whatever he could carry home. To fit as much as possible in the sack, Bird would squeeze the air out of potato-chip bags and smash the snacks.

The community was strapped but proud, too. The Valley’s grand hotels—the French Lick Springs and the West Baden Springs—had seen better days. The resort in West Baden had ceased operations in the 1930s, and after changing hands a number of times, the structure once billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” was by the 1970s a satellite campus of a Michigan-based private college, the Northwood Institute. The French Lick Springs, well past its Prohibition-era heyday, languished as a Sheraton property. Manufacturing propped up the local economy, where blue-collar shifts at places like the Kimball Piano factory, an occasional employer of Joe Bird, offered steady pay but not much else.

In an area where little changed, Bird first began to draw attention as a high-school junior who seemed the manifestation of the extraordinary. “He was the most fabulous passer I’ve ever seen,” says Ferguson, the banker, who was among the throng of Springs Valley fans who didn’t miss a game—home or away. “No one could do what he did with the ball.” By his senior season, news of Bird’s talent had trickled to the outside world, and college coaches began scouting his games. More than 200 of them contacted Bird.

It didn’t hurt that he had grown rapidly. Bird began playing junior-varsity ball as a sophomore—his father offered him $20 to make the team but didn’t attend the games because of the crowds. At the time, Bird stood a rather pedestrian 6-1. He sprouted to 6-3 as a junior, and as a senior, soared to 6-7, his body and skill level finally in harmony. In his last season, Bird scored 55 in one game and grabbed 38 rebounds in another. On the year, he averaged 30.6 points per game and 20 rebounds per contest, leading Springs Valley to a 21-4 record.

But Bird, whom fans from outside the Valley labeled a kid from nowhere playing nobodies, failed to capture the state’s imagination. He wasn’t even considered one of the top players in Indiana—the 1974 Mr. Basketball title was shared by two other boys; Bird, who had signed to play with the Hoosiers over Purdue and Indiana State, was only a third-team all-state selection. That summer, stung by a lack of playing time on the Indiana Boys All-Star team in its annual series with Kentucky, Bird twice refused to enter a game at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse to play mop-up minutes.

The desire to play on his own terms was just beginning.

 

Twenty-four days into his time at IU, before the team had even begun to practice, Bird left the Bloomington campus. Without telling anyone (not even his parents, who had by then divorced), he hitchhiked home, 50 miles south to French Lick.

His mom later told Sports Illustrated that her son never really wanted to attend IU but did so out of obligation to his hometown. “Larry was pressured into going to Indiana by people in town who wanted him to play in the Big Ten,” she said. “I was dying to say to Bobby Knight, ‘Why don’t you leave him alone, he doesn’t want you.’ ”

The same boy who had smashed bags of potato chips to bring more groceries home to his family, the one who had worked 100 hours to earn himself a bicycle, made a practical choice, but one not even those closest to him fully understood.

Like the rest of the Valley’s residents, Larry Bledsoe had heard Bird parted ways with IU, but he didn’t give it a second thought. The first-year basketball coach at the Northwood Institute, based in the old West Baden resort, was more concerned with the players in his own program as the season approached. But when Amon Kerns, a longtime friend, brought Bird, his nephew, onto campus to offer him up to the Blue Devils, Bledsoe listened. School was already well underway, and there wasn’t money available for a scholarship, Bledsoe told the pair, but he wasn’t about to turn away a player of Bird’s caliber. Still, in the back of Bledsoe’s mind, the conversation didn’t sit quite right: Bird appeared to be “at loose ends” and let his uncle do the talking.

Bird spent about six weeks practicing with the Blue Devils. Bledsoe knew Bird could help his team—the player exhibited plenty of skill and even masked his one weakness, jumping, with an innate sense of timing and space. He appeared in preseason away games with Indiana Central (now the University of Indianapolis) and Bellarmine University in Louisville, and his reemergence on the basketball scene even drew inquiries from other schools. And then, “He just stopped showing up,” says Bledsoe. After Bird had been missing for days, and it seemed clear he wouldn’t be rejoining the team, the coach received a peculiar phone call from Georgia Bird.

“Have you seen Larry?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t,” said Bledsoe, “but if you do, please tell him I’d like to talk.”

Bledsoe says they never spoke.

“The whole thing was rather strange,” he says. “Here I am thinking, What a lot of talent going to waste.”

 

Bird’s disappearance from Northwood was a mystery to Bledsoe—there was little, it seemed, the kid couldn’t accomplish with a basketball in his hands. Once, University of Louisville coach Denny Crum visited French Lick in hopes of prying the player from his IU commitment. Bird wasn’t interested, but Crum pressed, suggesting they settle the matter with a game of H-O-R-S-E, a ruse the Cardinals coach had employed successfully in the past with other recruits. If Crum won, Bird would come for a visit. If Bird won, Crum would leave him alone. Crum clanked his first shot. Bird didn’t miss.

But as Bird sits in the stands at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and reflects on his recruitment and leaving IU, he says he wasn’t always the one with control of the ball.

“My parents couldn’t afford to give me any money,” says Bird, “so I wanted to sit out a year and work, and then go to college. But it didn’t happen that way.” The summer before, Bird had laid lines for a gas company to earn cash for living expenses not covered by his scholarship. “It wasn’t enough. I knew that—but once I got there, it took way more than I ever imagined it would. My decision to leave wasn’t that I wanted to leave, it was that I felt like I had to leave.” The same boy who had smashed bags of potato chips to bring more groceries home to his family, the one who had worked 100 hours to earn himself a bicycle, made a practical choice, but one not even those closest to him fully understood.

“Let me tell you something, Coach. That’s the best damn player I ever played against.”

Bird says it was his mother he thought of as he hitchhiked home from Bloomington that fall. He knew she would be bitterly disappointed, and he was right: She didn’t speak to him for two months. “My mom was upset the most—she was the only one who really mattered. In my family, we’d never had anyone graduate from college, and she thought I was going to be the first one. It was a big letdown for her.” Bird told her he had a plan, even though he hadn’t yet considered all of the details. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m going to go back to school—the right school at the right time. Things will work out.’ ”

Attending Northwood, he says, wasn’t his idea and was doomed to fail from the start. Becoming a Blue Devil wouldn’t have solved his financial woes, and playing for the junior college meant he would have burned a year of eligibility when the time came to transfer to a Division I school. “It’s like, once I left IU, I had all of these people telling me what I should do. ‘You should do this.’ ‘You should do that.’ Finally, I was 18 years old, and I decided, hey, I’m going to make my own decisions. And if they’re the wrong decisions, I’ll live with that.”

Bird finally resolved to do what he had intended all along: work. He traded his basketball for a garbage truck, uncertain when or how he would return.

“Did I ever know I would be able to play in college?” Bird asks. “At that time, I didn’t know. I definitely didn’t ever dream of playing in the NBA. That never entered my mind.”

What kind of kid was Larry Bird then?

“Immature.” He looks toward the court and flicks his forefinger against his thumb. “But I had a lot of things happening.”

 

On February 3, 1975, Joe Bird called his ex-wife. He had fallen behind on his child-support payments, but had a solution. He told the family they’d be better off without him. Then he put down the phone, picked up a shotgun, and ended his life.

Almost four decades later, Dan Moore, a former Amateur Athletic Union basketball coach, offers a photo. “I want you to look at that picture,” he says. “Look at that boy’s face. Just look at it. He’s standing in the back row.”

The picture was taken in 1975, after Moore’s AAU basketball team, Hancock Construction Company, won a state championship. Back row. Third from the left. No. 20. The angular boy’s tangle of blond curls appears damp and limp, his eyes small and piercing, mouth unreadable. It was 20 days after Joe Bird’s death. “You can tell,” says Moore. “We just won a state championship, and he’s not smiling or nothing.”

Larry Bird returned to basketball that weekend of the AAU tournament. Though the world swirled around him—college, money, his father’s passing—the game remained a fixed point.

“I sort of always felt my dad gave up on not only himself, but us kids,” says Bird. “I still had two younger brothers at home and a mom. That’s the way I looked at it then, and the way I look at it now. I handled it pretty good, I think.”

Bird (top row, No. 20) played for an Amateur Athletic Union team, Hancock Construction, shortly after the death of his father.
Bird (top row, No. 20) played for an Amateur Athletic Union team, Hancock Construction, shortly after the death of his father.

Photo courtesy Dan Moore

Bird, months after leaving IU and Northwood, had been convinced to join the eight-man team by Chuck Akers, an older friend who also played among the collection of ex-college stars and high-school standouts from the area, hand-picked by two men from nearby Mitchell, Indiana, Monk Clemons and Moore. “Larry was in a turmoil at the time,” says Moore. “Fortunately, he was talked into playing. It was one of those times when he just couldn’t make up his mind [about college]. He was a small-town kid, and he was being thrust into things that, that … he had a lot going on. He lost his father about that same time. It was a critical time.”

Prior to the weekend of games, held at an old gym in Mitchell, Akers brought Bird around to meet Clemons and Moore. “He was really quiet,” says Moore. “A nice boy and everything, but just one that was shy, a little backward. He did all of his talking with the ball.”

The subsequent write-up in the Mitchell Tribune shows that Larry “Baird” helped lead the Hancock team to three wins over the course of two days on the way to the championship with games of 16, 30, and 31 points. The Springs Valley Herald, Bird’s hometown paper, was more expressive:

“Larry Bird, 6’7″ forward for the Hancock team, helped his team tremendously by playing some of the best basketball anyone in Indiana would ever want to witness, which everyone was sure he was capable of doing in the first place. Anyone who witnessed the ‘Super’ ball playing of Larry Bird in the tournament, should realize now, that he is one of the smoothest and most capable ball players in Indiana today. Although he played some ‘super’ ball as an individual, he also proved he can play as a ‘Team member.’ He and his teammates faced tough competition.”

Bird says he remembers little about the tournament, or anything else from the time of his father’s death.

“It was a shock,” he says. “I was shocked. But just like anything else, life goes on.”

 

The second time Bill Hodges went looking for Larry Bird in April 1975, just days after his first trip to French Lick, the Indiana State assistant came prepared.

In between visits, the coach had gone in search of ISU students who had graduated from Springs Valley. He found several of Bird’s classmates, and enlisted them in recruiting the reluctant star.

By then, Bird had made up his own mind.

“I had friends there, and I liked the school,” he says. “It was small—about 12,000 kids, and a lot of them commuted, so there weren’t a ton of them on campus.” Bird had made a recruiting visit in high school, and might very well have picked the Sycamores after his senior year had the program not insisted on Bird attending junior college first. “It really fit me. It didn’t have anything to do with the players or the coaches on the team, because I really didn’t know any of them. It was mostly the school.”

When Hodges arrived at the Bird home, he was struck by the change in Georgia Bird’s demeanor.

“Hi, Coach,” she said. “Come on in. Larry said you’d be coming back. Let me fix you something to drink.”

The basketball goal that hung on the garage of Bird’s boyhood home has vanished. Only an image of the backboard preserved on the wood remains, Hoosier basketball’s Shroud of Turin.

Alone with Bird, Hodges handed him paperwork. He had taken the liberty of drawing up Bird’s release papers from IU and enrollment forms for Indiana State.

“How’d you know I was going to sign?” Bird asked.

“Because you’re smart, and smart kids make smart choices.”

But as a teen, Bird still proved capable of making ill-advised ones. Later, that fall, Bird married Springs Valley classmate Janet Condra. Within the year, the couple divorced, and though they never remarried, Condra became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Corrie. And sometimes, even the on-court transition to Terre Haute proved tumultuous.

Bird, who had to sit out of games for a season because of his transfer from IU, came to see Hodges one afternoon after practice, complaining that head coach Bob King had begun sidelining him during scrimmages against the starters.

Hodges took Bird into King’s office.

“Larry’s quitting, Coach—going back to French Lick,” said Hodges, indulging Bird. “He said you won’t let him play.”

King explained to Bird that the reason he limited his minutes in practice was to save his starters from humiliation—the other players needed to win sometimes.

“To hell with them,” Bird answered. “If they can’t win, then they oughta lose.”

“Okay,” said King. “I won’t take you out anymore. You stay.”

The coaches weren’t about to let Bird go anywhere. Earlier that season, Mel Daniels, the Indiana Pacers and ABA great, had visited Terre Haute at the request of King, who had coached Daniels at the University of New Mexico. Daniels brought along Pacers teammate and future Naismith Hall of Famer Roger Brown for an afternoon of pick-up ball with some of the Sycamores, including Bird. After the game, Daniels, himself a future Hall of Famer, offered King and Hodges a scouting report on Bird.

“Let me tell you something, Coach,” said Daniels. “That’s the best damn player I’ve ever played against.”

Brown, who rarely, if ever,  gave compliments or praise, agreed.

“Ah, come on, Mel,” said Hodges. He laughed, noting that Daniels had played among the likes of Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, and George McGinnis.

“I’m telling you,” said Daniels, “the best damn player I’ve ever played against.”

 

Good shooters hone their skill through repetition and form. Great ones possess two other traits: a short memory and the grit to miss. Bird developed the former set on a gravel drive and in gyms across Backwoods, Indiana. No less hard-won, he gained the latter when he hitchhiked home from IU in search of his own path.

“A lot of things happened back then,” he says. “My father passed away. I was married and divorced in a six-to-eight-month period. I had a baby. There was just so much going on, but, really, the outlet was basketball. That’s what I stuck to. It was my out.”

Bird’s “out” led to nationwide fame when he appeared on the now-iconic cover of the November 28, 1977, issue of Sports Illustrated. The headline: “College Basketball’s Secret Weapon.” Bird stands with his hands on his hips, flanked by a pair of Indiana State cheerleaders. Each girl holds a single finger to her lips: Shhhhh.

The basketball goal from Bird's childhood home in French Lick is just a memory.
The basketball goal from Bird’s childhood home in French Lick is just a memory.

Photo by Michael Rubino

But Bird was anything but hush-hush at Indiana State. He averaged more than 30 points and 13 rebounds per game, and he was named a first-team All-American as both a junior and a senior. In his final season, he led the unbeaten Sycamores to the NCAA championship final, where they fell to Michigan State—a game that drew the highest television ratings in college-basketball history. He even inspired a song, “Indiana’s Got a New State Bird.”

In the pros, Bird sang his own praises, calling his own shot in a defender’s face or demoralizing rookies and veterans alike with trash talk. And he made good on the boasts, amassing a litany of stories that brim with self-assurance and teeter on arrogance—swagger fed by the year he began to believe enough in himself to reject a future others had charted for him. His career was an extension of the original dare: Think you can stop me? Good luck. There was the time when Bird asked his competition in the league’s first three-point shooting contest, “Who’s playing for second?” Or the one when, after a timeout at the end of a tight game, he gave Seattle’s Xavier McDaniel the Celtics’ game plan: “I’m going to get the [ball] here, and I am going to shoot it in your face.” He did. Before a Christmas Day game against the Pacers, Bird sent word to Indiana’s Chuck Person that he had a present for him. Person, known as the “Rifleman,” had boasted he was going to go “Bird-hunting.” During the game, Bird released a three-pointer in front of the bench where Person was seated. Bird turned to Person—“Merry fucking Christmas,” he said—as the ball dropped through the net.

Larry Bird has never spoken with a silver tongue, but the guy owns brass balls. And when he retired, they bronzed his likeness or carved it out of stone, and put his image on display in places from Boston to French Lick. All stand on the foundation of Bird’s greatest shot—the one he didn’t take.

Back in Southern Indiana, not much remains of Larry’s year off. The basketball goal that hung on the garage of Bird’s boyhood home has vanished. Only an image of the backboard preserved on the wood remains, Hoosier basketball’s Shroud of Turin. But the former Bird home is no different than the others clustered there. Bikes, parts of cars, and sometimes appliances litter yards and drives and porches. It’s a place you leave—not return to.

Bird, who once spent his offseasons on a 20-acre spread just outside of West Baden, doesn’t go home often. “Not as much, no,” he says. “I love my childhood there. Some beautiful country down in Southern Indiana. But I don’t get down there.” After his mother died in 1996, Bird says, he sold his property and “sort of moved out.” Nor is he one for revisiting the past. “For me, it’s always been about looking forward. When I left Indiana State, I put that aside and concentrated on Boston. When I left there … everything just keeps moving for me.”

But what if he’d stayed in French Lick?

“A few years ago, my brother Mark asked me kind of a similar question,” says Bird. “He said, ‘Did you ever think you’d be where you’re at today?’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’ve been with you. Everybody knows you. People all over the world. Did you ever think about that?’ I told him that I didn’t think about that sort of stuff. I don’t ever really look back, and I never wonder.”

 

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