Larry Bird’s Coach at Indiana State Discovered The Legend Playing Basketball With a Resort Kitchen Staff and Convinced Him to Join the Sycamores With One Simple Phrase: ‘That’s When I Knew I Had Him’

Larry Bird is an Indiana basketball hero. But instead of playing at IU with Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight and the Hoosiers, Larry Legend ended up playing at tiny Indiana State.

Of course, by this point, The Hick From French Lick is synonymous with the Sycamores. The battles of Bird’s powder blues and Magic Johnson’s emerald greens are as iconic as anything college basketball has ever seen.

But how did one of the greatest players in basketball history end up playing in Terre Haut, Ind.?

Larry Bird began his college career at Indiana alongside Bob Knight

The Legend played for Springs Valley High School in French Lick. By the time he graduated, he was the school’s all-time leading scorer, according to Biography.com.

Knight offered a scholarship to Bird, who enrolled in Bloomington. He left shortly afterward, however, returning home without a real college basketball plan.

At 18, the future Hall of Famer was back in French Lick working as a garbage truck driver who got his basketball fix in behind a local resort playing against its kitchen crew, according to IndyStar.

As Bird (presumably) dominated a host of cooks and waiters, a “down on his luck” college basketball coach named Bill Hodges happened to be watching the game play out behind some bushes.

Hodges had an epiphany: If he could convince Larry Bird to play college basketball for him, it would change his career. (Or, in Hodges’ case, save it).

Bill Hodges got Bird to commit to Indiana State with one phrase

Larry Bird's stats at Indiana State will never be broken as he shakes hands with head coach Bill Hodges.
Indiana State forward Larry Bird gets a handshake of condolence from his coach Bill Hodges after the Sycamores lost to Michigan State 75-64 in the NCAA Championship game.

As The Star tells it, Hodges’ coaching career was in jeopardy. But he happened to be from Zionsville, Ind., a small town similar to French Lick. So he came home and went to then- Sycamores’ head coach Bob King with an idea for a big swing to save his career.

That swing was Bird.

Hodges ran into almost immediate trouble, though. The citizens of French Lick were very protective of their basketball star — it was hard for the coach to get anywhere near Larry to have a conversation.

But eventually, Hodges and Bird started talking, and the 6-foot-9 forward told his future coach about the “best player he had seen in high school,” who never played college ball and was now forgotten.

That’s when the light bulb went off in Hodges’ head, according to The Star and filmmaker Patrick Wood, who’s in the process of making a movie about the story.

Bill looked Larry in the eyes,” Wood said, adding that he’s paraphrasing Hodges’ words. ‘You don’t go to college, Larry? That’s exactly what people are going to say about you.’ Bill said at that moment, as Larry looked at him, he thought, ‘That’s when I knew I had him.'”

Hodges gave Bird some time to think about what he’d said and then came back two days later.

Yes, Bird told him. Yes, he would play at Indiana State.

The story of how Bill Hodges brought Larry Bird to Indiana State University

And so began the legend.

Indiana State was an important start to Bird’s basketball journey

The three-time NBA champion played 94 games with the Sycamores. Larry Bird’s college stats were as incredible as his mustache — he averaged more than 30 points and 13 rebounds in his collegiate career.

Under the leadership of Hodges, Bird and Co. went undefeated during the 1978-79 season and advanced to face Magic and his Spartans.

The now-famous matchup was Larry’s only loss that season, but he made up for it by amassing almost 22,00 career points with the Boston Celtics. He made 10 All-NBA teams, won three MVPs, and even beat out Johnson for the 1979-80 Rookie of the Year Award.

But it all began in Terre Haute. And if it weren’t for Hodges playing to Bird’s competitiveness, it wouldn’t have even made it that far.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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