Skip to main content

When you think of Larry Bird and his life story, most basketball fans will probably hit the same few beats. The famous forward cut his teeth at Indiana State, lifting the Sycamores into the national spotlight. He then signed on with the Boston Celtics, winning both championships and individual honors. Then, in retirement, Larry Legend joined the Indiana Pacers, proving that he could shine as a coach and an executive.

Bird’s brief time at 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 returning home.

And while that spell in Bloomington might seem insignificant — the forward never suited up for an official game — he still left campus with an invaluable lesson.

History class is in session.

Larry Bird learned how to shoot a step-back jumper at Indiana

Larry Bird picked up his step-back jumper during his time at Indiana. | Bettmann / Contributor

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, though, adjusting to life at Indiana proved to be quite the 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 were nothing like the folks back home in French Lick and West Baden. They had money and polish. Bird had neither. He still hadn’t been in an airplane.”

Basketball, which could have been a sanctuary in a tough time, wasn’t that much more welcoming.

“[Head coach Bob] Knight didn’t have time for freshmen, and Bird didn’t get much love from the star players on campus,” Shaughnessy explained, noting that Kent Benson came to regret that choice. “Indiana’s freshman recruits were frozen out from Assembly Hall workouts, so Bird occasionally played two-on-two outdoors with varsity stars Scott May and Bobby Wilkerson.”

While that sounds like a less-than-ideal laboratory, Larry Legend wasn’t deterred. In fact, he came away from those sessions with a valuable lesson under his belt.

It was there that Bird borrowed and refined May’s step-back jumper. A weapon designed to create space for a player without great leaping ability, May’s step-back was the most-critical lesson Bird learned from his brief time in Bloomington.

Dan Shaughnessy

And that time on campus was brief. Bird spent less than a month in Bloomington before heading home. He never played a game for the Hoosiers.

That wasn’t the only lesson that Bird learned in less-than-ideal circumstances

While the idea of Larry Bird learning a key part of his game on the blacktop may seem like a quaint artifact of a bygone era, his experience in Bloomington wasn’t a one-off. In fact, the famous forward got a crash course in trash-talking in similar circumstances.

When he was growing up, Bird loved basketball and would play whenever he could. That included heading over to the hotel near his home and hitting the court with the workers. Playing against grown men could have been a challenging, if not crushing, experience, but the future NBA star enjoyed it.

“In between games they’d smoke their Kool cigarettes and drink their beer, but great guys,” he remembered. “They treated me very well. When I showed up, if somebody needed a break, they’d throw me right in there, and I’d be in there the rest of the day. But they were pretty good players. They really weren’t great by any means. They always seemed to let me get in there and play with them, and I always enjoyed that because I always looked at that group of guys. They had a great kinship, they got along very well. … Score meant very little, but a lot of talking going on, a lot of fun.”

And when you consider how much trash talk 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 walked to school uphill both ways in the snow, those two situations tell you everything you need to know about Bird and what made him great.

Most children — he was apparently around 10 during those games — wouldn’t be able to hold their own against grown men, but Bird did more than just hang tough. He embraced the opportunity and took some important lessons with him. Even when he made it to the pros, Larry Legend didn’t stop having fun. (Facing the forward and dealing with his trash talk might not have been fun for everyone, but the Celtics surely enjoyed it).

Similarly, heading to Indiana and being relegated to two-on-two games on outdoor courts could have been a crushing experience, but Bird took a valuable lesson away from campus. He was never the most athletic man around, but he could shoot the lights out; emulating a step-back jumper proved to be a perfect match for his skill set.

If you’ve spent any time around sports, you’ve probably heard countless cliches about how adversity reveals someone’s true character. And while that’s not always true, it certainly seems to work for Larry Bird. When faced with a challenging college experience — as you’ll recall, No. 33 even set basketball aside to become a garbage man after leaving Bloomington — he wasn’t broken. If nothing else, it made him better.

Who knows, without that step-back jumper NBA history, could look quite a bit different.


Larry Bird Once Publicly Questioned If 2 NBA Franchises Even Deserved to Exist