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While no one can be perfect, Larry Bird did pretty well for himself on the basketball scene. He didn’t win an NCAA title, but he did his part and carried Indiana State to the brink of history. In the professional ranks, he won three NBA championships and countless other individual honors. Even in retirement, Larry Legend proved to be a capable coach and executive. There was, however, one showdown he lost. That may have come away from the hardwood, but it did take place in French Lick, Indiana.

There, in the early 2000s, the state was set to issue a gaming license within the town. Bird was part of a big-time bid but ultimately lost out. The man who ended up claiming victory? None other than Donald Trump.

Sound like a Mad Lib that someone happened to shoehorn some wacky nouns into? Let’s head back in time to check it all out.

When it came to bringing a casino to French Lick, Donald Trump outdid Larry Bird

Larry Bird (L) and Donald Trump (R)
Larry Bird and Donald Trump were on opposite sides of a battle for a gaming license. | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images, Joe Raedle/Getty Images

While French Lick is most widely known, at least among sports fans, as the home of Larry Bird, the town used to be on the map for another reason. Thanks to local sulfur springs, spas and resorts sprung up in the region. There was golf, luxury, and illegal gambling. In more modern times, there was an attempt to tap back into the latter part of that list.

As documented by a 2004 Fortune Magazine story that’s preserved through CNN Money, a gaming license was made available to operate a casino in the town. Multiple lobbying groups came forward. One consisted of Larry Bird, French Lick’s most famous son, plus “local businessmen, the former governor of Nevada, and Barbary Coast casino owner Coast Casinos.” His main rival was Donald Trump, who promised to “spend $123.5 million to buy the West Baden hotel, install 1,000 slot machines, a 12-table poker room, and–take this, Bird!–bring in another Southern Indiana native, U.S. Open champ Fuzzy Zoeller, to help redevelop the local golf courses.” There was also a third contender, but that camp lacked the star power of Bird or Trump.

And while you’d think Larry Legend would have an edge — the NBA legend pledged that he’d donate his share of the profits to the town, Trump was even quoted as saying, “In French Lick, Larry has the advantage” — that wasn’t how things panned out. The New Yorker claimed the license and handed Bird a rare defeat.

The story, however, had another twist.

“Less than a month after nabbing the French Lick license, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts announced plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Outgoing Gov. Joe Kernan, as well as gaming commission Executive Director Ernest Yelton, kept close tabs on Trump’s finances,” Joe Webb wrote in the Evansville Courier & Press. “Initially, the commission stuck by Trump. But in March 2005, Trump dropped out of the French Lick project and sold off his stake in Gary.

His casino work in Indiana was over.”

Sticking with French Lick is certainly part of Bird’s character

When you hear that Bird was part of a losing bid for a gaming license in his home town, it’s easy to get cynical and think that he was just a friendly face slapped onto to appeal to the locals. While that could happen with other professional athletes, it doesn’t fit Larry Legend’s way of doing things. The forward may have left town to find fame and fortune, but he never changed.

Although the sorts of stories we’ve come to know about Bird can sound silly in isolation — think him accepting an award in his vacation attire or only endorsing a restaurant on the condition that his teammates could eat there — they do paint an image of a very specific man. Even as the money piled up, he wasn’t going to ignore those around him. This was, after all, the star who damaged his own body and, in turn, his career building a driveway for his mother.

The bid even contained some further demonstrations of Bird’s character. As mentioned above, he planned to donate his share of the casino profits back to the community. The Fortune also noted that the forward declined to comment on the story because speaking to one outlet would mean he had to speak to everyone. “He’s a very fair-minded-type person,” Bird’s camp reportedly said.

At the risk of citing a cliche, it’s less about whether you win or lose and more about how you play the game. And while Larry Bird may have lost the casino bid, he still proved that he was the same person who always called French Lick home.


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