Taking Sycamores to final looks easy in retrospect

March 2, 2009
A friend asked me to share singular moments or entire movements that have changed the face of intercollegiate athletics over the years. Title IX would be a prime example.

On my list was a game that took place 30 years ago this month.

It was Michigan State University versus Indiana State University in the championship game of the NCAA's men's basketball tournament. More to the point, it was the Spartans' Earvin "Magic" Johnson versus our Hick from French Lick, Larry Bird.

They captivated us so that it still remains the highest-rated televised NCAA final of all time. And it served as a springboard for the tournament to become a truly national event.

"Ah, they had a kid from Michigan State that was smilin' and happy and kickin' everyone's rear end," Bird said the other day. "And they had a guy from Indiana State they didn't know much about because I didn't talk to the press much and there was this mystique."

The thought occurs that it might have been easier to lead those improbable underdog Sycamores to the title game than to right the ship he's steering as president of basketball for the Indiana Pacers.

All-Star and leading scorer Danny Granger is out for at least a couple of weeks with a foot injury. Mike Dunleavy is likely out for the season with a bum knee — "that broke my heart ... it's a major deal for us," Bird said. The trading deadline came and went with the Pacers still on the hook for Jamal Tinsley and his $7 million contract. Tough loss upon tough loss have left fading hope — Bird's hope, anyway — for a playoff berth, meaning the Pacers could be on the outside looking in for a third straight season.

In the meantime, the economy is wreaking havoc with the Pacers' own recovery plan, and the kind of salary-cap freedom that would allow significant activity in the free-agent market is still more than a year away.

What's a Larry Bird to do?

Well, not feel sorry for himself, for starters. And not capitulate to those who think the Pacers ought to tank the rest of the season in order to increase their chances in the draft lottery.

"They got the wrong guy if they think I'm going to sit here and try to lose," Bird said. "That ain't going to happen. I want to win and I die for these guys [when they lose]."

Without being Pollyanna-ish, Bird does see progress.

"My main concern was changing the culture and we've done that," he said. "I don't worry about them playing hard, I don't worry about them practicing hard, and I don't worry about this group going out and getting in trouble. So now it's just basketball and directing everything toward making this team better."

Bird said he's proud of the play of Troy Murphy, who's made a double-double (points and rebounds) almost a nightly occurrence.

"I look at a Danny Granger, what he's turned himself into and where he wants to go," Bird continued. "I think there are a lot of young players who are really serious about the game. They care about the cities they live in, they care about their team. That's Danny."

He believes that rookies Roy Hibbert and Brandon Rush will become "core players" for the Pacers. "Hibbert's going to make himself into a good player," Bird said. "Brandon's so athletic, but he's just not there yet. When the light comes on, he's going to be fine."

Yes, he sees his team's shortcomings, especially on the defensive end.

"If you're not going to defend," he said, "you're not going to win."

Of course, Bird worries about the external issues facing both the Pacers and the NBA.

"It's not just about each team now; it's about the whole league," he said. "The agents, the players, the owners ... everybody has to take a hard look at this and say, 'Where are we going to take our league over the next 20 years?'"

Bird praised co-owner Herb Simon for his "incredible" commitment to the Pacers despite mounting financial losses.

"He's obviously taking a heavy hit," Bird said. "It ain't pretty. But all I've heard since I've been here is about his commitment. Now we just need to get through these difficult times with the economy and get the type of team in here that the fans want to watch."

Bird has his doubters. Thirty years ago at Indiana State, he proved them wrong by shooting a thousand jump shots a day in a quest to "play at a level I never thought I could."

If only this were so easy.
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