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Even Then, He Knew He Had to Beat Larry

Special to The Times

People don’t remember this, but the first time I ever met Larry Bird, we were playing on the same team.

And neither one of us was starting, if you can believe that.

It was after my freshman year at Michigan State. Larry was a junior at Indiana State. We were invited to play in the World Invitational Tournament for the U.S. against three international teams.

We still sit around and laugh about it. That was the only time either one of us was ever on a team where we were not in the starting lineup.

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That’s a good trivia question.

The starting lineup was Phil Ford, Jack Givens, Rick Robey, James Bailey and Sidney Moncrief. Larry and I and Kyle Macy were among the guys on the bench.

Because Joe B. Hall, the Kentucky coach, was our head coach, we practiced in Lexington. Every practice, Larry and I and the rest of the reserves blew out the starters by over 20 points. Every practice.

A crowd would come in at night to watch and we would have them oohing and ahhing. That was when I found out how great Larry was. We had the place going crazy. We were working together, no-look passes, the whole thing. It was just awesome.

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In the first game of the tournament, it was the same thing. We were only up by eight when they put Larry and me in. We got the lead up to 30. One time, I no-looked him, and he whipped a behind-the-back pass back to me.

At the end of that tournament, we said to each other, “I have a lot of respect for you. It was great playing with you and hope to see you next year.” That was it. We never knew we would meet for the NCAA championship.

We had barely lost in the NCAA tournament the year before to Kentucky, which went on to win the championship, and we had nearly everyone coming back. So I felt we were going to get back there in 1979.

We started the season strong, but midway through, we were in trouble. We were 4-4 in the Big Ten and not playing well at all. The last loss was to Northwestern, which never should have beaten us. They were the weakest team in our conference, yet they won by 18 points.

Our coach [Jud Heathcote] called a team meeting and told us we were not doing this and not doing that. I spoke up and said, “Hey, Coach, you’re calling every play. You’re not letting us run like we did last year.”

We as players recognized that we were not doing what we were supposed to do, but the coach also recognized that he was not letting us play our game.

And from that point on, we got back to playing Michigan State basketball, which was playing great defense and running all the time. We started clicking and, man, we ran off 10 in a row, lost the last game, which didn’t really mean anything, and went into the tournament playing outstanding.

I didn’t know much about Larry’s team, Indiana State. I knew about Larry. They started off undefeated and kept it going. The newspapers, magazines and TV stations started to do big stories on Larry. And as we both got closer and closer to the finals, I thought, “Uh-oh, we’re going to play against this guy.”

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We won our first two games in the tournament, and then beat Notre Dame, which had future pros like Orlando Woolridge, Bill Laimbeer and Kelly Tripucka, to reach the Final Four. I got 29 points and 10 assists as we beat Penn in the semifinals. Larry had 35 points, hit 16 of 19, got 16 rebounds and nine assists as his team beat DePaul in the semis.

The tone was set for this great meeting between our two teams. They were undefeated and we were facing the best player in college basketball.

On Sunday, the day before the game, our coach had Greg Lloyd playing Larry’s role in practice, but it just wasn’t working. Finally, Coach turns to me and says, “You got to do it, because you are the only one on our team who can resemble Larry Bird.”

I must have hit 12 shots in a row. I was playing just like Larry. Finally, the coach calls timeout and, boy, did he cuss my teammates out bad for letting me do that.

That got us ready for the next day because the guys realized how they were going to have to play Larry.

You couldn’t sleep the night before. Sleep? What was that? I was too busy thinking about all those times I watched everybody else winning the NCAA tournament -- Kentucky the year before, Bill Walton when he was unbelievable for UCLA -- and now I was in it. This was my shot.

You had to wait all the next day for the game, so you are in your room, just rocking and getting ready. It was our team against their team, but it was also me against Larry because that’s what they billed it as in the newspapers and on TV. They had him looking like a bird against me wearing a magician’s hat. They blew it up something special. You wanted to play well. You wanted to beat him.

It was a big moment for my father, my mother and my grandfather, who came in from Mississippi. We had everybody there. What a moment! What a time!

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We felt two guys could beat one because I also had Greg Kelser, who was a great college basketball player, on my side.

It was so emotional at the tipoff. Both teams were tense. Larry and I didn’t say anything to each other, didn’t even look at each other because there was already a dislike there. You don’t like guys you know can beat you and we both knew that about the other one.

We were playing for the national championship. If we didn’t already know how competitive we both were, we found out that night.

I knew we had to get out to an early lead on them and we were able to do just that. We established our game, played defense and ran on them. We had 1 1/2 men on Larry at all times in our zone defense.

But still, they made us play hard to beat them. We got up by 16 early in the second half and were about to blow the game open when Kelser got his fourth foul. They came storming all the way back to within six. They had all the momentum.

Then, I kind of took over, we took the lead back up to 11 and that was it, 75-64.

When the game ended, I went over to Larry, who was sitting with a towel over his head, and told him, “Great job. I look forward to seeing you sometime in the pros.”

With tears in his eyes, he just said, “Thanks.” I understood. I would have been feeling the same way if I had lost.

It was tough. You got to give them credit to go that far undefeated, all the way to the finals. That’s saying a lot about him and his team.

As far as I was concerned, I was just so happy because I had come back to school to win the championship. I could have been the No. 1 pick of the Kansas City Kings. They had wanted to select me after my freshman year. So my first thought was that I had made the right choice. I was glad I came back. I got my championship.

I also knew at that moment that I was gone from Michigan State. I had already made up my mind that I would go pro if we won.

But first, we had to win. I’m about winning. I couldn’t have left, knowing I had unfinished business.

It was a great moment. But who would have thought that, 25 years later, those great TV ratings would still hold up? People still talk about that game. When I travel, people come up to me and say they remember where they were when we beat Indiana State and Larry Bird.

The one person I don’t talk to about the game is Larry. He doesn’t like to talk about it. I don’t say nothing to him because he would want to swing and hit me in the mouth. He wants to talk about the three times he won as a Celtic. We are both so competitive. That’s why we are friends.

At the time, I was too young to understand the significance of the game, but now, looking back, I can see why people were so excited. He was white and I was black. His team was undefeated and we were one of the most talked-about teams in the country. We were playing very well and they were playing very well.

And you had two guys who could beat you in so many ways. We could beat you with the points, we could beat you with the rebounds and we could beat you with the assists. And in that game, we lived up to the hype. We gave the crowd and the people at home something to cheer about.

It was two special players at a special time.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How They Compared

MAGIC JOHNSON

1

Number of

NCAA titles

0

Number of times named NCAA

player of the year

0

Number of times named NBA

rookie of the year

3

Number of times named NBA most valuable player

5

Number of times won an NBA

Championship

*

LARRY BIRD

0

Number of

NCAA titles

1

Number of times named NCAA

player of the year

1

Number of times named NBA

rookie of the year

3

Number of times named NBA most valuable player

3

Number of times won an NBA

championship


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