LARRY BIRD ISN'T only one of the greatest players in college basketball history. It's also a pretty safe bet that he's the best ever to lace 'em up for Northwood Institute and Hancock Construction too. Of course, after he passed briefly through those two programs (Northwood was a junior college in West Baden Springs, Ind., and Hancock an AAU program near French Lick) upon dropping out of Indiana in 1974, the chances that he would make hoops history seemed minuscule. But he did, because he was always that good.
He was so good that he led Indiana State, unranked at the start of the 1978--79 season, to the No. 1 spot and the NCAA tournament championship game; so good that he averaged 30.3 points and 13.3 rebounds during his three years as a Sycamore; so good that former Indiana coach Bob Knight, who doesn't exactly make a habit of issuing mea culpas, has called his clashes with Bird, which prompted the budding star to hitchhike home from Bloomington as a freshman and never return, "one of my great mistakes."
His first year at Indiana State, Bird averaged 32.8 points, shooting a remarkable 54.4% even though many of his shots were from long range. (That scoring average would have been even higher, of course, had the three-point shot existed then.) Bird, who would finish his three-year college career as the 15th-leading scorer in points per game in NCAA history, was nearly as good the following season, 1977--78, producing 30.0 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. But the Sycamores didn't reach the tournament either year, which meant that Bird's performances went largely unnoticed outside the greater Terre Haute area.
That changed in 1978--79, when Bird led the Sycamores to a 29--0 regular season. Though there were still doubters, their ranks dwindled as Bird outclassed better-known opponents despite playing with a fractured thumb that he suffered in the Missouri Valley Conference final eight days before the start of the tournament. He had 31 points and 10 rebounds in a third-round NCAA victory over Sidney Moncrief's Arkansas team, then dropped 35 (on 16-of-19 shooting) and grabbed 16 boards in an Elite Eight win over Mark Aguirre and DePaul. But as dazzling a player as he was to watch, with his deadly outside shooting and creative passing, the laconic Bird was equally—and no doubt intentionally—bland off the court, where he gave interviews as if he was being charged by the word. He was the complete opposite of the smiling, talkative star he would meet in the NCAA finals: Michigan State's Magic Johnson.
When they played that title game, in which the Spartans beat Indiana State 75--64, neither Bird nor Magic knew their matchup would be remembered for the ages, or that from that moment on, they would be forever linked. How could they? Bird's college career is proof that many roads lead to the top. Sometimes they even go through Hancock Construction.