When the National Basketball Association held its awards banquet in Salt Lake City last June, most people there wondered if Larry Bird would show up to collect the trophy as the league's most valuable player.
Ralph Sampson, the rookie of the year, was there. So was Adrian Dantley, the comeback player of the year. But for a time, it appeared that Boston's Kevin McHale, who was being honored as the best sixth man in the league, would have to accept the MVP award for his Celtics teammate.
Just before the ceremonies started, though, word spread that Bird had indeed landed. Some knew all along that he would be there, given the nature of the honor. He had been runner-up the three previous seasons, and he wanted this one.
But even those who predicted his presence weren't prepared to deal with what they saw. Amidst the finery and expensive designer suits, Bird arose to accept his award in a short-sleeved sport shirt and blue jeans.
More than a few people were disgusted.
Frankly, Larry Joe Bird didn't care.
"All I know is that it was summer, which is vacation time for me, and I wear what I want to wear when I'm on vacation," he said recently. When the league called him at his home in French Lick, Ind., to ask him to attend the ceremony, he was mowing the lawn.
"It would have been a lot easier for them to just put the award in a box and send it out to Boston, and we could have had a nice party there," he said. "I knew it was a banquet and all that, but I didn't care. I hate doing things like going to restaurants where you have to wear coats and ties. What for? All they want is your money, feed you and get you out.
"Just because the league wanted me to do something didn't mean I had to. The funny thing about people being mad because I didn't wear a suit is that I could buy two to their one, so what's the difference?"
If the truth be told, he could come up with a higher suit-per-person ratio than that -- but he doesn't want to. Even the hallowed Boston Celtics have learned that he is very much his own man.
"I've been around Larry enough to know better," says Jan Volk, the team's general manager. "Up to that point (the time of the banquet), I don't know if I'd ever seen him in a coat and tie. I'd have been surprised if he had worn one."
It has been widely chronicled that Bird transferred from Indiana University in 1974--he was there less than a month--because he couldn't stand Bob Knight and was intimidated by a school with 33,000 students. Yet, in a recent Time magazine cover story, it was brought out that perhaps the true reason wasn't Knight ("He would have loved my game," Bird said) or the size of the school, but rather the depth of the closet of his first roommate -- fellow player Jim Wisman.
It is perhaps no small coincidence then that his closest friend on the Celtics, guard Quinn Buckner, is a lot like Bird, both in the casual attitude toward clothing and the connection to Indiana basketball. Buckner, who played for Knight and the Hoosiers in 1972-1976 and captained the U.S. Olympic team after his senior season, was traded to the Celtics before the 1982-83 season.
Upon arriving in Boston, Buckner says, "I sought Larry out. We would have played together at Indiana. I wasn't around when he left. Had I been there, maybe things would have been different. I think I just wanted to talk about what was going on there at the time, but we became friends. I'm not sure why he likes me; maybe it's because we have the same approach to the game -- not that we have the same tools. Maybe it's just that Midwestern lack of flair."
When people in French Lick talk about the fabric of life in their community, it's highly unlikely they're referring to Italian knits or wool blends. Although the town is nestled in Orange County, the difference between it and its southern California counterpart is far greater than 2,000 miles. Named after a fort near where animals used to lick the minerals from natural springs from their fur, French Lick's claims to fame are the Kimbro Piano & Organ Co. and a vacation resort most of the populace of 1,800 probably could do without.
Another claim to fame, of course, is basketball. The gym at Spring Valley, the local high school with its permanent--not rollaway--bleacher seats, is a monument to the game, yet it's only one of 10 indoor courts in the town. There are another 21 full courts outdoors, including the one--complete with glass backboards--next to Bird's home. Is there any wonder that Indiana University and now Boston represent extreme forms of culture shock? "I never had the opportunity to travel when I was younger," Bird says. "You always think you're old enough to handle things; when you're 15 you want to party all night, when you're 20 you think you can drink as much as you want, and when you're 21 you figure you can do whatever you want, whenever you want.