YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Bird's Nest

He Is Still Revered in French Lick, Ind., but an NBA Title Won't Be Same Now Because of Town's Struggling Economy


FRENCH LICK, Ind. — What you need to know about this nook of southern Indiana is that the barns are see-through and the radios run laps.

Also, the kid living in Larry Bird's old house wears two earrings and owns a baby raccoon that wears a blue collar.

The big hotel in town is holding a convention for Dalmatian owners eager to talk through the gray areas of owning such pets, and the most discriminating homeowners have a thing for plastic lawn trolls tastefully arranged around the 50-gallon propane tanks.

Traveling southbound toward Orange County, the poorest in the state, according to those who live here, you learn from a billboard that Lawrence County was THE HOME OF THREE ASTRONAUTS--Grissom-Walker- Bowersox--but that the real action is several barreling dump trucks farther down the road, in Martin County, which claims THE BEST GYPSUM, THE BIGGEST CATFISH.

WE HAVE GREAT MOUNDS OF HYDRATED CALCIUM SULFATE apparently was too long, and wouldn't have left room for the catfish.

Orange County doesn't have a boastful sign along State Road 56, although it intersects with Larry Bird Boulevard in French Lick.

Because he is a more precious state resource than even calcium sulfate, and has a better jump shot than most of the area's bottom-feeding species, Bird is revered here. But you knew that.

And you knew the area and its poverty, by name and by face.


In the dank, concrete basement of Bird's childhood home on Washington Street, electricians Robert Anderson and Leroy Sanders replace frayed wires with new ones. The men are covered with sweat and grit and spider webs.

They finish each other's sentences. Maybe their friendship is that close. More than likely, the topic is as old and worn as that little faded yellow house they stand beneath.

"The town's been dead for . . ., " Anderson starts.

". . . quite a while," Sanders says.

"Fifteen years, anyway," Anderson nods.

They glance at each other and shake their heads, the brave faces struck for a stranger gone for an instant.

Upstairs, the woman who rents the home recently asked the owner if she could replace some marred bedroom paneling. A previous tenant must have carved his name into the wood, she said. Her request was denied, so she hung a picture over the block letters, "L-A-R-R-Y B-I-R-D."

Sanders balls his right hand and bangs reassuringly on the cinder-block wall.

"It needs a lot of work," he says of the house. "It's a sturdy old place, though. Just needs some cosmetic repairs."


If only French Lick could say the same.

Bird grew out of French Lick to revive two NBA franchises, winning three NBA championships with the once-great Boston Celtics and then coaching the ABA-great Indiana Pacers to these NBA finals against the Lakers.

In his third season with the Pacers, he has said he won't coach beyond the deciding game of the series but hasn't said what he will do next. The Pacers have offered him a front-office position, though he's already an executive vice president.

"Whatever he wants to do," Pacer President Donnie Walsh said.

Two hours south, a town does not hold its breath.

The people of French Lick love Bird, and he won't abandon them.

They love that he has a home in neighboring West Baden, and that he lives in it for a few months each summer, and that he hasn't totally forsaken them for year-round residence in balmy Naples, Fla., where he has a home to go with his golf addiction. He waves back at them from the seat of his mountain bike. He pours money and sporting equipment into Springs Valley High School. He remains "just Larry" to them all, and to his childhood friends in particular, of whom there appear to be many.

"He's so common around here," said Sue Throop, who works the cash register at French Liquors in the heart of town. "He's just another guy."

But, short of standing beneath that "Larry Bird Boulevard" sign and firing wadded $100 bills into the open windows of passing pickup trucks, Bird does not possess the remedy for what ails them. What they could use is a supermarket. Maybe a clothing store. A place to buy shoes for the kids. Some money to spend in those places and some honest hope.

"There's just nothing going on," said Philip Wilson, who is helping to build a small, brick community center across the street from the car dealership that went out of business years ago.

Many of the outlying barns stand so neglected that the wall boards have dried and shriveled, so that the structures appear to be made of vertical blinds, partially opened to allow in the morning sun. Built perhaps with very small gaps that encouraged air flow, the barns have become translucent, almost ghostly, as if erected by the very waves of heat that rise from the ground on scorching-hot summer days.

Much of downtown French Lick is boarded up. Slowly, the spirits of many of the people here have become tattered and vacant as well. But none of that is Bird's fault.

Los Angeles Times Articles