Let’s see … coach Bob Knight of Indiana University wanted him, coach Denny Crum of the University of Louisville wanted him, but coach Joe B. Hall and the Kentucky Wildcats didn’t want him, and here’s the story.
When Larry Bird was in high school playing for Springs Valley, he wanted to play college basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats. As Bird started putting up big numbers, he and his parents were invited to UK for an official visit by Hall.
In the end, Hall and his coaching staff didn’t offer Bird a scholarship because they didn’t think he would “fit in.” I’m thinking the UK staff might have missed that one just a bit.
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It’s no secret recruiting Bird was not an easy task. His shyness or reclusiveness made it hard for recruiters to know what he was thinking.
When Indiana assistant coach Dave Bliss visited Bird at his home in French Lick, it was an awkward conversation. Bliss was from upstate New York, highly educated and understood very little about small-town life in Indiana. Bird was never one to talk a lot to strangers, so finding common ground was tough.
But when Bird did talk to Bliss, the city slicker was caught off-guard when Bird asked him, “Have you ever been mushroom hunting?” Bliss admitted later he had never even heard of mushroom hunting at the time.
When Crum visited Bird, he could not convince Bird to visit the U of L campus. So Crum challenged him to a game of H-O-R-S-E. If Crum won, Bird had to visit, and if Bird won, no visit. “Larry Legend” won in about eight shots and never visited the University of Louisville.
About the photo: This is my favorite Sports Illustrated cover of all time, and it’s from the November 1977 issue. I’ve had this for a long time, and it now hangs in my son Christian’s room.
It’s a cool shot, and when it hit newsstands, it was a quick sellout.
You know the story about Bird. But who were those cheerleaders? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that fully. But one of them was a girl named Sharon, and she married Tunch Ilkin, a big football star at Indiana State who went on to play in the NFL for 14 seasons — 13 of them with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sadly, Sharon Ilkin passed away in 2008 after a brutal battle with cancer. I don’t know which girl is Sharon, and I don’t know who the other girl is, either.
During the Indiana Hoosiers’ perfect basketball season in 1975-76, they were saved twice that year on tip-ins by 6-foot, 11-inch center Kent Benson at the buzzer to send games into overtime, eventually won by the Hoosiers.
The tip-ins were especially pleasing for me because he is my all-time favorite IU player. The first one was against Kentucky at Freedom Hall and remains one of my most special moments ever as an IU basketball fan.
I can still remember IU radio announcer Don Fischer screaming, “Benson tipped it in.” I’m sure the game was on TV. But a lot of times, I just listened to games on the radio because I loved listening to Fischer, and I still do. I could not wait to get to school the next day and be with all of my Kentucky Wildcats classmates.
The second time Benson did it that year was against Michigan at Assembly Hall in Bloomington. Indiana was 18-0 going into that game, and Michigan almost ended the Hoosiers’ perfect season.
Again, I was listening on radio to Fischer, and I was at coach Dale Crafton’s house, as we had a game that night, and I liked to hang out there before we played.
Even though the game was on national TV, I was in the kitchen listening to the game on this little white radio, and I kept thinking Indiana is going to get beat, as they never led in the game until the overtime period.
On the very last play of the game, Benson tipped a missed shot in as the horn sounded, and the officials counted it, sending the game to overtime.
The Michigan coaching staff went crazy, protesting the shot shouldn’t have counted. I guess NBC kept showing the shot over and over on the replay. But I never saw it — not one time.
I didn’t have to because I knew it was good. The reason I knew it was good was because Don Fischer said it was good. And if ole Fish said it was good, that was good enough for me.