ANDY AMEY: No hick, Terre Haute and French Lick icon continues to display his wit

Larry Bird and public speaking weren’t supposed to go together.

When he was establishing himself as one of the best college basketball players in the country — those wanting to correct that statement to “the best” will not be reprimanded — he was famous, or maybe infamous, for not talking to the media.

My friend Dale, who knew I had access to Larry, called me excitedly once telling me, “You’re in Newsweek!” and I bought a copy of the magazine which said, paraphrased, only that Larry Bird only talked to one or two members of the local media.

(That’s the same Dale, some of you might recall, who drove to Terre Haute for an ISU game and stopped at my luxurious $85-per-month apartment — sportswriters lead glamorous lives — at a time when I knew Larry was upstairs talking slowpitch softball with John Benton, a mutual friend of ours. “Go up and say hello to Benton,” I told Dale, who returned a minute or two later, white as a sheet, saying, “Larry Bird was up there. He was sitting in a chair just like a normal person.”)

That reluctance to speak led to a poorly disguised narrative around the country that Larry wasn’t very bright. The spreaders of that false narrative — farm boys like myself (a far bigger hick than Larry, by the way; Larry lived in town) might reference the fertilizing implement called a manure spreader — should have been in downtown Terre Haute on Thursday morning.

Speaking at the start of a street festival celebrating the opening of the Larry Bird Museum in the Terre Haute Convention Center, Larry spoke without notes; witty, smiling and relaxed as he welcomed the crowd to the proceedings. Shortly afterward, he was similarly engaging as he met the press.

Why the good mood? “I’m very proud of it,” he said about the museum that bears his name and has several personal touches he provided in addition to memorabilia.

For one thing, there is no admission charge. “That was one of Larry’s requirements,” explained Terri Conley, vice president of the Vigo County Capital Improvement Board that has built the facility. It is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, but spots need to be reserved through or by emailing Some of the early days are already filled to capacity, with the first reservation, Conley noted, coming from Ontario.

The memorabilia involves ISU, the Celtics and even Springs Valley High School and there are several interactive exhibits. Yes, you can shoot free throws (like you could at the old Boston Connection on Third Street, although there was no mention Thursday of whether Georgia Bird’s sticky buns would be included like his mother’s treats were at the former restaurant).

The death earlier this week of his former teammate Bill Walton brought back good memories for Larry, who was asked how many tie-dyed T-shirts he owned as a result of knowing one of the world’s most famous Grateful Dead fans.

“If I’d told Bill I needed some, he’d have sent me 1,000,” Larry joked. “When you played with him, it was so easy [because of Walton’s unselfishness and passing ability]. Fortunately for us, in 1986, he stayed healthy [for a Celtics championship team].”

And throughout the day, he kept repeating how much he was enjoying being in town.

“Every time I come here, I feel good,” he said — but also, referencing the Bill Wolfe statue erected in 2013, the street named after him and the mural of the Sports Illustrated cover now being completed on the west wall of the Copper Bar, he added, “Thank you Terre Haute, but I think that’s enough for awhile.”

But back to the ISU days, when his wit wasn’t on display until NCAA-mandated appearances in 1979.

“I really didn’t want to talk back then,” he explained, knowing that jealousy among his teammates was a possibility. “I tried to [encourage the media to talk to other Sycamores], but [reporters] would just go to them to ask them to talk about me.”

Press conferences, he noted, were never his favorite things.

“I’ve been busy, I’m living a good life,” he said. “I’ve been blessed.”

And then, with a smile, he added, “Who knows? This might be my last interview.”