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DAVID HUGHES: 'Thank God I did [grow] or I'd still be on that garbage truck,' Bird reflects

Estimating the number of basketball-playing youths influenced by Larry Bird over the last six decades would be next to impossible.

A million is probably on the low side.

One of them, among the countless who attended Thursday’s downtown ceremony to commemorate the grand opening of the Larry Bird Museum at 800 Wabash Ave., was new Indiana State men’s coach Matthew Graves.

Graves — a 1993 graduate of White River Valley High School, where he was a standout guard and an Indiana All-Star as a senior — grew up a Bird fan when the ISU legend helped keep the Boston Celtics as perennial contenders for the NBA title until a back injury forced his retirement in 1992 after 13 seasons.

“When I was 5 years old, Larry was playing here at Indiana State in 1979,” said Graves, born in November 1974. “I don’t remember that. But I do remember that Larry Bird was an idol of mine growing up, being from Switz City and French Lick [where Bird grew up] being only an hour away … I do remember those great Celtics teams from the 1980s.

“I think I was able to relate to Larry because he grew up in a small town and I did too. I’d go out in the backyard and try to shoot like he did. He was a great role model from a basketball standpoint for me growing up. I always wanted to play at the level he did.”

As a teenager, Graves attended a couple of Bird’s Celtics games when they faced the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis.

After Graves became an assistant coach at Butler in the early 2000s, he finally met his idol in person when Bird was coaching the Pacers.

“It was a really cool experience,” admitted Graves, who sounded more like a star-struck youngster than an NCAA Division I basketball coach for about three seconds Thursday.

Nothing wrong with that. Bird had that effect on a lot of us. If there’s any former athlete from Terre Haute or ISU who deserves a museum, it’s LB33.

“It’s unbelievable what he’s been able to accomplish,” Graves said.

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I’ve always thought an underrated reason for Bird’s playing success was the huge growth spurt he experienced, starting from his sophomore year in high school and continuing through his ISU years.

As the experts say, “You can’t coach height.”

We’ve all known someone who grew several inches over a short period of time. In most cases, if that person possessed any basketball skills beforehand, he or she morphed into a gangly, uncoordinated mess on the court when the spurt ended.

Not with the 6-foot-9 Bird, obviously.

“He was only 6-1 to start his sophomore year,” reflected Jim Jones, an Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coach who guided Bird at Springs Valley High School through his junior season. “Each year, he grew and grew.”

By the time Bird’s junior year ended, he was 6-3, 135 pounds. But French Lick folks hadn’t seen anything yet.

When Bird returned for his senior year, under new coach Gary Holland, he had sprouted to 6-7. Also, a summer weightlifting program added some much-needed muscle to his previously thin frame.

Yet Bird still possessed the ball-handling, passing and shooting abilities of a talented 6-1 guard. And if anything, his hand-eye coordination improved instead of worsened.

I asked Bird about that growth spurt during a news conference inside the Terre Haute Convention Center following the outdoor public ceremony Thursday.

“Thank God I did [grow] or I’d still be on that garbage truck,” Bird said, drawing laughter from reporters with his reference to the temporary job he had between stints at Indiana University and ISU after graduating from Springs Valley.

“At 6-1, you don’t play in the NBA unless you’re special and very quick.”

Bird added Thursday that even while he was at ISU, his height jumped from 6-71/2 to 6-9. “That really helped my game,” he said.

As usual, during the rare moments when Bird speaks publicly about his past, he gave Jones much credit for his development.

“He’s had an impact on me since I was in the third grade,” Bird pointed out. “He’s the first guy who showed me how I was supposed to put my hand on a basketball. He was very involved with young kids and Biddy Basketball. He was always in the gyms.

“He’s been very instrumental in everything I’ve done and I owe a lot to him.”

Jones, now 87, came up from Jasper to honor Bird on Thursday and he always enjoys discussing his most famous former player.

“This [museum dedication] is a tremendous honor [for Bird] … kind of a payback for what he’s done for Terre Haute,” Jones told me before the ceremony.

Jones recalled that during the college recruitment process for Bird at Springs Valley, he’d hear the “not quick enough” and “can’t jump” whispers.

Fortunately, ISU’s Bob King and Bill Hodges saw enough positives in Bird to “let him” come to Terre Haute.

Regarding Bird’s retention of guard skills after he grew to forward/center size in high school, Jones added: “He didn’t lose the attitude either. His will to win was ungodly and it rubbed off. He was willing to work. He was a very coachable kid.

“And he just loved to win.”

Jones also mentioned that Bird was never a trash talker at Springs Valley, a revelation that might surprise Charles Barkley, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman.

“He found out that was a weapon and he utilized it,” Jones explained. “In high school, he never said a word.”

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The introduction of and the speech by Bird, along with the opening of the museum, were not the only festivities taking place downtown to honor Bird on Thursday.

Terre Haute resident D.J. Shouse organized a games area, which included four halfcourt basketball goals, where Wabash Valley boys and girls of various ages could participate in a skills challenge, 3-point shooting and dunk contests and three-on-three competitions.

“The purpose of this is to celebrate Larry Bird and to get athletes of Vigo County out here to showcase their talents and have a good time,” Shouse said. “And everything’s free.”

Shouse also noted that he’s accepting entries for his third annual Blacktop Camp for youths from third grade to high school. Also free, the camp is slated to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 24-28 at Spencer Ball Park. Shouse mentioned Craig Porter Jr., Carl Nicks and Jeremy Lucas as three of the camp instructors.

To secure a spot in advance, visit eventbrite.com.