In 1979, Larry Bird helped Indiana State do the unexpected. Bird, the only starter who returned from the previous season, led the Sycamores to a 33-0 record heading into the NCAA Tournament championship game against Michigan State, which had Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Though it has been 40 years, Eric Curry — a Curie High School alum and member of that Indiana State team — remembers it like it was yesterday.
He recalled the smell of buttery popcorn in the air and the sound of it popping. He also remembered belittling Michigan State with his teammates, even though Johnson and Co. sat only 10 or so yards away.
“‘The Warriors,’” Curry sang. “It was good.”
Yes, on the eve of the biggest game of their college basketball careers, neither Indiana State nor Michigan State’s players were resting or watching game film. Instead, Curry said they coincidentally saw “The Warriors” at a theater in Salt Lake City.
“We were at the movies, and here comes Michigan State,” recalled Curry, who also said Indiana State was there first. “It was like, ‘Damn.’ It was very awkward.
“No one said anything, but there was some grumbling. … We watched the movie, look over there at them and then you would look at the movie and then looked over there at them. We had to keep an eye on them.”
Less than 24 hours after the credits finished and the lights flickered on in the theater, Indiana State and Michigan State tipped off a game that changed the trajectory of basketball.
To this day, that game is the most-watched NCAA championship. More than 34 million people tuned in, which is more than double the amount of viewers compared to last year’s title game between Villanova and Michigan. Because of the popularity of the game, the NCAA expanded the tournament field twice in the next 10 years.
The game also sparked the famous rivalry between Bird and Johnson that carried into the NBA. Bird had unfinished business with Johnson after Johnson led Michigan State to an 11-point victory.
Curry looks back proudly at his short time in Terre Haute. He considers it one of the best years of his life.
Though he wasn’t a starter, Curry — who grew up in LeClaire Courts, a public housing development on Chicago’s Southwest Side — played a role boosting the team’s morale.
After coach Bill Hodges finished writing the lineup before the first game of the 1978-79 season, Curry took the chalk and wrote “1-0” on the board. He continued to update the win column before every game, including the title game, for which Curry wrote “national champs.”
“The unselfishness we had for each other, the love, the respect we had for the coaches, our trainers, the ball boys [was special],” said Curry, who also said he routinely guarded Bird in practice. “We were never, ever jealous of one another, never talked about each other. We enjoyed being around each other.”
After transferring from Wabash Valley Junior College in Illinois in 1978, Curry played one season with the Sycamores. On his way to summer classes after Indiana State’s tournament run, Curry said he ran into Bird, who was shooting hoops near campus.
“Do you think I went to class, or do you think Larry and I played one-on-one all day?” Curry said.
They played all afternoon.
When they were finished, Bird, who had just signed with the Celtics, took Curry to lunch at a nearby restaurant.
“Larry pulled out a $100 bill, I’ll never forget this,” Curry said. “[Bird] said, ‘E, get what you want.’ And then when they gave Larry his change, he counted every penny.
“I said, ‘Come on, boy, what’s wrong with you. You’re a millionaire now.’ And he looked at me and said ‘E, I’m not going to be broke.’ And he counted every penny and that just says a lot about Larry.”
After Curry left Indiana State, he passed on the opportunity to play professionally in Australia. He had just married his first wife, and they had a daughter.
“It just didn’t work out,” he said. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if I started making all that kind of money and probably — I don’t know. And I’m not going to second-guess that.”
Curry, 61, went on to work with at-risk youths in Chicago for nearly 40 years. He now spends his time being a father to his two high school teenagers.
“They keep me busy,” he said. “Boys, girls, dating, drivers’ ed, ‘Dad, I want this kind of car. Dad, I want that.’ ”
Curry grew up without a father, so he vowed to be there for his children.
“My wife says, ‘You can be a great dad, but sometimes you’re an awful husband,’ ” Curry said. “But [she said] I’m a great dad, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Curry keeps some of his memorabilia from Indiana State’s 1979 NCAA Tournament run in the basement of his Chicago home. His framed Indiana State and Curie High School jerseys sit propped up against the wall of his theater room.
“Larry gave me that,” he said with a grin as he handed over a retro NBA card of the Celtics star.
Curry also showed off an autographed Sycamores sign from Bird, along with a rally towel and a collage of photos that Indiana State gave to the players this season when they were honored at the team’s game against Loyola.
Curry tries to keep up with the tournament every year. He couldn’t believe Michigan State beat Duke to reach the Final Four.
“Can you believe that?” he said.
Curry also enjoys rewatching games from the 1978-79 season and reminiscing.
“I look at it, and I just say to myself, ‘What a team, what a team,’ ” he said.
“I had a great college career and great, great life, so no look-backs.”