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Carl Nicks: ISU basketball phenom overshadowed by Larry Bird

January 23, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The tough-as-nails lefty from the south side of Chicago had just taken his first airplane ride out of Englewood, where street gangs lurked around every corner, basketball games ended in scuffles, and sometimes guns were pulled and drugs swapped on the faded blacktop courts.

Carl Nicks had taken a 45-minute flight to Terre Haute and could not fathom what was unfolding before his eyes.

A 6-9 white guy jumping like a freak on the shiny hardwood. A scraggly-haired blonde draining long shots, smashing dunks. An awkward-talking baller being nice to him, really nice, acting like their skin colors didn’t matter.

Acting like Nicks was just like him.

“It was over when I seen that,” Nicks said. “He was like a freak of nature or something. There weren’t no whites in my high school and when I seen this, I’m like, ‘Where’s this guy come from?’”

As Nicks walked out of that pickup game at Indiana State University, where the coaches were recruiting him, a high school senior from another world, he found a pay phone.

“Mom, I’m not going to those other college visits. I just seen something that you ain’t going to believe,” Nicks told her. “I want to play with that guy. I want to play with Larry Bird.”

Nicks couldn’t have known it then, but he had signed up to toil in the shadow of greatness.

In the years to come, Nicks would be called second fiddle. The Bird-feeder. That guy who played with Larry. But that isn’t really how it went down. Nicks was no understudy.

As he and Bird stormed across the country in 1978-79 on their way to the most-watched college basketball game in history — ISU and Bird versus Michigan State and Magic Johnson — Nicks was the second-leading scorer for the Sycamores, averaging 19.3 points per game to Bird’s 28.6.

During that 33-0 season, it was Nicks whom everyone called “Mr. Intensity.” It was Nicks who was fed passes by Bird. It was Nicks who made Bird better.

“People forget that when we had Larry Bird, No. 22 was a pretty darn good player himself,” said current Indiana State head coach Greg Lansing. “He is one of the all-time best to ever play here.”

This weekend, Nicks, Bird and the rest of the 1978-79 basketball team will be honored on the 40th anniversary of that remarkable season. Next month, Nicks’ No. 22 jersey will be retired into the rafters of the Hulman Center, next to Bird’s.

“People are always asking, ‘Are you the one that played with Larry Bird?’” Nicks said. “I say, ‘No. He played with me.’”

The mean streets of Chicago were home to Nicks. Englewood was the toughest area of the city, where the Gangster Disciples of Chicago, a criminal gang formed in the 1960s, settled.

“You had to fight on the court, you had to fight off the court,” said Nicks, a pro scout for the Indiana Pacers. “It was brutal there.”

Basketball was his escape.

Money was tight in his family. Nicks’ dad, Oscar, was a pastor at the same Baptist Missionary Church for 54 years and his mom, Carolyn, stayed at home with the five kids, two older brothers and two younger sisters, volunteering in the community any chance she got.

So he could practice basketball, Nicks would take a wire clothes hanger, wrangle it into a hoop and attach it to the door. He’d run and shoot layups for hours to the sounds of his dad saying, “That Carl playing with that hanger again? He crazy.”

In the winter, Nicks would shovel, heaving snow over his shoulder to make a spot for jump shots and then a path to drive to the basket.

Dunking was his dream. Nicks would climb up the pole outside, hanging on with one arm, and dunking the ball with the other. He got a rush every time.

“I’m going to really dunk one day,” he’d say to himself.

In the neighborhood, Nicks would walk around talking about his basketball dreams. “I’m going to the NBA.” He would introduce himself as “Carl Nicks with the golden wrists.” He’d use magic markers to write that nickname on his shirts.

People would tell him: “You too little, you too little, you too left-handed. You ain’t going to make no NBA,” Nicks said.

He became more determined. As a seventh grader, Nicks made the eighth grade team -- in a basketball mecca. Each accomplishment ignited his passion.

“I would just tell myself, ‘I’m going to dribble myself out of this environment,’ because I didn’t like the environment,” he said. “I appreciated it and I haven’t forgotten where I’m from. But nobody was doing anything.”

The best player at Englewood High School always wore the No. 22 jersey. By his sophomore year, Nicks was starting varsity. The next year, he was wearing No. 22.

“I let all my anger and frustrations out on the court. I left everything out there,” he said. “That environment made me tough as nails. No fear. I said, ‘If I can survive this, I can survive anywhere.’”

But this city boy with that tough exterior soon found he’d have a hard time surviving Terre Haute, Ind.

His mom dropped him off at Indiana State University that fall day of 1976. Nicks stepped out of the car and looked around.

“Oh my God. Culture shock. What am I supposed to do?” Nicks remembered thinking. He stood there, watching students bustle past him. No friends, but, unlike the streets of Chicago, no enemies, either.

His basketball team would be his ready-made group of comrades. Soon, Nicks would be drawing in his own fans.

Sitting on the bench, with little playing time his freshman year, Nicks was the only player with a student section devoted to him. Bird didn’t have one. Nicks’ was 25 members strong, and they called themselves the Carl Nicks Fan Club.

“They kind of liked my swag from Chicago,” he said. “I was fast. I was aggressive. I was cocky.”

And he was letting all of that get in the way of his studies. After his freshman season, the coaching staff called Nicks into the office. He had a 1.6 GPA. He was on academic probation.

Bill Hodges, then the assistant coach, told Nicks: “We came up with a decision. We’re going to send you down south to Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Florida.”

They wanted Nicks to focus on academics, polish his game, adjust his attitude. If he didn’t agree to spend his sophomore year there, they told him, he wouldn’t play at ISU.

“I was pissed. I don’t know nobody down there,” he said. “I went down there anyway, pissed off, and took it out on everybody in Florida.”

His GPA jumped to a 3.5. He was first-team junior college. He scored 30+ points game after game after game.

“I wanted to play basketball. I respect the game. I know I can play this game. I know I can play this game at the highest level. I knew that,” Nicks said. “So I went down there and I grinded. I was isolated and it made me grow up.”

Division I schools started looking to recruit him, North Carolina, North Carolina State. Indiana State came calling, too. Nicks played hard ball.

“They weren’t getting nowhere with me so they started having Larry call me,” Nicks said.

“Hey look, Carl. We just lost in the NIT. We had a good run, but I’m going to tell you something,” Bird said on that phone call. “With these players that we got, and the ones that’s coming in and if you come back and be that piece, that shooting guard that we need, we can go all the way to the Final Four.”

Bird, Nicks had always thought, was a basketball genius.

“He don’t like me saying that stuff, that it’s a gift from God,” Nicks said. “He says, ‘Shut up, no it ain’t. I worked for this.’”

Either way, genius or hard work, Nicks believed what Bird told him. He packed up his bags in Florida and headed back to Indiana State for his junior year, for that remarkable season.

Before Indiana State, Nicks had never played with a white teammate. And Bird wasn’t close to what Nicks had expected. He was definitely not vanilla.

Bird would often come up to Nicks before games and say, “You know what? I feel like I’m going to fight somebody in this game.”

“What are you talking about?” Nicks would ask him.

“Because that one guy keep on talking smack to me,” Bird would say. “So, be ready.” And before Nicks knew it, Bird would be throwing elbows. Bird did not respond to an interview request from IndyStar.

“Larry is the captain or the MVP of the all-talking trash team. Did you know that?” Nicks said. “And where I grew up in Chicago, you start talking trash and that’s fighting for me.”

Nicks remembers Bird walking by the opposing coach’s bench: “Hey, you better get somebody in to guard me because this guy, he can’t guard me. You better do a better job of coaching.”

On the court, Bird was known for calling his own shots: “You know what? The next jump shot I shoot it’s going to be a bank from the left side so you better be ready. Right in your face.”

For players on Bird’s side, such as Nicks, the loyalty was steadfast. Bird would often tell Nicks, “Don’t worry about me. Just keep shooting.”

“Bird-feeder? I wasn’t really a Bird-feeder,” Nicks said. “Bird passed the ball to me more than I passed it to him because he was such an unselfish player.”

One of the most memorable games for the two was a nationally televised game against Wichita State. Bird had 45 points; Nicks had 35.

“It was like me and him were just playing with each other and forgot about the rest of our teammates or something,” Nicks said. “Because I couldn’t miss and he couldn’t miss.”

The unlikely friendship grew off the court, too. Nicks would go to Bird’s hometown of French Lick and stay at his house. Bird’s mom would make breakfast in the morning. Bird would take Nicks around town.

“It was scary at first,” Nicks said. “All these country people chewing tobacco. These country guys with language I didn’t understand. I’m like, ‘What the heck? Oh, my God. Where am I at?’”

Nicks quickly grew fond of Bird’s French Lick friends and they of him. When they would come to games at Indiana State, they’d cheer as much for Nicks as they did for Bird.

Some even told him they were there to watch Mr. Intensity.

Bird had made that promise to Nicks. Come back to ISU for the 1978-79 season and they would make it to the Final Four.

Nicks came back stronger, more mature and ready to prove himself. On the run to the NCAA championship game in 1979 his junior year, Nicks averaged 19.3 points, 5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals. He shot 46 percent from the field.

“I went back and we ran through the country,” he said. “We ran through everybody.”

Indiana State athletics director Sherard Clinkscales remembers watching Nicks on that run, as a young boy.

“I admired the tenacity he displayed on the court,” he said. “He had no fear.”

Still, the nation didn’t care about a second fiddle named Nicks. There were only two players in this championship game, said Hodges, in his first season as head coach, at the time.

“That was the only two anybody said anything about,” Hodges said. “They billed it as Magic and Larry.”

Nicks wasn’t worried about that one bit. Seeing Johnson and that Michigan State team in the flesh, though, was a bit intimidating.

“It was frightening now, I’m telling you, they were big. They were good and they were mouthy,” he said. “I personally approached the game like I approached any other. I’m just going to get in you and I ain’t going to stop. And that’s it.”

But against Michigan State, the undefeated run for Indiana State ended in a 75-64 loss in Salt Lake City.

“We didn’t lose that game,” Nicks said. “We just ran out of time.”

Then, he pulls out the ring, that Final Four ring: “My most valuable possession is this,” Nicks said. “I wear it all the time.”

As for Bird, “Bird took that ring and threw it up into the stands,” Nicks said. “He said, ‘I don’t want that ring. We didn’t win it.’”

More with Carl Nicks

Personal: He and his wife, Kelli, recently celebrated 33 years of marriage. They have one son, Carl Nicks Jr.

ISU basketball: As a senior at Indiana State, Nicks scored 723 points, averaging 26.7 points. He finished his career with 1,432 points, a tie for ninth leading scorer in school history. His 47 points at West Texas State on Jan. 12, 1980 is still tied for the school record for most points scored in a road game. That performance ranks as the third-best scoring performance in the history of ISU basketball.

On his jersey retirement: “You don’t know how I feel about that jersey going up. This is it. This is the greatest thing. I’ve been wanting this for 20 years. This is the greatest thing to see that thing going up like that.”

Pro career: Nicks was drafted No. 23 by Denver in the 1980 NBA draft and played for the Nuggets, Utah and Cleveland. He also played in the Continental Basketball Association and professionally in Europe.

Today: He is a pro scout for the Indiana Pacers and still enjoys playing basketball as well as volunteering in the community to carry on his mom’s legacy.

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Source: The Indianapolis Star

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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