With all-time greats Jack Givens, Rick Robey and Kyle Macy in the starting lineup, Coach Joe B. Hall’s 1978 Kentucky Wildcats will forever be loved by Blue Blue Nation after winning the school’s fifth NCAA championship.
But what Kentucky fans may not know is just how close basketball legend Larry Bird came to being on the roster that year as he reportedly dreamed of being a Wildcat.
Coming out of Springs Valley High School in French Lick, Indiana, Bird averaged 31 points, 21 rebounds, and 4 assists per game as a senior and originally signed with Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers before transferring to Indiana State University where he was named the Naismith Player of the Year in 1979. But growing up just 150 miles from Lexington, Bird was patiently waiting for an offer from Hall, who replaced legendary coach Adolph Rupp in 1972.
“Coach Joe Hall of Kentucky came to see me but told me I was too slow,” Bird said in an article dated March 26, 1979. “He had a lot of great players, proved by Kentucky winning the national championship last year. But I never thought I was too slow. Maybe Coach Hall doesn’t think so now.”
Bird would go on to become a 12-time NBA All-Star for the Boston Celtics, winning three straight MVP Awards (1984-86) and being induced into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Bird’s high school, James Jones, later confirmed the story in an interview with Bird and reporter Jackie MacMullan.
“Another one that was interested was the University of Kentucky and this was where Larry really enjoyed. I thought if he had picked a school, it would have been Kentucky, early. We were at Brownstown, which was one of our rivals, and Coach Joe B. Hall was there. I approached him and I asked him, ‘What’s your evaluation of Larry?’ He said, ‘He’s too slow to play at Kentucky.’ But Kentucky was pretty good. But this gave Larry the opportunity to stay in state.”
LARRY BIRD (1979): Growing up, Bird's dream was to play for the University of Kentucky. But head coach Joe B. Hall thought he was "too slow," so he didn't offer Bird a scholarship.— Zero Star Reviews (@ZeroStarReviews) March 30, 2022
St. Petersburg Times, March 26, 1979 pic.twitter.com/SsXQ8t9fI0
During the 1977-78 season, Bird averaged 30 points and 11.5 rebounds a game for an Indiana State team that was just a year away from taking the country by storm with a perfect 33-0 record as Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans beat Indiana State to win the 1979 NCAA title.
Ironically, Bird did get his chance to play for Hall in Rupp Arena, although it was another missed opportunity as the “Hick from French Lick” was just coming into his own.
Just days after the 1978 championship game in St. Louis, Missouri, Coach Hall took the reins of a USA National Team comprised of top collegians who would complete against international powers Cuba, Soviet Union and Yugoslavia as part of the 1978 World Invitational Tournament.
This made-for-television event was a round-robin tournament with games scheduled at the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia and Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill, N.C., with the final game being played at Rupp Arena on April 9, 1978.
Team USA finished with a perfect 3-0 record with a roster that included 12 future NBA first round picks, 10 players who would be selected among the first six picks in future NBA drafts, including No. 1 picks Joe Barry Carroll (1980) and Earvin “Magic” Johnson (1979).
Five Kentucky players - Givens, Robey, Macy, James Lee and Jay Shidler - were on the team along with Bird and Johnson and stars such as Darrell Griffith (Louisville), Phil Ford (North Carolina), Sidney Moncrief (Arkansas), David Greenwood (UCLA), Mike O’Koren (North Carolina) and James Bailey (Rutgers).
The final game resulted in a 107-82 win over the Soviet Union as Givens led Team USA with 15 points in front of a reported 12,014 fans at Rupp Arena. At the time, Johnson and Bird were lesser known “second-stringers” as Magic scored 15 total points with seven assists over the three games, while Bird scored 14 points with 18 rebounds and never had a free throw attempt.
When it came to playing time, Bird would later accuse Hall of playing favorites with his Kentucky players in a Q & A with Shafin Khan.
KHAN: In Larry Bird’s book “When The Game Was Ours” he talks about being on the World Invitational Team with Magic Johnson in 1979. Larry is quoted saying “There were the Kentucky players and the rest of us were fillers. Hall wanted to go around the country and show off his guys.” Looking back now, do you believe this to be true?
HALL: Oh no. That’s horrible. I can’t believe Larry said that. That definitely was not true. I didn’t show off my players or play them more than Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. I would’ve been the dumbest coach that ever came down the road. I had a team of such great players and I used them all. It wasn’t my place to determine who was the best, they were all good. I substituted fairly and we won every game we played. Everybody on that squad deserved playing time. I had some of the greatest players that ever played the game and I played them all. I can’t believe that. Maybe, he didn’t get to score as much as he felt like it but we beat the Russians, Yugoslavia and China.
Robey, who won a gold medal at the 1975 Pan American Games at the age of 19, would later reunite with Bird as a member of the Celtics in 1983 and 1984 before getting traded to the Phoenix Suns for Dennis Johnson, who went on to win two NBA titles with Bird and the Celtics.
Bird and Robey quickly become best friends in Boston with Bird later saying in his biography: ‘’Even now Rick says that the best thing that happened to my career was him getting traded to Phoenix — and in many ways I’ve got to agree with him,” Larry wrote. ‘’. . . he was slowly killing me by keeping me out so late.”
Sounds like a Robey-Bird-led Kentucky Wildcat team would have been interesting.