Jim O'Donnell: Memories come flooding back on a visit to French Lick, Indiana

  • Larry Bird and Magic Johnson -- once rivals and now friends -- competed in some big basketball games, and filmed a 1986 commercial near Bird's hometown of French Lick, Ind.

    Larry Bird and Magic Johnson -- once rivals and now friends -- competed in some big basketball games, and filmed a 1986 commercial near Bird's hometown of French Lick, Ind. Associated Press

Updated 8/29/2020 5:48 PM

FRENCH LICK, Ind. -- Socially, the hamlet is miles from nowhere.

That includes the bloodstained streets of Kenosha.


It's roughly an hour west-northwest of Louisville, very white and a small town where every narrative ever written by John Mellencamp could have taken place.

The visit was actually a pandemic-driven substitute for an annual trek by four old chums. They normally go to Saratoga for a few days of racing, repasts and rewound tales of glory days.

Spectators are not allowed into the upstate New York track this summer, so southwest Indiana it was.

With both Pete Dye and Donald Ross courses on the doorstep of the self-contained French Lick Resort & Casino, it was golf rather than horse racing that commanded center focus.

Having Artie Hagg -- a 1 handicapper at age blah-blah -- fill in for Casey Rush (son of the fabled Gonnella sportscaster Red Rush) chopped the chase fever but also juiced the links channeling.

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Hagg will play in the Illinois State Senior Amateur at Mt. Hawley C.C. in north Peoria next month.

Mates Dave Lundstedt and Rick Robertshaw maintained the level of autumnal athleticism.

On a long ago February night in an electric Prospect High field house, the associates -- along with scrappers like Jeff Bzdelik and Mike Korf and Stu White and Terry Rohan -- had their one shining moment.

They somehow beat a Hersey varsity absolutely loaded with talents including Andy Pancratz, a very young Dave Corzine, John Tilhou, Bruce Frase and Mark Leonhard, 84-81, for the first Mid-Suburban League crossover championship.

This past week, on the morning of the Pete Dye round, the insouciant properly peeled off to explore the streets of French Lick.

Munchkins don't play amphitheaters, especially ones with hilly "volcano bunkers."


On a bad day, exploring French Lick could take all of 20 minutes.

On this Wednesday -- a school day, a work day -- the quest extended just far enough to touch magic.

The moment happened near the corner of Washington and Adams.

That's where the house Larry Bird and his five siblings grew up in still stands.

Its predominant hue is now gray. It's been updated and a new garage with white trim supports the fresh backboard and basket above the driveway.

The Birds sold it long ago. That was when, with his first significant NBA paychecks coming in, he had a marvelous manor built for his widowed mother Georgia Bird in neighboring "twin city" West Baden.

(Converse filmed a 1986 commercial featuring Bird and Magic Johnson on the full outdoor court at that expansive site; Bird now lives in Jupiter, Fla.)

At the old house, down that sloping driveway and about 100 feet to the right is a rusting, single-track side rail that probably serviced some long-forgotten freight carrier.

In a few hours, the Milwaukee Bucks would begin the latest surge of righteous Black Lives Matter protest by announcing they would not play their playoff bubbler vs. Orlando that night.

This time, Kenosha -- not Minneapolis or Louisville or Atlanta -- was the trigger.

The insouciant took one final glancing look and imagined:

Forget about the Boston Celtics, Barcelona Olympics and the 1992 "Dream Team."

How many 12-year-olds have ever shot at a basket like that, in a driveway or a schoolyard or a park, and dreamed little dreams, like of one day making the varsity at Springs Valley (Ind.) High or any team with real basketball uniforms?

A crowning touch entered the silent summer tableau.

Resting alongside the curb was a Wilson NCAA basketball -- going nowhere, white, interspersed with brown-and-orange patterning.

The visitor could only smile, at least for a moment.

The real world was still back up beyond those volcano bunkers.

STREET-BEATIN': ESPN's Jay Williams -- the ex-Bull whose playing career was short-circuited by a motorcycle accident -- could be ruining it for a whole lot of sports talkers. He's proving to be consistently reasoned, fair and relevant. ...

On the flip side, if it wasn't for the flimflamming Skip Bayless, ESPN's Max Kellerman would be the unquestionable worst of show as a vapid national poltroon. (He's a voice for the times -- and his time is the 3 a.m. drive-through window at White Castle.) ...

Thirteen years ago, NBC hired Mike Milbury because he was a verbose cave man with a vast storehouse of hockey knowledge. Now he's on indefinite suspension for saying something worthy of a verbose cave man with a vast storehouse of hockey knowledge. (They're laughing in Moose Jaw.) ...

Chortle-worthy that in some media corners, broadcast coverage of Lucas Giolito's no-hitter got as much space as coverage of the no-no itself. (Biggest surprise was that at the end of Giolito's gem, Steve Stone kept quiet and didn't explain how Abner Doubleday thought.) ...

Frank Calabrese's Big Dreaming suddenly was moved into the starting field of the $100,000 Saranac Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday. Racing minds were puzzled -- it rained and the colt was scratched ...

And professional tumbleweed Jason Whitlock -- who's had more career stops than Octavio Dotel -- called LeBron James "an agent of chaos." (Well, Maxwell Smart was an agent of CONTROL.)

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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