Applauding a great: Former Indiana State coach Bill Hodges (second from right, front row) joins members of the Sycamores’ 1978-79 basketball team in a standing ovation for legendary teammate Larry Bird in 2019 at the 40th anniversary of their 33-1 season. Tribune-Star staff file photo by Joseph C. Garza
Applauding a great: Former Indiana State coach Bill Hodges (second from right, front row) joins members of the Sycamores’ 1978-79 basketball team in a standing ovation for legendary teammate Larry Bird in 2019 at the 40th anniversary of their 33-1 season. Tribune-Star staff file photo by Joseph C. Garza
Patrick Wood and Steve Zukerman see a spot for their upcoming film in the pantheon of Indiana sports movies.

It could fit right alongside “Hoosiers,” “Breaking Away” and “Rudy.” “Rocky” might be an appropriate comparison, too, even though that’s a Philadelphia-based flick.

Wood and Zukerman are crafting the story of former Indiana State coach Bill Hodges recruiting Larry Bird to play for the Sycamores. It covers a week and a half timespan in the spring of 1975. The events of those days changed ISU and Terre Haute forever, and made college basketball history.

Hodges just 32 years old and had just been hired on the ISU coaching staff — his fourth assistant coaching gig in a decade. Bird was 19 and working for the street department in his hometown of French Lick. Bird went home after quitting Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers and then tiny Northwood Institute.

Two weeks later, Bird agreed to become a Sycamore. Hodges convinced the shy, other-worldly talented Bird to give college one more try.

It turned out pretty well. Four years later, The Associated Press named the Boston Celtics-bound Bird its College Player of Year and ISU’s rookie head coach Hodges its Coach of Year. The Sycamores finished NCAA runners-up with a 33-1 record, losing only to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the championship game. The movie will capture the beginning of that saga. Together, Wood and Zukerman — two Indiana-born filmmakers — are writing, directing and producing the film.

“If we do our jobs correctly, it will almost feel like a perfect story, kind of like a fairy tale,” Wood said earlier this month, “which is kind of what this is.”

Cinematically, they tell the cinematic through Hodges’ eyes. Then-ISU head coach Bob King had hired Hodges, a Zionsville native who’d been an assistant at Armstrong State in Savannah, Georgia, after stints at Tennessee Tech and Marian College. Hodges and his wife, Connie, had a preschool-age daughter, Zoie. After all those moves, Hodges thought the ISU job would give him more time with his family.

Hodges knew Bird was still available as a recruit. Hodges also knew the lanky teenager was exceptional. He’d seen Bird play as a 6-foot-3 junior, while recruiting another player, and then again in the Indiana-Kentucky high school All-Star series. By then, Bird had grown to 6-9 and was attracting attention from elite college programs like IU, Kentucky and Louisville. Bird chose home-state Indiana, pressured by his French Lick community. He soon quit, uncomfortable on a big campus and with his older Hoosiers teammates.

Hodges told his new boss, Sycamore coach Bob King, “I’m going to French Lick.”

Wood’s decision to put Hodges at the center of the yet-to-be-titled movie appealed to Zukerman.

“I just loved that,” Zukerman said, “because that’s what an audience is really going to relate to on a large scale. I just love the little guy getting his opportunity, struggling, but getting his shot and having his moment of success and redemption.”

The two filmmakers were fraternity brothers at Ball State University in Muncie, and pursued separate careers in television, films and commercials. Wood began writing the Hodges-recruits-Bird script and reconnected with Zukerman. Their idea simmered until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the film and TV industry.

“That year is when things really took off,” Wood said.

They’ve consulted and conversed extensively with Hodges. At age 78, he’s now retired and living in North Carolina, where his granddaughter and grandson attend Western Carolina University. “I really enjoy being close to my grandkids, so I moved there,” Hodges said.

His tenure at ISU didn’t end grandly. Hodges stepped into the head coaching job after King suffered a heart attack and then a brain aneurysm just before practices began for the 1978-79 season. The Sycamores climbed improbably into a No. 1 ranking that season, fueled by Bird’s unparalleled greatness and an ideally complementary supporting cast, reaching college basketball’s pinnacle. Hodges’ subsequent seasons were more difficult. After Bird went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA, a promising recruit died of cancer, another opted for big-time Kansas instead, and Hodges said he was told to curtail the recruiting of transfer players, an outlet that had bolstered the ‘79- 79 team.

“When you look back on it, everything that could go bad for me went bad,” Hodges said. “And I didn’t handle it worth a damn.

“We had a great year [in ‘78-79]. I think I handled it well that year,” he added, “but after that, it became a problem.”

The hours were long, too. His marriage ended. “I told [Connie] I’d be home more,” he recalled. “Well, I was home less.”

The university let Hodges go after four seasons as head coach — the 33-1 dream year, a 16-11 year, and then back-to-back 9-18 seasons. He sold insurance for a couple years, then returned to head coaching at Georgia College and Mercer University, followed by an assistant coaching stint at Murray State and then high schools. He had great and not so great seasons after ISU. He even taught middle school geography in Milledgeville, Georgia.

“When you’re down, you’ve just got to get your ass up and do it again,” Hodges said. “And that’s what I did.”

The film might hint at what was ahead for Hodges, Bird and the Sycamores, Wood said. Otherwise, it will zero in on those 10 days when their destiny was just beginning.

They plan to film it next summer. More than a third of the scenes will be shot on-location in Terre Haute, primarily the ISU campus, Wood said. French Lick will also be prominently featured.

“It’s very much a love letter to Terre Haute and French Lick,” Wood said.

Its plot centers on Hodges finding a way to persuade Bird to play for ISU. Hodges’ Hoosier accent and background as a small-town Indiana guy from Zionsville helped break through Bird’s wall of shyness and his French Lick neighbors’ determination to shield the kid from the swarm of college recruiters.

Hodges remembers it well. He was at his best in that moment.

He and fellow ISU assistant Stan Evans drove to French Lick and enlisted the help of Gary Holland, who coached Bird’s senior season at Springs Valley High School. They went to the Bird family’s house.

“His mom slammed the door on us,” Hodges said of the late Georgia Bird. “Gary said, ‘I just think she had a bad day.’” Larry wasn’t there anyway.

Hodges and Evans kept looking, eventually spotting Larry in a laundromat with his grandmother. She invited the coaches to her home, where she made iced tea for them and Larry. They talked about him baling hay and working for the street department.

“I said, ‘You’re driving a garbage truck?’” Hodges recalled asking Larry. “And he said, ‘Hell no. Sam drives the truck. I’m on the back.’” Larry was more interested in getting the ISU coaches to recruit a French Lick buddy, a former high school guard who by then had a wife and a baby.

“Stan said, ‘Well, Larry, what are you going to do, work on a garbage truck all your life?’” Hodges recounted. Irritated, Bird answered, ‘Yeah, I think so.’” Hodges tried again, using the example of Bird’s talented friend, whom Larry said could’ve been a good college player.

“You know, Larry, someday they’re gonna say the same thing about you, if you don’t go to school,” Hodges said. Larry just listened that time, saying nothing.

On a subsequent visit, Bird promised Hodges he’d come to Terre Haute to visit at the campus. This time, Larry’s mom had welcomed Hodges and served lemonade.

Days later, “sure enough, they showed up,” Hodges remembered. Larry brought his high school buddy, friends and his brother. The French Lick guys scrimmaged against players from the ISU team, “and just beat the hell out of them,” Hodges recalled.

Bird agreed to become a Sycamore.

The script Wood and Zukerman have been honing for years will highlight that moment in history. They see it as a story of perseverance.

“It’s also an everyman story,” Zukerman added. “This isn’t about celebrity. It’s about the greatness in every one of us.”
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