Only a devoted fan knows where Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson is from. But everyone must know where Larry Bird is from because when someone hears I’m from French Lick, Indiana, they always say: “Larry Bird’s hometown, right?” It gets old, especially when people want to talk about Larry like they know him, about his job on the garbage truck, about his father’s suicide.
I wonder how these facts about Larry escaped the town’s borders given the unshakable scientific principle about small towns: the smaller the population of a town, the heavier the gravitational pull. Yet these facts have escaped the gravity, while people find it so hard to do the same.
When people do manage it, there’s always a good reason, I guess–for love or money or education. But if Chicago or Atlanta or San Francisco chews them up and spits them out, they’ll come back. They’ll go back to their small town and make fun of themselves for leaving and anyone else who ever tried.
And if they’re from French Lick, they’ll go out to Grapevine Holler and remember how they used to smoke grapevine and chew blackjack gum and drink stolen Boone’s Farms. Or they’ll go down to the Jubil bar and hope to run into Jamie Fisher who was hot and easy way back when, but never for you. Because the easy girls don’t hook up with the ones who want out. Or you’ll have breakfast at the Villager and start smoking again because, why the hell not, you’ll get a pack’s worth of second-hand smoke there anyway, so you may as well enjoy it.
And you’ll remember the one time you met Larry Bird. He had just signed with the Celtics and, even though he was going to make it out, everybody was fine with it. It was as if the town elders had made a pact, saying we’ll let this one go. But we’ll keep the idea of him here. He’ll be out in the world and every time someone thinks of him, they’ll also think of us. And you think Larry must have been part of that pact. That’s why when Larry was first introduced to the city of Boston as the last, great, white hope, he proudly stood in front of the throng of people and declared, “I’m just a hick from French Lick.” That must be why he made sure as part of his first endorsement deal that Converse had to send brand new basketball shoes to the high school team every year. That’s why right after his introduction to Boston, he held a big reception at an over-sized, perpetually under-booked hotel in French Lick. Larry and the elders must have made a deal.
And you’ll remember you were six years old, being raised by a single mom, when this reception was held. And somehow you and your older brother got in. But it isn’t just somehow, it’s because your grandfather is a security guard at the hotel and he sneaks off with some invitations just like he sneaks off with towels from the pool and sometimes steaks from the kitchen. And you’ll remember how your name was drawn to win a door prize at the reception–a signed Larry Bird basketball.
And when you’re living in a trailer on Plum Street, what do you do with a basketball when it’s handed to you free of charge? You shoot hoops with your brother up on the Cherry Hill courts until the signature fades and the ball itself eventually disappears. And you’ll hear later that the ball, because it’s a brand Larry would later refuse to sign, would have been worth a thousand dollars, easy. And you’ll ask yourself which you’d rather have: a thousand dollars in your pocket now or the memory of hours shooting baskets with your brother. And because you’re from an Indiana town where the high school gym holds more people than the town even has, you’ll say it was better to shoot hoops.
But you’ll really be thinking about the thousand dollars. And if you only had the money, then Chicago or Atlanta or San Francisco wouldn’t have kicked your ass. And you wouldn’t be back here now, smoking a Marlboro at the Villager across from the old skating rink.
And you’ll remember the time Jamie let you do a couples skate with her, sweaty hands clenched together doing laps to Kenny Loggins or maybe Air Supply. And you’ll wonder why she skated with you that one time. And you’ll sit at the Villager with your brother who never made it out even for a day and say, I tell you what, the town has gone to shit since the theater burned down and the Kimball factory shut down. And he’ll say, yeah, straight to shit. But what you really want to do is ask him if he remembers the reception like you do and the ball and whether he would rather have the money now. You don’t ask him though because you can’t bear to know what he would say.
And you’ll find out Jamie’s married with three kids, living out on Sand Hill Road and doesn’t get to town much. And you’ll drink yourself blind every weekend at the Jubil anyway. Because Jamie’s not the only girl in town and where else can you meet a girl on a Saturday night in French Lick, IN, population 3,500.
And you’ll think back to what you used to say to people when they heard where you were from. You’d say the two biggest things to come out of French Lick–me and Larry Bird. And you’ll order another round of Milwaukee’s Best and when you pass out you can escape gravity for a little while.
Jason Stout lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and 5 children. His works have appeared in (or are forthcoming in): flashquake (Editor’s Pick, Spring 2008); Shine! (March 2008); and pequin (May 2008). He can be contacted through his website: jasonstout.jimdo.com.
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