Carl Nicks smiles as he recalls a conversation he had with Larry Bird early in their basketball relationship.
Nicks had averaged barely over two points a game his freshman season at Indiana State University when former Sycamores coach Bob King recommended he transfer.
Not for three years, but one.
Go south, young man, so that your skill level will have gone north by the time you again set foot on the Terre Haute campus.
Nicks did, averaging 22.4 points a game at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Florida, during the 1977-78 season. Shortly thereafter, it was Bird on the other line.
“The main thing that I can remember is when I was in junior college I spoke to Larry on the phone. He actually said, ‘You’re the piece that we need. If you come back I’m almost guaranteeing we can go to the Final Four,’ “ Nicks said.
“I thought he was crazy. But I believed in Larry, and I always liked Larry, so I went back and we went to the Final Four.”
Teammates then, teammates now.
An integral component of ISU’s magical run to the 1979 NCAA Championship Game against Magic Johnson and Michigan State, Nicks, a scout for the Indiana Pacers since before the 2006-07 season, continues to look fit enough to lead a fast break.
This is the second Indiana State reunion for Nicks in his professional life. He previously served as an assistant coach for his old coach with the Sycamores, Bill Hodges, at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
Nicks moved to Indianapolis in 1998. He’s worked as a coach in the Pike Township system and run a program for at-risk teens for Methodist Hospital.
Known to occasionally refer to himself as “The Original Bird Feeder,” Nicks relishes his role within the Pacers organization and the difference he carries the potential to make.
Daily Journal sports writer Mike Beas recently caught up with Nicks, who has been busy preparing for Thursday night’s 2014 NBA Draft.
How disappointing was it as a 19-year-old kid to be told your game could use some work?
A: When they came to me with it, it was very disappointing. And then I got kind of ticked off. Then I made the decision that I’m going to make the best of it. I gutted it out and had one of the best experiences of my life both with basketball and academically. It was a blessing, to be honest. I knew eventually I was going to go back, especially when Larry gave me a couple calls.
Scouting is one of those professions every sports fan is convinced he or she can do. Why are they wrong?
A: First of all, you’ve got to love the game. If you don’t have passion for the game, scouting is difficult because you sit through a lot of games, and sometimes there are not prospects in those games. Also, everybody can’t do it because you’ve got to see beyond the guy’s talent. You’ve got to be able to project three years, five years out what that player will be. And that’s not always easy. The main thing is if you don’t have the passion to sit and love basketball, it’s really difficult to do.
Describe exactly what it is you do for the Pacers organization?
A: (Pacers scouts) have certain regions we are individually responsible for. I cover the entire West region, and I also cover the Midwest region. Not only do we have to be responsible for those prospects in those regions, and also we have to deal with some agents, we’ve got to deal with some free agents who are prospects. We’ve got to do a tremendous amount of background research on players to find out about their character. It’s not just basketball. It’s a lot of things outside of basketball that we have to be prepared for and do.
Did you ever in a million years think you would be reunited with Larry Bird someplace other than ISU reunions?
A: This is really like an out-of-body experience because everything went full-circle. I stayed in contact with Larry. I would come down and watch (Pacers) games, and in the blink of an eye I’m right back with him after a separation as far as being together a lot. It was just one of those things that kind of happened.
Is there a player you’ve convinced management to draft that you’re proud of?
A: Oh, yeah. My No. 1 guy is Paul George. And Lance Stephenson. But Paul George is the No. 1 guy because he was unknown and extremely, extremely talented. Lance pretty much had a national name, but Paul was the first guy that I really, really, really pushed. (In 2008) I was pushing for George Hill out of IUPUI when he was coming out. I pushed Solomon Hill because I covered Arizona. And I was in on Roy Hibbert, but we all were.
What in your mind is it the Pacers need to add in the offseason to remain NBA title contenders?
A: We definitely need a long-range shooter that can just flat out knock jump shots down. Of course the coaches have to play the players they feel comfortable with, but I think that’s something that can get us over the hump. At times our offense might have been stagnant, and we just need a Ray Allen type of guy that can get you going again and drain five 3’s in a row.
The Pacers’ pick, for now at least, is No. 57 come Thursday night. What can we get at that point if we stay there?
A: Some weird things happen with draft night where a player really, really falls who is a pretty good player we know about. That could potentially happen for us. If not, maybe we’ll draft a European player who has potential. Keep him overseas (for awhile). Another option is that we can sell the pick and get some cash for us. We’ve got some options there with the 57th pick.
What was, in your mind, the best game you ever played at Indiana State?
A: One of them was on national TV against Wichita State. That was a huge game there. Probably my best game playing-wise. Larry played great, I played great. That was the one that stood out the most. We beat them pretty good.
What was that like having the NBC crew with Dick Enberg, Billy Packer and Al McGuire come to Terre Haute?
A: It was everything. When they were actually on our campus we felt at that time like we were on the big stage. It was a great feeling. A great opportunity.
What was it like practicing with Bird?
A: For me it was fun because I was always on the same team as Larry. Just to watch him at practice every day was really something special. What freaked me out about Larry that helped my game was Larry’s work ethic was something. He came early and stayed late. Did a lot of running. Did a tremendous amount of shooting and played very hard in practice. That became very contagious.