I can now say I know what it's like to find a pot of gold. I met Gary Holland.Holland, 62, lives in French Lick, Ind., with his wife, Melinda, of 37 years. He's the type of guy who removes his cap the minute he walks into a room. He gives firm handshakes, looks you in the eye and answers direct questions with honest answers. He's a guy who buys a ranch and push-mows five acres of the grass. Which makes him the perfect employee at the new Pete Dye course at the French Lick Resort.
Holland no longer has to work for a living. The gig at the golf course allows him to keep busy and gives him an opportunity to coach some of the younger staff through life. "They're good kids," says Holland. "But some of them could use my help."
Coaching, like mowing, is something Holland loved to do. When he was 25 he was given the boys basketball head coaching job at Springs Valley High School in French Lick. Holland inherited a 6-foot-7 senior by the name of Larry Bird.
"All I did was get him on the bus and get him to the game," says Holland. "He did the rest."
This past April, my friend Kevin Price (a huge basketball fan) and I met Holland at the Springs Valley gym one evening after his day at the golf course. Holland walked us around and told us stories of Larry Legend.
He told us Bird liked to play basketball in jeans because he was so self-conscious about his skinny legs. He said he had to warn the other kids on the team to keep their hands in front of their face at all times or they risked a broken nose from one of Bird's now-famous no-look passes. Even after Holland ended practice, Bird and his teammates would stay and keep shooting. And if he forced the kids out of the gym, they would hide outside and wait for Holland to leave before they would sneak back in to shoot some more. "I would see their little faces in the windows trying to see if I had left yet." Bird averaged 30 points per game his senior year, and that was before there was a three-point line. He scored 55 in one game--and came out with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
I wasn't sure I would get to speak to Bird about the story I was writing for Golf Digest. But after some help from one of my spiritual coaches and friends, Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum, I got the call 10 minutes after I sent Bird the e-mail request.
"Hello," I said. "This is Matt."
"Matt, this is Larry Bird."
"Hello, Larry." And then I scrambled for a pen and paper. Half of me wondered if it was one of my friends playing a practical joke.
Bird gave me about 15 minutes. He told me he was happy for the town of French Lick--that the new Dye course, restored resorts and things like the water park would help create jobs and stimulate the local economy. He said he used to caddie at the Donald Ross course, which is also in French Lick and one of Bird's favorites, and he used to run the hills where the new Dye course was built. Bird played to a 5-handicap before he started suffering from back spasms and before he got the job as president of the Indiana Pacers. He says he doesn't have much time for golf right now.
The last time Bird was in French Lick was in 2008 for the funeral of Chuck Akers, who died in a car accident. Akers was the football coach at Springs Valley and a first-tee starter at the Ross course. Bird never played football, but Akers also had a big influence on his life. When Bird showed up with his wife for the funeral at the Springs Valley gym on Larry Bird Blvd., the line to pay his respects was two and a half hours long. Someone came up to Bird and explained that he could be escorted to the front of the line and avoid the wait. Bird declined. He insisted on waiting just like everyone else.
Bird told me how much he appreciated Holland and all that he did for him when he was in high school and beyond. Holland says he and Larry were kindred spirits. "I was in the right place at the right time. I was quiet. Larry was quiet. And we both wanted to win ball games."
In 22 years as Springs Valley's head coach, Holland won six sectional titles. He still thinks back to the 1973-'74 season, when he was just a rookie head coach, working with a kid who had NBA talent, and he wishes he would've had more experience. "I would've used my bench better," he said. "If I had a couple more years of experience I don't think we would've lost in the regional finals. We could've beat Bedford."
Here's a link to the Away Game in the current issue of Golf Digest about my trip to French Lick, a review of the Pete Dye and Donald Ross courses, and some other things to do while you're in town.
And here's the video interview: