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Larry Bird

Indiana State star Larry Bird, center, embraces teammates Alex Gilbert, left, and Carl Nicks after the Sycamores beat Arkansas, 73-71, for the NCAA Midwest Regional crown in Cincinnati Saturday, March 17, 1979. (AP Photo)

“I told you! I told you!”

Alex Gilbert heard his brother’s voice that day, and as Alex soaked it all up — the NCAA title game, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, hype never before experienced for a basketball game — Leonard sure was right.

Leonard had inspired Alex to go to Indiana State. Darn near instructed him to.

The Gilberts were from East St. Louis — Leonard was eight years older than Alex — and after sky-walking all over the metro area’s best post players, Alex headed to a junior college in Kansas.

“That was kind of like being out of America, especially back then, when the information didn’t travel as quickly,” said Alex, 61, who today resides in downtown St. Louis. “But my brother told me. He knew about Larry Bird. ‘You go play with this guy, maybe something good may come from it.’ He just thought Bird was the right guy for me to play with.

“To be quite honest, I wasn’t very impressed with the school. Of all my recruiting trips, this was probably the worst one. I actually wanted to go to Missouri, but my brother talked me into going to Indiana State.”

This weekend, Alex Gilbert will again go to Indiana State. They’re honoring the 1978-79 Sycamores, who entered the national title game undefeated and then lost to Michigan State and Magic, 75-64. Bird is supposed to be there Saturday, too. All the guys.

Back then, “I had height, but I didn’t have weight,” Alex shared. Records concur. In the media guide for the 1978-79 Indiana State team, he was listed at 6-foot-7, 184 pounds. Some people who are 5-foot-7 wish they could get down to 184 pounds. But Alex sure could score. And soar. In fact, the media guide included this tidbit: Sycamore statisticians may need a new category — “Hang time” — for this junior college transfer, perhaps the best leaper ever to wear the blue and white.

“I played with guys like U.S. Reed and Sidney Moncrief in college, Dominique Wilkins in the NBA — Alex could maybe outjump them all,” Scott Hastings, an 11-year NBA player, said Wednesday. “For an 18-year-old vertically challenged kid who dreamed of high altitude, he was my first ‘how-does-he-do-that?' guy.”

In Alex’s first game for Indiana State, he scored 22 points. The next game was against Purdue, the eventual Big Ten Conference champions. Alex scored eight points with five rebounds, but more important, Indiana State won.

“What stands out from all of that, playing with Larry, was the life in a fishbowl nature of it,” Alex said. “I can remember when we first started practicing, (the Celtics’) Dave Cowens and Red Auerbach came to one of our first practices! I went, ‘Oh (shoot)! I’m in the big time!’ I’ll never forget that. I said — ‘Oh, maybe my brother was right!’ …

“Every day it was like lights, camera, action. Always reporters around, always some interview to do. It was something else, it really was. And that was the coolest part of it all. You realize that this is a big deal — and it’s kind of nice to be part of something like that.”

Before the third game of the season, Alex’s brother was killed.

Leonard hadn’t been the same since he came back from Vietnam. He was still perpetually caring for his baby brother, but he’d gotten trapped in a life of drug use.

“He and a friend of his were buying drugs, and the friend thought he cheated him,” Alex said. “The friend got upset and shot him. It was one of his best friends, he had known him his whole life.”

Alex played the storied season without his brother. And for his brother. Alex used basketball as an escape. Forty-minute therapy sessions. He could be happy playing the game.

Alex averaged 9.6 points a game (third on the team) and 6.1 rebounds (second only to Bird’s astounding 14.9 a game, to go along with 28.6 points and 5.5 assists).

Indiana State met up with Hastings’ Arkansas Razorbacks in the Elite Eight. Won by two. Then played DePaul in the Final Four. Won by two.

So, on March 26, 1979, the undefeated Indiana State Sycamores faced the 25-6 Michigan State Spartans. Alex and Bird were about to play for the national title.

“I always felt that my brother was there,” Alex said, “whispering in my ear: ‘I told you! I told you!’

“That game, it’s a seminal moment in American history, it really is. It changed the way basketball was going. Basketball was headed to the crapper around that time. I can remember the NBA championship being on tape delay at night. It had just lost its luster for some reason. And it brought the game back. It changed everything. I’m proud of being part of history — that’s something no one can ever take away from me.”

Alex played in Europe for a few years, came back home, got a job at a correctional facility. Later in life, Alex would work in the mental health field. It was then he put it together — he had been suffering from depression during all those years after Leonard died.

“Drugs played a big part of my life for a long time — I lived in a very dark hole ...” Alex said, describing a particular stretch during the 1990s. “Crack, cocaine, marijuana, the usual. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I can talk about it. Sometimes, I think it’s not bad to tell my story.”

He recalled the time he passed out while going to the bathroom. When he woke up, he was sprawled on the cold, tile floor.

“I must have laid on the floor for a long time, because one side of my face was completely numb from the cold,” he said. “I looked around, and I thought — what am I doing?”

He had been working at a correctional facility, though. He’d spend his days seeing what happens to some people who got caught up in hard drugs. Then he’d spend his nights doing hard drugs.

“You think you’re stronger. You think you’re smarter,” he said when asked about this. “You think — nothing will happen to me. … I probably wouldn’t be here today without my wife, Ann. …

“Even though those things caused my life not to go in the complete direction I would have liked it to go, I have no complaints, because I’m still here, I’m still in my right mind. And I can stand up and say proudly that I made it through all of that.”

Forty years ago, Alex made it to the Final Four. Nearly won the whole thing. Of course it happened — Leonard told him it would.


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