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On March 9, 1979, the men’s NCAA basketball tournament kicked off with a field of 40 teams, led by the top-ranked and undefeated Indiana State Sycamores. At that point, the tournament was a second-rate event that only hardcore sports junkies and fans of competing schools cared much about.
That all changed on March 26, when the Sycamores, led by senior forward Larry Bird, faced the Michigan State Spartans and their star guard, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, in the championship game. That Monday night in Salt Lake City, as anticlimactic as it was, gave birth to a rivalry that transformed college basketball and eventually saved the NBA.
Backwoods folk hero
Prior to the 1979 title game, Larry Bird only played in a few televised games. This was before cable TV and ESPN, where players’ exploits were described in print publications like Sports Illustrated or the wire stories picked up in daily newspapers around the country. For small schools like Indiana State, located in Terre Haute and playing in the Missouri Valley Conference, it was more like the 1950’s.
Despite this, Larry Bird was known to those who followed basketball. After graduating from high school, Bird started his college basketball career at mighty Indiana University, where Bobby Knight was about to win his first national title.
Bird only lasted a month at IU before packing his bags and heading home. The poor kid from French Lick with a troubled home life, wasn’t ready for a college campus larger than his hometown, not to mention a notoriously difficult head coach.
After a year at home attending community college and working as a garbage man, Bird enrolled at Indiana State and never looked back.
It was because of his transfer that Bird gained national attention a second time. In those days, there were eligibility requirements for the NBA draft, and at the end of Bird’s junior year at Indiana State, he was the topic of much discussion among NBA general mangers.
After making it known that he intended to return for his senior year of college, most teams moved on to other prospects. But Red Auerbach, the legendary czar of the Boston Celtics, drafted Bird anyway, content to wait a year before having him on the team. Auerbach knew Bird was worth the wait.
And so it was that Larry Bird entered his senior season at Indiana State, a seldom seen phenom whose scoring and rebounding were only topped by his deft passes and ability to get his teammates into the game.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s rise to fame was as conspicuous as Bird’s was obscure. Despite his humble beginnings – his mother was a school custodian and his father a GM assembly line worker – Johnson’s doting parents instilled in him a drive that augmented his physical gifts and made him star of his state champion high school team and a McDonald’s All-American in 1977.
Johnson could have gone to any college in the country, but chose to stay close to home and play for Jud Heathcote at Michigan State who promised him he could play point guard.
Johnson’s easygoing charm and grace on the court caught the attention of writers and commentators, and as the 1979 NCAA tournament wound down, he and Bird emerged as inevitable foes that everyone following the game hoped would faceoff. They were different in nearly every way except that they both won.
After crushing Penn 101-67 in the semi-finals, Michigan State looked like a sure-bet to beat the Sycamores, who barely got by DePaul, 76-74, in their semi-final game. But those who’d seen Larry Bird almost singlehandedly destroy teams knew not to count him out.
After the opening tip, Michigan State controlled the ball and got it to Johnson, who drove the lane before crashing into Bird and being called for traveling. Bird got up first, grabbed Johnson’s arm and pulled him to his feet. It was the only time Bird had the upper hand. Michigan State bottled him up with a zone defense that never let him find his rhythm.
The final score, 75-64, belies the impact the game had on college basketball. Bird and Johnson captured the imagination of casual fans like no two players ever had in the sport. Bird, the dogged hustler who never stopped fighting, and Johnson, the always smiling warrior who made it look easy, forced people to take sides in a debate that went on for the next decade as to who was better.
Nearly 25% of the TV sets in America were tuned to the ‘79 championship game, making it the highest rated telecast in the history of college basketball, a mark that will likely stand forever, given the endless fragmentation of TV that exists today. Even though both Bird and Johnson went on to the NBA the following season, the excitement that fans felt in 1979 didn’t end with that tournament. Instead, it proved to be the launch of a phenomenon that rivals the Super Bowl as the greatest sporting event in the country.
The emergence of college basketball as a big-time sport can be credited to Magic Johnson, the son of a GM assembly line worker and Larry Bird, a man who, in 1987, opened his own Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Martinsville, Indiana. Car guys.
Many of you reading this will recognize the grit and determination that made Larry Bird and Magic Johnson champions in their respective pursuits. Why? Because you’ve cultivated those same traits to rise to the top of yours.
Here’s to you and your bracket. I hope you win your pool.