By David J. Neal
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Even the president takes a break to fill out a bracket. Domed stadiums host NCAA men's basketball Final Fours as regularly as they do Super Bowls. The NBA's pushing LeBron and D-Wade, the NHL"s pushing Sid the Kid and Alex the Great, and every sport tries to find its popularity-boosting star rivalry it can call its "Bird vs. Magic." ESPN is ubiquitous.
And so much of all that began 30 years ago, on March 26, 1979. That's when a nation tuned in for the 1979 NCAA title game between Michigan State and Indiana State, turned on to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and dropped out of one era of sports and into another.
That's the point behind the title of Seth Davis' ``When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball.'' Publishers could have done with "the game that transformed sports" and escaped accusations of overstatement.
College basketball, the NCAA Tournament, the NBA and the NBA's influence on sports marketing all changed dramatically in the years after what's still the highest-rated NCAA final game. During its early days of tractor pulls, ESPN used college basketball — Bob Knight's infamous 1985 chair throw came during an ESPN game — to wedge its way into mainstream sports.
Most of this presents itself in what might be the best constructed part of Davis' book, the opening chapter. It establishes the book's raison d'etre with a March 25-26, 1979, scene surf over the elements the game eventually would touch, including future NBA commissioner David Stern sitting down to watch while worrying about the flaccid NBA. Perhaps most significantly, there is NBC Sports executive producer Don Ohlmeyer telling his crew on the NCAA title game what every sports producer would tell crews for the next 30 years (for better and worse): Give me more on this game's stars.
THE PERFECT TIME
"Amazing enough that these two guys played for the championship in a tournament where if you lose one game, you're out," Davis said. "But to have it happen at just that time . . . If they played 10 or 12 years later, it would have been a big deal, but it wouldn't have had the transformative effect that it did."
The individual matchup caught everyone with its similarities and contrasts. Most of the book recounts how that matchup and the team matchup came to be.
"What was cool for me was I didn't know much about the whole story going into it," Davis said. "For most of us, the story of Magic and Bird begins the night of the game. You lose sight of all the other characters at that one moment in time. Nobody had ever put the whole story together in one place before."
Davis spends his words and the reader's time on everything that led up to the game: the construction of each team; how Michigan State's Jud Heathcote and Indiana State's Bill Hodges got their jobs; how Bird and Magic wound up at those schools instead of traditional basketball powers, Indiana and Michigan.
Bird's mother slammed the door in the face of Indiana State's then-assistant Hodges when he came looking for her son. Hodges wasn't the first recruiter to come looking for the French Lick city employee who had dropped out of Indiana before Indiana knew what it had.
"At that point, if Bill Hodges shrugs his shoulders and says, 'Well, that's it," you and I have no idea who Larry Bird is," Davis said.
Recounting Michigan State's season details how a team generally ranked among college basketball's all-time best came a couple of losses from possibly not making the then 40-team tournament.
That's right, 40 teams and few of which anybody saw before the tournament. Among the national networks, only NBC did weekly regular-season college basketball telecasts and usually featuring schools with national followings (read: Notre Dame or UCLA). Indiana State had one nationally televised regular-season game. Michigan State had a few more, but certainly nothing like the blanket coverage such a player and team would get today.
What happened after the game with Bird and Magic has become athletic cultural literacy. Or just cultural literacy. Magic might be the most famous person whose HIV-positive status is publicly known, and little is spoken or written about Magic without eventually referencing Bird.
Davis smartly spends little time on all that, just as he spends little time on the 1979 championship game itself. As with the Jets' upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III, the contest's influence far outstrips its quality. Bird had one of the worst games of his college career _ 19 points, six turnovers, only two assists _ but Michigan State performed like a great team peaking at the right time. The Spartans took control of the game early, withstood a late Indiana State run and ended a 75-64 victory with a Magic-assisted Greg Kelser dunk as time expired. It was the climax to a game declared "anticlimactic" to the build-up. That's why the book doesn't suffer from the lack of new material from Bird and Magic, seemingly the only two people Davis didn't talk to in his year-plus of research.
"On one hand, they were the two guys I wanted the most," Davis said. "Editorially, they were the two guys I needed the least."
Yet they were the two guys basketball needed to propel everyone toward North Carolina-Michigan State in front of 72,000 people Monday night.
(c) 2009, The Miami Herald.
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