When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball

By SETH DAVIS

What seems most remarkable about the 1979 NCAA finals, a match-up between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State and Larry Bird’s Indiana State, is how little sports fans at the time knew about these legendary players and their teams. In the years after that March 26, 1979 Bird-versus-Magic final, cable TV would revolutionize college hoops, writes on-air analyst Seth Davis of CBS Sports. Behemoth ESPN, purveyor of 24/7 sports coverage, wouldn’t launch until September 1979, so (when local TV ruled) only the local fans from Michigan and Indiana had consistently seen their hoop superstars. Davis does a fine job describing the 1979 regular season for MSU and ISU, and the NCAA games that led up to the final. He also adeptly describes the widely differing personalities of Magic and Bird. Painfully shy, Bird once flunked a high school English class rather than give a speech. Magic, on the other hand, sometimes had to be dragged away from the press by his coach. But both men were also absurdly competitive. Right before the historic final game, Magic approached Bird to say hello, writes Davis: “As Johnson walked toward him, Bird took one look at him and kept right on walking. Magic was stunned — and really, really pissed.” In the final game, the most-watched basketball game in television history, Bird had an off night and Magic’s MSU team won. The game would fuel a personal rivalry in the NBA, as well as the growth of college and pro basketball for the next decade.

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