March 26, 1979, Salt Lake City, Utah. Though nobody may have realized it at the time, this was when — and where — the world of basketball was changed forever.
It was the final game of the NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament. The Michigan State Spartans (25-6) were playing the Indiana State Sycamores (33-0).
There had been a lot of buzz about this game.
Each team had a player who was extremely talented, and basketball fans were excited about watching them compete against each other for such high stakes.
Playing for Michigan State was Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a 6’8” sophomore guard from Lansing, Michigan. Johnson had received his nickname as a sophomore at Everett High School (in Lansing, MI), after a sports writer for the Lansing State Journal witnessed the 15-year-old finish a game with a triple-double (the finally tally: 36 points, 18 rebounds, 16 assists). As a senior in 1977, he had led Everett to a state championship. Many had regarded him as the all-time best high school basketball player from Michigan.
Johnson, who had been recruited by several big basketball schools, had entered college with no aspirations to pursue a career in the NBA. But he was continuing to improve his game. During his freshman year, he had led the Spartans to a Big Ten Conference title and to a spot in the NCAA tournament (the squad made it as far as the Elite Eight).
And now he had led his team to the 1979 NCAA championship matchup against Indiana State.
The marquee player for Indiana State was a 6’9” senior named Larry Bird, from French Lick, Indiana. Bird had played high school ball at Springs Valley High School and had helped lead his school to a sectional championship during his senior year. That was the year he had become the school’s all-time scorer and rebounder, averaging 31 points and 21 rebounds (and 4 assists) during the season. Bird’s 1974 senior yearbook listed him as all-conference, all-sectional, all-regional, and all-state.
Bird had received a scholarship to play under Bob Knight at Indiana but had dropped out after a month. He had enrolled at Indiana State University the following year and was flourishing in the basketball program there. In 1978, he had been named to the College Basketball All-American team. He had also already been selected as the Boston Celtics’ number six draft pick but had elected to play for Indiana State for his senior year. And now, with a career average of 30.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists, Bird had led the Sycamores to an undefeated season and to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance — and to the finals.
The two players had actually met before – played together, in fact – in a tournament in 1978. Each was well aware of what the other brought to the game, and they shared mutual admiration and a bit of jealousy as well.
But the NCAA championship was the first time the players would meet to compete head-to-head.
Prior to this date, the NCAA tournament had not been a big deal for the majority of the country. The championship hadn’t even been broadcast on live TV.
This game changed that. Television viewers were riveted. In fact, the Nielsen ratings were the highest for any basketball game in the country. Ever.
As Mike Lupica wrote in 1996, “The first real March Madness was Magic against Bird in 1979… Michigan State vs. Indiana State felt like a heavyweight championship fight. Magic was black, Bird was white; Magic was a talker, Bird was stoic; Magic had the better team, Bird had the bigger reputation.”
In the end, the game itself, while exciting, was far from the best in tournament history. Michigan State won the contest, 75-64. Both Johnson and Bird were their teams’ top scorers – Johnson had 24 points and Bird ended with 19 — but Bird (who was also the top rebounder with 13) had difficulty landing his shots.
To probably nobody’s surprise, Johnson was named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. And the Los Angeles Lakers selected him as their number one draft pick later that year.
Bird ended the season – and his college career – with the Naismith College Player of the Year award, joining the Celtics the following season.
We could go on to write pages about the storied NBA careers of both men, about their intense on-court rivalry, and about their eventual close friendship that grew out of it – and about how they did so much to revitalize fan interest in the NBA as well as in the NCAA tournament.
But we’ll end it here. We’ve got some March Madness games to watch, and our bracket is looking pretty good so far…