Original Old School: First Blood
The rivalry between Magic and Bird started with one game. This one.
As the air outside warms up and a frigid February becomes March, my mind turns to Madness. Who will be celebrating at a Selection Sunday party and who will be crying salty tears as their coaches console them, are the main concerns on my brain. I think about the individual players as much as I think about the teams—I picture individual faces as much as I picture jersey colors . It wasn’t always that way, though. Before the March of ’79, teams were the only reason people tuned into a college game. That year—the Magic versus Bird year—the game changed. Here’s the full story, as chronicled in SLAM 34. — Tzvi Twersky
by Dalton Ross
On March 26, 1979, more than 18 million people tuned in to the NCAA Championship Game to check out the sweetness of Bryant Gumbel’s afro. Okay, so maybe Gumbel doing play-by-play wasn’t the main draw this particular night, but the Notorious B.G. was sportin’ a lively ’do nonetheless. The real reason all those folks fired up the boob tube was to watch a college basketball game between the Michigan State Spartans and the Indiana State Sycamores. But even the matchup of teams was merely a backdrop for the duel between the NCAA’s two most exciting players—Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Never before had the NCAA title contest featured two such stars on the same stage. True, Lew Alcindor had met Elvin “Big E” Hayes, Bill Bradley had played Bill Russell, and David “Skywalker” Thompson had taken on Bill Walton, but all those Final Four matchups had been in the semifinals. And none of those players (except Skywalker, perhaps) had captured the imagination of basketball fans the way Johnson and Bird did. Any kid worth his tube socks back in ’79 wanted to be one of these two.
Bird, a senior, had led Indiana State to an undefeated 29-0 record through the regular season. After blowout victories over Virginia Tech and Oklahoma to begin the NCAA tourney, the Sycamores squeaked by Arkansas (73-71) and DePaul (75-74) to enter the title game a perfect 33-0. Michigan State, on the other hand, struggled early just to win in their own division, going 4-4 in their first eight Big Ten games. But the Spartans then reeled off 10 straight wins behind sophomore Johnson and senior forward Greg Kelser and entered the tournament with a 21-6 mark. There they dropped Lamar University, Louisiana State, Notre Dame and Penn—all by double-digit margins—to earn their finals berth.
The stage was set. The Place: Salt Lake City, Utah. At Stake: The NCAA Championship. The Participants: The two hottest teams, the two best players and Bryant Gumbel’s ’fro. What more could a fan want?
The two teams’ styles provided a little foreshadowing of the later NBA battles between Magic and Bird as members, respectively, of the Lakers and Celtics. The Spartans, like Johnson’s Laker teams of the 80’s, thrived on a fast-break game predicated on a healthy dose of open-court shake and above-the-rim bake. Magic had a trio of fast, athletic big men to work with in Kelser, Ron Charles and Jay Vincent. The Sycamores, meanwhile, favored a slower, half-court game akin to the type played by Bird’s Celtics squads in the years to follow, with guards Carl Nicks and Steve Reed using their outside shooting to complement Bird and the inside play of forward Alex Gilbert.
So just after 7:00 P.M Mountain time, the most anticipated (and highest rated, still) contest in college basketball history tipped off. After the teams exchanged a few initial baskets and turnovers, Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote called what would prove to be a pivotal time out just 2:45 into the game with his team up 5-4. Heathcote didn’t like the way Bird was cutting across the lane to receive open passes. It was his subtle adjustment of the Spartan 2-3 matchup zone defense (two guards defending the perimeter with three big men rotating down low to constantly double an interior ball handler) that would change the face of the game. The open shots that Bird buried with abandon were no longer there. The bullseye passes he hurled so freely were impossible.
“We put two men on him at all times,” says Terry Donnelly, then a junior starting guard for the Spartans. “We had such athletic guys on the opposite side of the court that when Bird would throw it to the other side, we had guys who could anticipate and had long arms and could cut those cross-court passes off. They just could not reverse the ball to the weak side fast enough.”
After Indiana State took a brief 8-7 lead, Michigan State clamped down to score nine straight and take a commanding 16-8 lead. The run included one breathtaking play by Kelser, matched up with Bird on the basket’s right wing. Kelser froze Bird with a fake cross-court pass and went baseline. After beating his man to the hoop and starting to go up with the right, he was met by Gilbert, who attempted to block the ball. Kelser responded coolly by switching hands and going glass with the left. A spectacular move!
With all the Magic vs. Bird hype being played up by the media, Kelser had become the forgotten man. The 6-7 senior was a star in his own right and, like Magic, was a triple threat with his ability to score, dish and board. As the game progressed, it appeared that he would, in fact, be the difference.
“Greg was probably the best basketball player out there on the floor,” Donnelly reminisces. “He was a phenomenal player and was by far our biggest weapon. And with a guy like Magic having the ball, he could get Greg the ball any place he wanted it, and Greg would finish. He was a tremendous finisher.”
It was just such a finish that got Michigan State fans juiced near the end of the first half. Johnson took an outlet pass off an Indiana State miss and started the Spartan fast break. He raced up the left side of the floor until he was about 20 feet from the basket, then lofted a soft pass a few feet above the rim. Up went Kelser, who slammed down the alley-oop to give Michigan State a 34-23 lead. It was the first real razzle-dazzle from the aptly-named Spartans, who were playing it close to the vest to avoid costly turnovers. “I don’t care what game it is, we have to get at least one play like that a game,” Johnson would say afterwards. “We wouldn’t be Michigan State if we didn’t.”
While the Sycamores found themselves losing 37-28 at the half, they had reason for optimism. They were shooting just 37.9 percent from the field yet were only down by nine. Plus, Kelser and Magic were both in foul trouble, with three apiece. If Coach Bill Hodges’ club got some better shots off, and continued to play physical, they could get right back in it. But then the second half started, and Donnelly, a spot-up shooter who averaged only 6.3 points a game during the year, took it upon himself to show that Bird wasn’t the only honky with a cheesy mustache who could play some ball.
“Earvin penetrated their defense and created so much havoc in the first half,” says Donnelly, “that Jud at half-time said to me, ‘Look, they’re gonna have to cut Earvin off from penetrating to the basket, so your man’s gonna slough off and cut him off, and they’re gonna leave you open, and you’re gonna have to knock the shots down,’ which he didn’t say very often, and by God it happened. I just sat out on the wing and in the corner and knocked ’em down.”
Donnelly stroked three long J’s (en route to his 15 total points) in the opening minutes of the second half to help Michigan State stake out a 48-32 lead. It looked like blowout city, baby. But then Kelser picked up his fourth foul on a charge call with 15:33 to play. The forward was the Spartans leading scorer to that point, but now his 13 points, 7 assists and 5 boards went to the pine, and Indiana State was poised to take advantage.
With Kelser out, Michigan State’s 2-3 matchup zone defense lost some of its zip, while the offense lacked another threat to take some pressure off of Magic. As a result, Bird’s two turnaround Js and some aggressive D by Nicks helped the Sycamores close the gap to 52-46 with 10 minutes left. The score could have been even closer had Bird and company been able to hit their free throws. In fact, about the only thing uglier than Indiana State’s foul shooting was Heathcote’s frightening green blazer-plaid trousers combo, which made him look like a down-on-his-luck leprechaun.
Seeing his lead evaporate, the Michigan State coach returned to one of his lucky charms and put the magically delicious Kelser back in the game with 8:40 remaining. Slow and low became the tempo as the Spartans ran a delay game to start eating away at the clock. Then, with just over five minutes to play and their team up 57-50, Michigan State went for the cojones.
Kelser held the ball on the left side of the perimeter. Johnson, standing a few feet away at the top of the key, faked out as if to accept a pass, and then cut back-door down the lane, his man already dusted. He took the dish in stride and then dunked ferociously over Indiana State’s Bob Heaton. And as if to further punish him for getting so completely schooled, the refs whistled Heaton for a two-shot foul for cutting Johnson’s legs out from underneath him. Magic sank both from the stripe to complete the four-point play, and the Spartans were up 61-50. Game over.
A few minutes later, Kelser laid down some funk on a nasty dunk and officially ended the proceedings with an open-court, cradle-windmill slam to give the game its final 75-64 margin. Cheerleaders rushed the court. Johnson, whose 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists earned him most outstanding player honors, stayed on the court, trademark smile in place.
And Bird? Bird sat on the sideline and cried his eyes out into a towel. Perhaps he was reflecting on how—in the biggest basketball game in his life to that point—he had come up short with only 19 points on seven for 21 shooting, six turnovers and just 2 assists. (Or maybe he just caught a glance of that mustache in the mirror. I’m tellin’ you, that thing was nasty.)
In any event, Bird had been completely shut down by the Spartans zone D. “He was very, very frustrated,” Vincent said after the game. “He kept saying, ‘Give me the ball, give me the ball,’ but his teammates couldn’t get it to him.” Before the game, a flippant Bird had said, “If we win or lose here, it don’t make much difference to me. I’m gonna get my money anyway.”
Hodges tried to keep his star player and team upbeat in defeat. “We just had a bad shooting night, both field goals and from the free throw line,” the Indiana State coach said afterwards. “When you come down to the final night, you have to have a great game to win, and this wasn’t one for us.”
Truth be told, it wasn’t a great game in general when measured up against other same-era title classics like North Carolina-Georgetown in ‘82 (Jordan’s arrival, Fred Brown’s throwaway pass to James Worthy), North Carolina State-Houston in ‘83 (Jim Valvano running around like a lunatic after beating Phi Slama Jama) or Villanova-Georgetown in ‘85 (did anyone miss a shot in that game?). But with Magic and Bird, for the first time the players were bigger than the championship game itself. Most people who tuned in—still a college basketball record of 38 percent of all televisions being used—didn’t really care who won. They just wanted to see the spectacle of these two unbelievable talents squaring off against one another for the ultimate prize. And the hype alone generated by their matchup ushered in a new glory era in college b-ball.
“The NCAA championship is getting as big as the Super Bowl,” says Donnelly. “I mean, it was big when we did it, but it’s nothing compared to where it is now. It’s phenomenal. And you gotta thank those two guys for creating all of this.”
It was a valuable marketing lesson not lost on the National Basketball Association, who a year later would mark Johnson and Bird as the focal points of their strategy to use the lure of players, rather than teams, to bring fans back to the pro game. And while the Magic Man and Larry Legend went on to epic battles—not to mention a combined eight titles and five MVP awards—in the NBA, their rivalry and what it brought to the game of basketball started in Salt Lake City. Just ask my man Bryant Gumbel.