Weekly Column: Basketball's Turning Point
pblackwell, Mon, March 23rd, 2009
Right at this moment, basketball reaches the saturation level. Close to home, high school teams pursue state championships in Glens Falls (boys) and Troy (girls). Entire communities hinge on every drive and lay-up, rebound and free throw.
On a much larger scale, the NBA grinds toward its endless playoffs, with its future decidedly mixed. Oh sure, the stars like Kobe and LeBron, teams like the Celtics and Lakers, stir our attention, but financial difficulties and looming labor trouble could derail the whole show in the years ahead.
Then there’s the college game, in the midst of a March that tends to be mad. Fans, strangers, even the president all pick up a bracket and follow along, looking for some bragging rights as a three-week tournament determines a national champion.
To say that things were different on March 26, 1979 would only understate how much things changed because of what happened on that night in Salt Lake City, Utah, when Michigan State met Indiana State for the NCAA championship.
Just in time for a 30-year remembrance, Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis recalls that epochal proceeding in his new book “When March Went Mad”, which gives us an in-depth look not just at the main players involved, but also the side aspects of the story.
Of course, the main significance of that game was that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird met on the court for the first time, Magic’s Spartans beating Byrd’s Sycamores in front of the largest TV audience ever to watch any basketball game. From that, Magic and Bird went on to the NBA, and they all lived happily ever after.
Oh wait, that’s the short version. The longer tale is much more interesting, as Davis shows us.
First, picture basketball early in 1979. The NBA is out of favor with the general public, so badly thought of that CBS deigns to show the championship series on tape delay, as if this were poker or something.
Meanwhile, the college game is growing, for sure, but ESPN is still months from debuting, and the only national exposure is NBC games on the weekend, and they show Notre Dame too much anyway. Many great stars never get to be seen until the tournament in March.
So it comes to pass that a team called Indiana State builds a 33-0 mark, led by a shy kid from French Lick. At the same time, Michigan State tears down the stretch to win the Big Ten title with a 6-8 point guard from Lansing with a bright smile and a thirst for the spotlight.
What Davis shows us is that these narratives didn’t need to be too inventive. Bird, the country boy, was shy and did not like talking to the media at all, to the point that he got fierce national criticism for it – and didn’t care one bit. He wanted to win, and he wanted his teammates to get credit once in a while.
Magic, the city kid, contrasted Bird in ways that went far beyond skin color. He never met an interview he didn’t want to conduct, and was almost disappointed when they were done. Yet he carried the same burning desire to win and the same need to get his teammates involved – and it helped to have another All-American in Greg Kelser by his side.
Davis takes us through the 1978-79 season, as Indiana State kept finding ways to win (a half-court shot against New Mexico State, for example) despite a chorus of doubts from the likes of Billy Packer, who eventually gets won over.
Michigan State, early in February, is in danger of missing the tournament, only to catch fire when demanding head coach Jud Heathcote finally allows some freedom, by turn unleashing Magic and Kelser on the rest of the nation.
It all leads to Salt Lake City, and to that title game. NBC plays up the Magic-Bird angle, something no one could have done today with all the TV exposure any basketball star gets. Back then, though, there was genuine mystery, which added to the ratings.
Just as insightful as the Bird-Magic part, though, is the way Davis weaves in all the other characters in the story from Indiana State and Michigan State, and the coaches’ profiles, in particular, stand out.
Heathcote comes to East Lansing as a tough-as-nails brute, hard on everyone, from players to officials. Yet he inspires loyalty and devotion from everyone – except from Michigan State’s administration, which forces him out when he’s not winning enough.
As for Bill Hodges, who took over at Indiana State just weeks before the 1978-79 season when coach Bob King falls ill, he never can live up to the glory of that season.
The pressure to win breaks up Hodges’ family, forces him out of Terre Haute in three years, and he ends up in the teaching profession, a footnote to history. What’s more, Indiana State, unlike Michigan State, never has become a basketball power, and is known only for the fact that Bird went there.
Even the megastars at the heart of “When March Went Mad” don’t have everything go their way. Magic, of course, contracts HIV, and though he bravely fights the virus, at the same time his very stardom keeps him from the deep roots he had in Lansing, when it was all just a game and so much fun.
Bird’s heartache is much more fundamental. At the end of the ’79 title game, he didn’t do a formal interview, as usual, but the TV picture of his face buried in a towel, crushed, said enough.
All these years later, that loss still hurts him.
The big ones always do, no matter what kind of impact it might have elsewhere.