Thursday, March 26, 2009

This Day in Basketball History (Magic, Bird Duel in NCAA Tournament)

March 26, 1979—In what remains the most-watched NCAA final ever, Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Larry Bird gave a preview of their NBA duels over the next decade.

The game itself was anticlimactic, as Indiana State couldn’t compensate for the subpar performance of the double- and sometimes triple-teamed Bird and fell to the Magic-led Michigan State, 75-64. But with the much-ballyhooed show, “March Madness”—the winnowing down of NCAA tournament teams on “The Road to the Final Four”—took a giant step forward, the same way that the Super Bowl did with Joe Namath’s guarantee of victory did before the Jets’ contest with the Baltimore Colts.

Some years ago, after another championship with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan produced much head-shaking when he referred to his teammates as “my supporting cast.” But the ancillary players were precisely the ones who made the difference in the Bird-Johnson final in ’79.

With Bird only connecting seven of 21 field-goal attempts, it was imperative that the rest of the previously undefeated Indiana State players step into the breach. But the next two highest ISU players only produced 27 points. Meanwhile, MSU—already benefiting from Johnson’s 24 points—received an additional boost from the combined 34 from teammates Greg Kelser and Terry Donnelly.

The self-styled “Hick From French Lick” was disconsolate in the lockerroom after the loss, dismayed as much by his inability to produce a victory for the ISU fans he had come to cherish as much as by his poor performance. Years later, this ultimate competitor still politely but firmly declined to discuss the defeat with reporters working on retrospectives—it still hurt too much to remember it all.

But Bird would have other days of glory, as would Magic, of course. Their arrival in the NBA in the coming year would be a godsend for a league suffering from perceptions that its stars were one-dimensional showboats who put their need to shoot before all else.

Bird and Magic revived, in all its glory, the concept of team basketball—the kind that Knick fans of a certain age such as myself still yearn for whenever we remember the mantra “Look for the open man” preached by Coach Red Holtzman.

In the new-look NBA for which Magic and Larry Legend helped to pave the way, one of the emblematic moments became Jordan’s willingness to pass up the chance to win the championship himself by flipping the ball instead to his wide-open teammate John Paxton. It’s the same style that the two future stars of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics were demonstrating in 1979. In other words, they were elevating the level of the game for their teammates.

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