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A Magic (and Bird) Moment

These Two Legends Met in the NCAA Final 20 Years Ago, and Basketball Has Never Been the Same

March 23, 1999|J.A. ADANDE

Most basketball fans don't even know the name of the building where one of the sport's landmark games was played.

It's not a Garden or a Forum or even a Pavilion. It's known as the Huntsman Center today, but 20 years ago, when Michigan State and Magic Johnson faced Indiana State and Larry Bird in the final of the NCAA tournament, the building on the University of Utah campus was called the Special Events Center.

There have been other milestone events in college basketball, like when Texas Western's all-black starting five defeated Kentucky's all-white team for the 1966 championship and quickened the pace of integration at Southern schools.

Michigan State-Indiana State was different because it changed the face of the sport at two levels, ushering in an era of prosperity for the NCAA and the NBA. When Larry met Magic, it brought people to their television sets in record numbers. The 24.1 rating and 38 share for that game remain the highest for a college basketball telecast. It was the sporting equivalent of Neil Armstrong's setting foot on the moon.

"For maybe the first time in history, the media and the entire nation was kind of captivated, by the Bird Man and the Magic Man," former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote said.

That catapulted the Final Four and the NCAA tournament into the elite circle of sporting events, and initiated the Bird-Magic/Celtic-Laker rivalry that made the NBA the hottest professional league of the 1980s.

"That was the game that everybody looked forward to," said Rod Thorn, NBA vice president of basketball operations. "That game was a spectacle. To have two players who played in that game continue the rivalry with two storied franchises gave a real impetus to the NBA."

By today's standards, the coverage of that game March 26, 1979, might seem like a bunch of guys using telegraph keys. ESPN's first telecast was a little more than five months away. There were no up-to-the-minute updates on the Internet, since there was no Internet.

"You have to put it in relative terms," said Hank Nichols, who officiated the game. "At the time, it was as much hype as you could get. All the sports pages around the country were writing about it."

All over what Johnson called, "Two Midwest guys. Two guys who loved to play and loved to win."

Top-ranked Indiana State was 33-0 and Bird was the nation's second-leading scorer, averaging 28.6 points a game. Third-ranked Michigan State had dropped five Big Ten games, but was cresting in the tournament, and Johnson, a 6-foot-9 point guard, was unlike anything the game had ever seen.

There wasn't much opportunity for folks at home to see these teams before the tournament. Michigan State played only a couple of nationally televised games, and Indiana State wasn't on national TV until the last game of the regular season.

For the previous 15 years--which were dominated by UCLA--the NCAA tournament had offered little in the way of dream matchups. Now there was one, after Indiana State had beaten DePaul and Michigan State had beaten Penn in the semifinals.

"You only had a short period to build up the final game," Heathcote said. "But it seemed like everyone in the world had already written a comparison [between Bird and Magic.]"

Back then, there was nothing to talk about except the game. There weren't any "fan jam" interactive festivals or corporate booths.

The interest generated by the Bird-Magic matchup started the transformation of the NCAA tournament from a sporting event into a cultural phenomenon. In the years since, the tournament expanded from 40 teams to a 64-team field. The Final Four has outgrown arenas the size of the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center, now plays exclusively in domes and has drawn up to 65,000 people.

Eight of the nine others among the 10 highest-rated college basketball telecasts were shown after the 1979 title game. That's why CBS paid $1.725 billion for the exclusive broadcast rights to the tournament.

Bob Heaton played on that 1978-79 Indiana State team, and he has witnessed the event's growth by attending three of the past four Final Fours as a fan.

"I think today, with all the hype, with all the hoopla, it's very exciting just to get into the tournament," Heaton said. "Twenty years ago it was, 'OK, who are we going to play?' "

For all of the impact of Magic vs. Bird, there's one thing that often goes overlooked: The game itself really wasn't that good.

"It wasn't played well by either team, in my judgment," Nichols said. "A lot of missed shots, a lot of errors."

Heathcote used a defense that kept two defenders in Bird's face the entire game, and he shot seven for 21 and finished with 19 points.

"I didn't have a good game," Bird said. "I didn't shoot the ball well. I didn't have a lot of good looks. They defended me very well. They had guys surrounding me at all times. Still, that's no excuse. I missed a lot of tough shots underneath."

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