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It Took Some Time to Turn Into a Classic

Michigan State-Indiana State in 1979 NCAA title game had the stars, hype and ratings, but the players' real impact would come in the NBA

March 25, 2004|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

The game itself was more mundane than magic. There was no miracle, no rally, no last-second winner. The little team that could -- with the championship on the line -- couldn't. David not only got stomped by Goliath, he had to play hurt, with a thumb splint and a slingshot that flung mostly bricks, not a giant-killer in the bunch.

Twenty-five years later, David's coach is still complaining about the officiating.

The final score was Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64.

Or, if you prefer the bottom line: Magic Johnson 1, Larry Bird 0.

That was when Johnson and Bird started keeping score. That was when the rivalry began, on March 26, 1979, in Salt Lake City, in the NCAA championship game, months before Johnson and Bird would begin the real miracle -- saving the NBA.

In the years ahead, Johnson would revolutionize the point guard position, Bird would restore the Boston Celtics' faded glory and in their fabled clashes in and outside the NBA Finals, they would reenergize a league that ended the 1970s wounded by drug scandal and fan and media apathy.

Retroactively, Round 1 has been accorded legendary status, primarily because it is the first in a classic collection and was a big deal at the time -- with a 24.1 rating and a 38 share, it remains the highest rated basketball telecast in history.

But those who believe the 1979 NCAA final clearly foreshadowed what was in store for Johnson, Bird, the Lakers, the Celtics, the NBA and America need to re-acquaint themselves with the game footage, which ESPN Classic is airing several times this week -- today at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. and three times Friday on a six-hour loop beginning at 10 a.m.

Bird made only a third of his shots, going seven for 21 from the field, bothered by a broken thumb and Michigan State's smothering defensive double-teams.

During the telecast, NBC analyst Al McGuire described Johnson as only the second-best player on his team.

"I don't want to hurt the Magic Man," McGuire said midway through the second half, "but I think Greg Kelser is the most important man on the Spartans."

This was the future of professional basketball?

"We've rewritten history on the event," said Dick Enberg, who called the 1979 final for NBC. "It was important in '79 because of the obvious David and Goliath script. But the game itself was really pretty ordinary. The Big Ten monster was obviously a better team.

"You left with the feeling Larry Bird could have gone to any one of 50 mid-major schools, or whatever we tagged them then, and they might have made it to the Final Four. It was Larry Bird and a couple good players [for Indiana State], but Michigan State had three great players -- they had three that went into the NBA.

"You know, Magic wasn't the only star. Greg Kelser was as good as anybody. I remember Al McGuire saying that Kelser was the star of the game. And then you had Jay Vincent and he went on to the big time. It was just a matter of a group of great players ganging up on one great player. And no matter how fast that deer can run, the pack of cheetahs is going to get him."

Still, many view the game as a turning point for college basketball and its annual tournament.

It was the last time an undefeated team played in the final. Indiana State took a 33-0 record into the game.

It was the last time a school from a smaller conference broke through to the championship game. Indiana State, from the Missouri Valley Conference, was mid-major before "mid-major" was part of the media parlance.

It was one of the last finals played in an on-campus arena -- an audience of 15,410 attended the game at the University of Utah's Special Events Center -- before the encroaching madness of the 1980s and 1990s swept those games inside massive domed stadiums.

"That game, the 1979 NCAA championship, was a seminal moment in the history of college basketball," said Crowley Sullivan, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN Classic. "College basketball sort of caught lightning in a bottle, accidentally, when Magic and Bird collided that year. And to this day, it's still the most watched college basketball championship of all time.

"Prior to that, the NCAA tournament was a big deal, but really that's when Magic and Bird ushered in the modern era of March Madness. They really created March Madness. And without that game, I'm not sure that their rivalry throughout the '80s would have necessarily taken on the same mystique.

"That game was basically the appetizer to what they wound up doing throughout the 1980s, which was, in essence, saving the NBA."

Bill Hodges, who coached the 1979 Indiana State team, believes that game "probably started the modern era of Final Fours. Up until that time, you could get a ticket up till game time. You'd go to the coaches dinner, where the Final Four coaches were, and there might be 50, 75, 100 guys. And you knew them all.

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