ESPN was barely a blip on the sports radar screen. Home computers were still more than a decade away. No blogs. No YouTube. No college hoops on TV every night.
Whatever hype surrounded the 1979 NCAA Championship game was largely because the country had read about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in their daily newspapers or issues of The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated or Basketball Weekly, but never actually seen them play live. With Michigan State, Johnson got more TV exposure afforded the Big Ten elite. Exactly what comprised Bird’s game, though, was virtually unknown to the average fan. He had been on the 1978-79 SI Basketball Preview issue, sheepishly smiling behind two cheerleaders who held fingers to their lips to indicate Bird was the nation’s “best kept secret”. Indiana State’s games were televised locally, but Bird’s appearances outside southwest Indiana were rare.
Just 40 teams made the tournament field back then. Normally, Indiana State wouldn’t have had a prayer of getting in, but with a 33-0 record, the Sycamores were impossible to ignore. Led by Bird, they reached the Final Four and then the championship game. Finally, the nation’s two best players would meet. Shackled by a 2-3 match-up zone defense and never able to get into a rhythm, Bird was held to an uncharacteristic 7 of 21 shooting, scoring 19 points in a 75-64 loss. Still, the game had been a hit. It drew a 24.1 television rating. 20 million people had watched. The personalities and abilities of the two players—one a city kid and the other most decidedly a small town boy—was perfect theater for sports television and even the commercials they would eventually shoot together. Thankfully, the entire 1979 NCAA Championship game is still available on video and we can absorb the nostalgia and history now associated with it.
A rivalry that would last another decade was born that night. The following year, Topps’ basketball card set was a quirky offering that had three small pictures on one card, separated by perforations. They put Johnson and Bird on the same card and as the Lakers and Celtics dueled in the NBA Finals. The Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rookie card soared in value; a perfect representation of NBA’s emergence from a funk thanks to its two new superstars. Today, it’s one of the most sought-after and popular basketball rookie cards ever made.
The greatness of Magic and Bird wasn’t fully appreciated until their NBA rivalry heated up. The fact that it all started when the two were in college only served to enhance its stature. They each improved their respective teams instantly. The 1979-80 Celtics improved by 32 games from the year before, finishing 61-21. Bird was the Rookie of the Year, earning 63 votes, but Magic’s 1980 Lakers won the NBA title, the first of five trophies he’d help bring to LA before his career ended. Bird won three NBA Championships in Boston. The 1986 team, featuring Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton, among others, is one of the best NBA teams of all-time.
Bird and Johnson never much liked each other early in their careers. It gradually changed to a mutual respect and then a close friendship as their careers drew to a close not long after they played on the 1992 US Olympic basketball “Dream Team” that won a gold medal.
Both became active and dedicated professionals after their careers ended. Bird has stayed in basketball the longest, currently serving as Director of Operations for the Indiana Pacers. Johnson has built a megabucks business empire. Neither has felt the need to sign autographs at card shows and their signed memorabilia ranks among the most expensive of living players.
Neither could have imagined such success the night of March 26, 1979, when “The Hick From French Lick” met Showtime. The game is chronicled in a new book “When March Went Mad: The Game that Transformed Basketball,” by CBS Sports basketball analyst Seth Davis. Thirty years later, it’s a moment worth remembering.