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During March Madness, Echoes of Games Past

April 6, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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Sportswriter Seth Davis's new book "When March Went Mad" details the extraordinary 1979 NCAA championship game that featured the match-up between Michigan State University's Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Indiana State University's Larry Bird. Davis talks about how the legendary game changed basketball.
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GWEN IFILL: March Madness comes to an end tonight, as Michigan State meets North Carolina in the NCAA men’s college basketball final.

For Michigan State, the face-off comes 30 years after a previous showdown that made sports history. Jeffrey Brown spoke with the author of a new book about that game late last week, just before the Final Four took to the courts.

JEFFREY BROWN: For basketball fans, all you have to say is “Magic and Bird.” Irvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird helped transform the game, its competitiveness, its style of play, its popularity, and the vast amounts of money involved.

They did it as professional athletes, of course, in a series of epic battles in the 1980s between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, but it all started on March 26, 1979, Michigan State versus Indiana State, when the two met for the national college championship.

That story is told in “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball.” Its author, Seth Davis, is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated and analyst for CBS Sports.

Well, Seth, one of the things that caught the public imagination at that time was the contrast between the two players and the two schools. Tell us a little bit about that.

SETH DAVIS, author: Well, as much as these guys were alike, Jeff — and they were very much alike in certain respects. They were both big guys who were incredibly skilled. They were great passers. Larry Bird was a great shooter. They even both wore the same number, 33.

But it was really, as you say, the contrast that I think drew people in, the most obvious difference between them being race. Magic was black; Larry was white. But they also had diametrically opposed personalities. Magic Johnson, even back then, was this effusive, outgoing, joyful guy, loved the give-and-take with the media. He would talk to sportswriters until they were out of questions.

Larry Bird on the other hand was a very intensely introverted, really almost pathologically shy individual. When Larry was younger, if he didn’t know you, he really wouldn’t make eye contact with you, wouldn’t want to talk to you.

So Larry Bird actually went through his entire senior season at Indiana State without even talking to the media. So there was this kind of mystique about him. Who is this guy, this mysterious farm boy from French Lick, Indiana? He had gone to Indiana University and dropped out. He was working on a garbage truck. He went to little Indiana State, which played in something out there called the Missouri Valley Conference, whereas Michigan State was this Big Ten powerhouse, had been ranked at the top of the polls all season long.

And yet, Jeff, it was Indiana State, with Larry Bird, who came into this championship game 33-0, undefeated, ranked number one in both the writers’ national polls and the poll that the coaches vote in, and yet they went into that championship game having people wondering, “Are these folks — is this team really for real?”

So it was that dichotomy that I think drew in not just the casual sports fan, but the non-sports fan. And here we are 30 years later. It’s still the highest Nielsen rating generated for any basketball game, college or pro, in the history of the sport.

'The dawn of an era'

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, well, how did it -- you know, in the end, Michigan State won, and these two went on to all kinds of glory, but -- and the game itself wasn't one of the greatest of all times. I think that's agreed to. But how did it, in fact, transform the game, your thesis?

SETH DAVIS: Well, you know, a lot of it, Jeff, has to do with timing. It came along at precisely the right time that it could have a maximum impact not just on the college game, but on the pro game. So it's very unusual that you could have an effect on both levels.

Just start with the fact that the game was played, as you said, on March 26, 1979. ESPN was launched on September 7, 1979, just six months later. So this was literally the dawn of an era.

The NBA was at such a low level of popularity that the NBA finals was not even broadcast on live television back then. It was broadcast on tape delay, so the league was really starved for the infusion of these two exciting rookies.

And then the NCAA tournament was in an expansionist mode. The NCAA was really looking to take the tournament on to the next level. For the 1979 tournament, they had actually expanded the field. They grew it to 40 teams. Over the next five years, they expanded it twice more to get to 64 teams by 1985. And in the 24 years that have passed since then, the tournament has never been expanded again.

So, you know, it's amazing enough in a single elimination format that the two best players in the country could keep winning, keep winning, keep winning to be able to play for the national championship, where one game decides the championship.

And I always go back, Jeff, to something that Bryant Gumbel said. He was hosting the coverage for NBC. And during the pre-game segment, he was talking over some Larry Bird footage. And he says to the audience, "If you've never seen Larry Bird play, you're in for a treat."

So that's why this game had such a psychological impact on people. Not only was it a clash of these two superstars, but for many of the people watching that night, it was a very first time that they ever saw those guys play. And that's an era that, of course, is long past gone by now.

Changes in the game

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess so. I mean, you talk about the changes in the game. You talk about the changes in the business of sports, the changes on television. You said that was the most watched still college or pro basketball game.

Given the fractured nature of media today and the number of channels, is it possible to even contemplate something like that again today?

SETH DAVIS: No, it's not. You know, once you cross that Rubicon, you never go back. I mean, the reason why it will always be the number-one highest-rated game is back then there were only four channels. Now there's about 804. Thank goodness for a guy like me who makes his living talking about this stuff.

No, but just like -- you know, just to give you, you know, modern example, last year on CBS, we had a magnificent national championship game between Kansas and Memphis. The game was sent into overtime by this dramatic three-pointer at the buzzer. That game drew a 12.1 rating, meaning 12 percent of households with television sets were tuned in. The Magic-Bird game drew a 24.1.

So, you know, you get half of that number and you're still doing pretty well. Now, the Super Bowl does much better than that. But from a basketball standpoint, a 24.1 Nielsen rating is never going to happen again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there's some poetic justice that Michigan State at least has made it back to the Final Four. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson themselves are going to be at the championship game, I guess, presenting the game ball or something, doing something. Bring us a little bit up to date on those two. What are they doing now?

SETH DAVIS: Well, Larry Bird is the team president of the Indiana Pacers, so it's kind of an interesting choice of profession for a guy who never liked the limelight, but he's sort of grown into that.

And Magic Johnson runs Magic Johnson. He's the CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises. He's become an enormously successful businessman. He's a brilliant man with great people skills. And he's still as warm and personable and likable as he's ever been.

And, of course, we all remember back in 1991 that he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive. And you never hear about that anymore. He's still HIV-positive, but he never developed AIDS. And the levels of HIV in his system are so miniscule that it's not even really detectable anymore.

So those guys are still very much larger than life. It's been very interesting to see the coverage of this 30-year anniversary, how much people are really enjoying this nostalgic trip down memory lane.

And, you know, the Michigan State Spartans did their part this year and got to the Final Four here in Detroit to give this great city a much-needed financial and spiritual lift and hopefully, you know, maybe sell a few books for me and add to the boost in the economy for my book.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. A plug for the book, which is called "When March Went Mad." Seth Davis, thanks a lot.

SETH DAVIS: Thanks, Jeff.

GWEN IFILL: The women's championship between Connecticut and Louisville tomorrow night has its own drama. Connecticut is trying to become the fifth team to complete an undefeated championship season. Should the Huskies go undefeated, it would be the third time in the school's history.