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During March Madness, Echoes of Games Past

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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    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.


    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.

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