Rarely does a single game transform an entire sport. Super Bowl III had that effect on professional football, when Joe Namath’s underdog New York Jets defeated the vaunted Baltimore Colts. In his new book, When March Went Mad, sports journalist Seth Davis examines the “catalytic event” that changed modern basketball: the 1979 NCAA title game, which “helped to catapult college basketball, and especially the NCAA tournament, into the national consciousness.”
Today, “March Madness” is an American institution. Every year, millions of us participate in office pools, regardless of how much (or how little) we know or care about college hoops. President Obama’s 2009 NCAA tournament bracket is posted on the White House website. Obama correctly picked the champion, the North Carolina Tar Heels, who on Monday night easily dispatched the Michigan State Spartans by a score of 89–72.
Thirty years ago in Salt Lake City, a different Michigan State squad played for the NCAA crown. Its best player would go on to become a basketball legend. The Spartans’ opponent in that championship game, the Indiana State Sycamores, also boasted a future NBA superstar. The hype surrounding this contest — and these two players — was enormous. Indeed, before Michigan State’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird created the NBA’s most ferocious rivalry, they were the central attractions in an NCAA final that drew unprecedented television ratings, “kicked off a six-year stretch that could fairly be characterized as the golden era of the NCAA tournament,” and signaled the coming renaissance of professional basketball.
Davis, a CBS Sports analyst and writer for Sports Illustrated
, offers a fascinating portrait of the two players — their backgrounds, their personalities, and the immense pressures generated by their celebrity status. “For all of their similarities,” he writes, “these two guys could not have been more different.” Magic soaked up media attention and possessed an infectious charm. (“As long as you got the questions, I got the answers,” he told reporters at a press conference before the 1979 championship game.) Bird hated talking to the press and came across as aloof. Magic was an African-American city kid from Lansing, Mich. Bird was a white farm boy from rural Indiana.
Their respective teams were a study in contrasts, as well. Michigan State seesawed through an uneven 1978–79 season that included six defeats, including a “humiliating” 83–65 loss to Northwestern. But it also played in a top-tier conference (the powerful Big Ten) and was heavily favored against Indiana State. Heading into the 1979 title game, the Sycamores had compiled a stunning 33–0 record, yet skeptics pointed to their relatively weak competition in the lowly Missouri Valley Conference. Malcolm Moran of the New York Times called them “the most unknown undefeated team in the country.” Davis says that Indiana State would have been “the most unlikely NCAA champion in history.”
Hyped beyond all measure, the game turned out to be disappointing. “It wasn’t particularly well played — it certainly wasn’t well officiated — and though it was competitive for most of the second half, it did not end in dramatic fashion,” writes Davis. Bird “turned in by far his worst performance of the season,” committing six turnovers, dishing out only two assists (his lowest total all year), and shooting 33 percent from the field. The Spartans won by 11 points, 75–64.
Though it may have been anticlimactic, the game proved a ratings bonanza for NBC. “Nielsen Media Research reported that the contest had generated a 24.1 rating, which meant that nearly a quarter of all television sets in America were tuned in that night,” Davis writes. “Thirty years later, that remains the highest Nielsen rating for any basketball game, college or pro, in the history of the sport.”