Bird vs. Magic 1979 NCAA Championship Game Launched March Madness

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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, March 26, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did this. With all due respect to John Wooden and his 10 championships at UCLA, the Bruins dominated what was then merely a basketball tournament. But Magic and Bird, 30 years ago Thursday night, gave us March Madness.

The game itself, on the evening of March 26, 1979, wasn't the best championship game ever. Playing for Indiana State, Bird missed 14 of 21 shots and Michigan State was in control for essentially the entire game. Magic's greatest performance had come two days earlier, in the national semifinals, when he ran the University of Pennsylvania off the court with a triple-double. But no basketball game, before or since, college or professional, produced the anticipation, television ratings, impact or reaction of Indiana State-Michigan State, Bird vs. Magic.

Most people, in a television audience of about 20 million, had never seen either man play live on TV. Few had seen Bird, who had been on national television only three times all season, even though the Sycamores were undefeated. A great many, having heard stories about Bird's shooting and passing skills, were stunned to turn on the game that night and find that Bird was white.

College basketball, by today's standards, was primitive in 1979. Coaches usually didn't have film of an upcoming opponent and because scouting was outsourced, coaches from out of conference had never seen Bird nor Magic until the teams took the court. It seemed as if everything about college basketball changed that night, and dramatically so.

In "When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball," a must-read book for any basketball fan, Seth Davis chronicles how the championship game between Bird and Magic kicked off a six-year stretch that took the NCAA tournament from basketball event to calendar-defining cultural festival, every minute of which is televised.

In 1979, the NCAA tournament had a 40-team field. It was expanded twice over the next six years, to 48 teams in 1980 and 64 teams in 1985. The rights fees, only $5.2 million in 1979, doubled in 1980, went to $48 million in 1982 (when CBS snatched the tournament from NBC) and doubled to $96 million in 1985. Now, it's $6 billion over 11 years.

On the court, Bird-Magic kicked off an era that in just six years gave us Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, all of whom played in the NCAA tournament title game. The Big East and ESPN were born. And as Al McGuire is quoted as saying in Davis's book: "The college game was already on the launching pad. Then Bird and Magic came along and pushed the button."

And nobody had expected any of it when the 1978-79 season began. Indiana State was a nice little team that simply hoped to win its conference, the Missouri Valley, and make it to the NCAA tournament in Bird's senior season. Magic and Michigan State -- which also featured forward Greg Kelser, a future first-round NBA draft pick -- were talented but seemed just a little less than they should have been in the Big Ten.

I can't remember the correct night to put out the garbage these days, but I remember so much of that winter of '79 like it was yesterday. I was a junior at Northwestern University, but worked that winter as an intern at the Lafayette Journal and Courier in Indiana. Not knowing a soul outside the newsroom became a blessing because parts of Indiana, even then, had cable television.

I could (and did) walk to my apartment every night and watch college basketball from somewhere in the region.

Ray Meyer's DePaul team, featuring a freshman named Mark Aguirre, was Final Four-bound and always on WGN. Digger Phelps's Notre Dame team had been to the Final Four a season earlier. Purdue and Indiana seemed to be on most nights. Then there was a team from Terre Haute, Ind., featuring Bird that just kept winning, every night. It was unbelievable to follow, like our own little Midwestern secret. Nobody outside Indiana and maybe Illinois knew what conference the Sycamores were in or whom they played or how they got to be undefeated.


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