One of Earvin Johnson's dreams came true today. He got to pretend he was Larry Bird.
There is probably no better Bird imitator around than Johnson and he went into his Bird routines at Michigan State's practice today to help the Spartans get ready to decide Monday night's National Collegiate Basketball Championship against indiana State.
Bird would have been proud, the way Johnson whipped those zinging passes all over the court and dropped in automatic 20-foot jump shots.
Johnson will, shazam, turn back into Magic Johnson for the title game at the University of Utah's Special Events Center (WRC-TV-4 at 9:15). But he enjoyed his day as the Bird.
"We are a lot alike, you know," Johnson said. "He's just more quiet than I am. He's the only one I know who can pass like me, too. Do you think he imitated me in their practice?"
Part of Bird's mystique and effectiveness derives from the fact that most teams the Sycamores play have never been on the floor with a player who can do the spectacular things Bird can do.
"What Bird does is mesmerize the opposition into watching him and his teammates then get open or get into position for rebounds," said De Paul Coach Ray Meyer.
Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote says his Spartans see those unbelievable feats every day by playing with Johnson: "He (*bird) isn't going to do much that we haven't already seen Magic do."
The teams also follow the leads set by their stars. Michigan State is flashy and flamboyant; Indiana State is gutty and scrappy.
"Michigan State definitely has more talent than we do," Bird said, "but I think our guys play a little harder."
De Paul's Meyer, whose team will play Pennsylvania for third place in Monday night's preliminary, said Michigan State has been the dominant team in the tournament from the beginning.
"Indiana State has Bird, but Michigan State has Johnson and (Gregory) Kelser," Meyer said. "That's two to one."
Kelser is Michigan State's 6-7 slamdunking forward, the team's leading scorer and rebounder.
With Kelser and Johnson clicking, the 25-6 Spartans have not been pressed in four tournament games. They beat Lamar by 31 points in the second round, LSU by 18 in the Mideast Regional semifinals, Notre Dame by 12 in the regional final and Penn by 34 in the national semifinals Saturday.
Indiana State, 33-0, has had a more difficult time attaining the final. The Sycamores beat Virginia Tech by 15 in the second round and Oklahoma by 21 in the Midwest Regional semifinals, but eked out two-point victories over Arkansas in the regional final and De Paul here Saturday.
Offensively, both teams want to run and both teams want their money men -- Johnson and Bird -- to handle the ball as much as possible.
Defensively, the teams are diametrically opposed.
Indiana State is primarily a straight man-to-man defensive team.Michigan State prefers a two-three matchup zone.
"We stick with the zone as long as we can and we've always been ahead in every game in the tournament, so we haven't had to go man-to-man yet," Heathcote said.
Michigan State's zone is not a regular zone. The Spartans deploy it with man-to-man principles, always putting pressure on the man with the ball and in fact matching up man-to-man within the zone.
Indiana State definitely will have a matchup problem with Johnson and Kelser.
Carl Nicks, the Sycamores' aggressive 6-2 guard, said he wants to check the 6-8 Johnson. But Coach Bill Hodges said he had not made up his mind on that.
"Carl will probably get a chance at Johnson," Hodges said, "but Brad Miley and Leroy Staley will also probably be on him at times.
"I would normally put Miley on Kelser because he is our best defensive player, but he isn't a great athlete and he doesn't jump too well, so I don't know," the coach added. "I imagine Brad, Alex Gilbert and Larry (Bird) will be on Kelser at various times."
Bird said his fractured left thumb affected his play more against De Paul than it had in previous games. Nonetheless, he made 16 of 19 shots on his way to 35 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists. He made 11 turnovers, though.
"I wouldn't have that many mistakes if my thumb wasn't bothering me," Bird said.
Michigan State's regular center, bulky Jay Vincent., played only nine minutes against Penn because of a bruised foot. But Heathcote said if Vincent is needed Monday he could play 20-25 minutes.