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TGS COLLEGE HOOPS...THE GAME THAT TRANSFORMED THE GAME?
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


You know the old saying, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” So, too, can sports forecasting. Take, for example, ourselves at TGS and CBS and SI.com hoops analyst Seth Davis. We don’t think we subconsciously have anything against Duke grads like Davis, as our disagreements over the years with him have had less to do with where Davis went to school than the opinions he often presents on the air and on the web. (Although we tend to agree with things said by Seth more than we agree with his papa Lanny, but that’s another story for another day.) We were, however, glad to be on the same side as Davis on the recent Selection Sunday, when, like us, one of Seth’s strongest recommendations in a first-round game was Virginia Commonwealth over UCLA. After all, we are an objective bunch here at TGS (or at least like to think we are).

Seth Davis, however, has raised our ire once again, although this time he’s done it inadvertently. He’s the author of a new book entitled “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball,” chronicling the 1979 NCAA title game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. Not that Davis didn’t do a nice job; to the contrary, the book is good, and one that most college hoop fans ought to have in their own libraries.

We just disagree with the entire premise of the book, because unlike Davis, we remember what was going on in 1979. And as interesting as the first Magic-Bird encounter was that night in Salt Lake City, we believe the importance of MSU-Indiana State has been blown so far out of proportion by various members of the media (like Davis) that we think it’s time to cut through the hype and set the record straight.

Simply, MSU-Indiana State wasn’t the game that transformed basketball. The eventual contributions of Magic and Bird to the sport were enormous, but their first meeting has gained a lot more stature in retrospect than it really deserves.

Davis is not alone leading the cheers for Bird and Magic. Indeed, it’s become chic for a generation of sports journalists to grant superficial homage to the 1979 title game. And maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Davis, just a grade schooler at the time of the MSU-Indiana State contest. He’s been led on by an army of like-minded hoop thinkers who consider it sacrilegious to downplay the importance of the Magic-Bird phenomenon. Perhaps we should save our criticism for those like the Washington Post's and ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, another member of the MSU-Indiana State bandwagon was attending college (Northwestern) at the time and old enough to have a better perspective on events in the ‘70s and ‘80s . Like Davis’ interpretation, however, one of Wilbon’s recent articles in the post also grossly overplays the significance and impact of that 1979 matchup.

Where we believe most journalists miss the mark on MSU-Indiana State is assigning the same significance to that particular game as they do the enormous contributions that Magic and Bird themselves made to the game of basketball throughout their careers. While it’s true Bird and Magic were two of the most-important hoopsters of theirs or any generation, the rivalry between them and their teams really blossomed in later years, while both were in the NBA. The fact is that MSU-Indiana State was neither a great nor particularly exciting contest. We have always thought the 1984 NBA Finals, in which the Celtics overcame the Lakers in a pulsating 7 games, was in truth the defining moment of the whole Magic vs. Bird rivalry. And we suggest college hoops would have still soared to all of the heights it has achieved in the 30 years since had Michigan State and Indiana State never squared off in that ‘79 title game.

First, let us try to place the 1979 Michigan State-Indiana State title game in its proper historical context. It was a very important game in the evolution of college basketball. Not just that retrospection indicates it as such. It was, after all, the beginning of what was to become the defining rivalry—Johnson vs. Bird—of pro basketball in the '80s, one that many credit for putting the NBA "back on the map" before Michael Jordan took it to atmospheric heights. On that front, at least, we will acknowledge the interpretations of MSU-Indiana State by Davis, Wilbon and their like-minded friends.

But it's also hard to envision the dynamics of that '78-79 college season—in particular, the comet-like appearance of an entity such as Indiana State—being duplicated. Not that Bird was an unknown quantity entering the campaign—he was on most All-American teams the previous year (when he ranked 2nd nationally in scoring at 30.0 ppg) and had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's '78-79 college hoop preview. Remember, in those days, the cover of Sports Illustrated was a greater validator of importance than nightly highlights on ESPN’s Sports Center thirty years later. So Bird was indeed on the national radar from the beginning of the ‘78-79 campaign. Yet there was little to indicate that the Sycamores were going to improve much upon their 23-9, NIT-qualifying '77-78 squad, especially since six of their top nine had graduated. Plus, HC Bob King had been forced to step down because of illness, replaced by assistant Bill Hodges. But after the season began, the Sycamores started winning and kept on winning, climbing in the polls. And by late January, when everyone ahead of ISU in the rankings had long since lost a game (or two or three), the Sycamores assumed the number one spot in the polls.

And therein lies one of the inaccuracies about the interpretation of Wilbon and others, because Bird had become very big news in the college basketball world by that midseason. It was not as if Bird and the Sycamores just happened to show up at the Big Dance that year; they were indeed a known quantity well before the tourney commenced.

Meanwhile, Magic Johnson's credentials were already well-established from the previous season (his freshman year) when he nearly led the Spartans into the Final Four, losing in the Elite 8 to Goose Givens and Kentucky’s eventual national champs by a narrow 52-49 scoreline. And, believe it or not, Johnson, though the driving force of HC Jud Heathcote's crew, wasn't even the leading scorer for MSU in '79, an honor instead held by PF Greg Kelser (18.8 ppg vs. Magic's 17.1 ppg). Along with another future pro, F Jay Vincent, the Spartans were menacing, but hardly unbeatable.

There was even a perception among some hoop insiders that MSU might be vulnerable, a belief perhaps borne from an early-season game at East Lansing against heavy underdog Cal State Fullerton, itself an Elite 8 team (albeit a surprise one) the previous year. Shrewd Titan HC Bobby Dye devised an effective “anti-Magic” strategy, playing CSF’s smaller point guard, Mike Linden, well off Johnson and daring him to shoot from the perimeter, which Magic didn’t like to do in those days. Careening into the lane as usual, Johnson was effectively taken out of the game by Dye after picking up a handful of charging calls thanks to Linden, who merely backed off Magic and positioned himself to take the charge. Meanwhile, Johnson was visibly intimidated by Fullerton enforcer Mike Niles, with whom Magic had no interest in tangling. Given what transpired later in Niles’ life (he’s currently serving a life sentence), perhaps Johnson had the right idea not to mess with the Titans’ hard man. Kelser, however, had picked up the slack while Johnson was held to single-digit scoring by CSF, fueling another belief held by some that Kelser (whose NBA career was eventually sidetracked by a serious knee injury) was the real man to fear on that Spartan squad.

Although you’d never know it from a legion of modern-day journalists such as Seth Davis and Michael Wilbon, the 1978-79 season was about a lot more than Magic and Bird. From the outset of '78-79, MSU was just one of several teams considered a serious threat for the championship, though they were the only one of the preseason favorites (which also included Duke, UCLA, Kansas, & Notre Dame) to make it Salt Lake City for that year's Final Four. Bird’s ISU emerged as a serious threat after the season commenced. The Spartans, after struggling in the middle of the Big Ten campaign, had righted themselves down the stretch and entered the Final Four as the team to beat, but were hardly the main storyline leading up to the festivities in Salt Lake.

And, to the surprise of those like Davis and Wilbon (who, as a sharp Northwestern alum should recall things better), neither did Bird dominate the pre-Final Four hype.

Instead, the real story heading into that year’s Final Four was the presence of DePaul and “The Coach,” veteran Ray Meyer, under whom the Blue Demons were making their first “official” Final Four visit. Meyer had previously taken the Blue Demons to the national semifinals...in 1943, nine years before one-site Final Fours began for the 1952 event at Seattle, and 36 years prior to the ‘79 Final Four. Meyer provided a hard-to-top human-interest story leading up to that Final Four that neither Bird’s Sycamores nor Magic’s Spartans could touch. Further, the Blue Demons reached Salt Lake City in dramatic fashion, beating UCLA in a pulsating West Regional final, 95-91, and were doing so with an “iron man five” that often played the entire 40 minutes and was led by super frosh Mark Aguirre. Hailing from a media center such as Chicago and conquering UCLA (which was still a big deal in those days) in the West Regional final, the Blue Demons became an awfully big story, and quickly.

In truth, it was DePaul, not Indiana or Michigan State, that was the main storyline and national darling heading into that Final Four!

Moreover, there was another interesting storyline heading into Salt Lake City, as Penn became the first Ivy team since Bill Bradley’s Princeton Tigers fourteen years earlier to reach the Final Four. Bob Weinhauer’s Quakers were considered the decided underdogs of the quartet, but nonetheless sparked a lot of their own interest thanks to their Ivy League affiliation. In retrospect, maybe the most-remarkable thing about that ‘79 Final Four was Penn’s inclusion, as no Ivy entry has come close to the Final Four since.

Despite its unbeaten record and top ranking, ISU was not the favorite entering the Final Four. Bird’s Sycamores had barely slipped by Sidney Moncrief’s Arkansas in the Midwest Regional final, 73-71, before ruining the Ray Meyer DePaul dream in the semis by another narrow 2-point margin, 76-74. Meanwhile, MSU took care of overmatched Penn 101-67. The MSU-ISU Final was finally set.

To say that the entire season was a prelude to Spartans-Sycamores, however, would be terribly inaccurate. As we’ve noted above, it was certainly not an inevitable matchup that season, given the other high-profile teams and other interesting storylines involved in 1979. And let’s also remember that the national press had all of 48 hours to hype the Bird-Magic meeting. Compared to a more-meaningful college game, the epic 1968 UCLA-Houston regular-season clash at the Astrodome, or even a more-inevitable Big Dance collision, such as NC State-UCLA in 1974, the hype for MSU-Indiana State was really rather subdued.

And the MSU-Indiana State contest itself was unremarkable, as the deeper, more-talented Spartans, 5½-point favorites, disposed of Bird's ISU team in workmanlike fashion, 75-64. There were some flashes of brilliance in the game—Johnson scored 24, Kelser 19, Bird 19 (on 7-21 shooting), but the contest lacked the sustained drama that has been the trademark of many NCAA championship battles. MSU was champion, but with a 26-6 record it was not being mentioned in the same breath as college basketball's all-time great teams. And it doesn’t come close to being mentioned alongside some of the great title games in NCAA history, certainly buried somewhere in the bottom half of championship battles in the 52 seasons we have been publishing TGS.

Those are hardly "The Game That Transformed The Game" credentials!

(The Sycamores, as many predicted, proved to a blip on college basketball's radar screen, disappearing from the national scene thereafter as quickly as they had appeared. The Spartans experienced some subsequent lean years, too, failing to better .500 the next three seasons and not returning to the "Big Dance" until 1986).

Those like Davis and Wilbon who still believe MSU-ISU to be "The Game That Transformed The Game" often point to the all-time high (for an NCAA Final) TV ratings the game generated as proof of its significance. TV ratings, however, can form an inaccurate gauge, especially when measuring events from different eras. Why? Keep in mind that the 1979 MSU-ISU game preceded the proliferation of pay-per-view and cable TV alternatives (especially including ESPN, which began broadcasting on only a limited basis that year) that have forever skewed ratings comparisons between different generations. (To wit—the February, 1977 TV movie Roots and the February, 1983 final episode of M*A*S*H still rank among the highest-ever rated TV shows, and the NFL has never topped the TV ratings it earned in 1981). But, with the possible exception of 1980 & '81, more viewers (millions more in recent years) have tuned into every subsequent NCAA championship than watched that MSU-ISU game.

Consider, too, that several NCAA championships subsequent to 1979 went head-to-head with other high-profile events—many times the Academy Awards, or, in 1981, news updates after the assassination attempt on President Reagan earlier that day. 1979 MSU-ISU had no such distractions. And we suggest that an MSU-DePaul finale, or a title game involving the storyline that would have been attached to Ivy League Penn participating in the final, or had still-glamorous UCLA made it out of the West Regional and faced Michigan State in the title game, would have all had similar, if not slightly-higher ratings, than MSU-Indiana State.

Whatever the foes for title game in ‘79, whether it had been Michigan State-DePaul, Penn-Indiana Sate, or UCLA-Mchigan State, the stars were simply aligned for it to be the highest-ever rated TV game!

THE REAL "GAMES THAT TRANSFORMED HOOPS"


We’ll challenge Seth Davis, Michael Wilbon, and any others who want to nominate that overhyped (in retrospect) MSU-Indiana State title game and its importance to the sport against a few other contests we believe more rightly deserve that mantle of “The Game That Transformed The Game.”

Many college hoop aficionados will offer UCLA-Houston, January 20, 1968, as the crown jewel of games. And it can be reasonably argued that UCLA-Houston I in 1968 (they were to meet again in the NCAA Final Four two months later), more than any other game, changed the course of college basketball.

The on-court dynamics of that 1968 clash were delicious enough. Top-ranked UCLA, led by C Lew Alcindor (before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), was the defending national champion and entered the contest on a 47-game winning streak, on course to break USF's all-time win streak of 60 in a row before the end of the season. Houston was ranked No. 2 and was led by its own All-American, F Elvin Hayes. The site was the Astrodome, a mind-boggling proposition at the time for a basketball game, especially because its construction had never envisioned a basketball-seating configuration. (By the way, a trench had to be dug around the court for team benches, broadcasters, and the press corps because they would otherwise make it impossible for many in premium box seats—still 40 or so yards away—to see the action!).

But the anticipation for the clash had been building since the previous fall, when the matchup was announced. (By comparison, the 1979 MSU-ISU game had practically no buildup—just the two days between the national semifinals and championship game). There was no problem selling tickets for UCLA-Houston, as 52,693 fans, many of whom needed binoculars to see the action, packed the dome. There was added intrigue, too, regarding Alcindor's status, as he had suffered an eye injury eight nights earlier (courtesy of an inadvertent thumb from Cal G Rusty Critchfield) and hadn't contributed since. Still, the Bruins were perceived as dominant, though the spread reflected questions regarding Alcindor's condition, with UCLA dropping from an opening 12, to 10-point favorites at tipoff.

The surreal setting for the matchup didn't detract from the game. If anything, it may have enhanced the drama, which was significant. The Cougars were ready to "deal" that night, and Hayes was magnificent, scoring 29 in the first half, clearly outplaying the handicapped Alcindor. But the Bruins were within 46-43 at the intermission. Hayes' pace slowed in the second half, yet the drama accelerated, as neither could pull away. Tied twice in the final minutes, the Cougars went ahead for good, 71-69, thanks to a pair of Hayes FTs with :28 to play, and hung on to win by that score in the dramatic final seconds. Hayes finished with 39 points; Alcindor 15.

(Two months later, with a healthier Alcindor, UCLA earned its revenge, and then some, in the Final Four, routing the Cougars 101-69, at the L.A. Sports Arena. But the indelible mark on the college game had been made in January at the Astrodome.)

The significance of UCLA-Houston, however, can hardly be measured by what transpired on the court. After that game, college basketball suddenly assumed a prominent position on the American sports map. UCLA-Houston made the cover of Sports Illustrated the next week ("Big E Over Big Lew"), which, like Bird’s appearance on the SI cover for the college hoop preview issue in late ‘78, was in those days a significant validation of its importance. It was the first nationally-televised regular-season game (syndicated by Eddie Einhorn's TVS), a precursor to high-profile intersectionals that eventually became part of the college hoop landscape. Major networks took notice. By 1969, NBC would secure rights to the NCAA Tournament. TVS (eventually to form a partnership with NBC in '75) and a variety of regional syndicators flourished in the next few years, giving college hoops a stronger foothold on TV and gaining further attention from major networks. It was also the first truly made-for-TV college hoop event. "Dome basketball," unheard of prior to 1968 (when the Astrodome was the only domed stadium) and still a far-fetched notion into the '70s, eventually became commonplace—domes are now required sites for all Final Fours. And the national TV audience got its first introduction that night to someone who would eventually become one of its most-recognizable play-by-play names—Dick Enberg. (By the way, Enberg's color analyst that night was ex-LSU and St. Louis Hawk star Bob Pettit).

Indeed, our first look at what a spectacle college basketball was to become came that night at the Astrodome in 1968....not at Salt Lake City eleven years later.

A case for the NC State-UCLA national semifinal at Greensboro in 1974, when the Wolfpack ended the Bruins’ 7-year title streak and 38-game NCAA win streak, can also be made as a true transformational and important game in the history of college hoops. As well as NC State’s riveting 103-100 overtime win over Maryland in that season’s ACC Tourney title game. As we mentioned on these pages a couple of weeks ago, that was the game that moved the NCAA to break down its barriers and allow at-large teams, and not just conference title holders, into the Big Dance. More long-term consequences for the sport from that one than Magic vs. Bird as well.

And again we challenge those who want to credit MSU-Indiana State for everything positive that has happened in college hoops since. We also believe the move of the NCAA Tournament to CBS for the 1981-82 season was a more-meaningful development in the progress of the college game than the Magic-Bird 1979 finale. CBS’s coverage of college hoops, and the Big Dance, was more comprehensive than NBC’s, and if there were two games that we believe really set college hoops ablaze, it was the finales of the 1982 and ‘83 seasons, the first two years CBS telecast the tournament.

Of course, in 1982, a frosh named Michael Jordan canned the winning baseline jumper in the final seconds for North Carolina in a riveting title clash vs. Georgetown, whose appearance on the national stage in the early ‘80s was perhaps a more-important development in the ascension of college basketball than anything Bird or Magic or their teams did while they were in school. Simply, the menacing Hoyas gave fans across the country someone to cheer against for the fist time since John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty ended in the mid ‘70s. The introduction of Jordan to the nation would also qualify as a landmark event in college hoops. And the magic of athletics, and college basketball in particular, was never better exemplified than by the wild bobsled run made by Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State Wolfpack through the ‘83 tourney, culminated in the pulsating 54-52 final win over Clyde Drexler’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” Houston Cougars courtesy Lorenzo Charles’ stunning dunk at the end of a long-range Derrick Whittenberg airball at the buzzer. The reverberations from that game, and indeed the entire ‘83 tourney run by NC State, are felt to this day, as the rules committee, reacting to Valvano’s nervy fouling tactics in that Houston game and throughout the Dance, forever changed the free throw rules thereafter, as teams would be shooting one-and-ones only on the 7th, 8th, and 9th team fouls on the opposition; all fouls beginning with the 10th would bring 2-shot penalties. By comparison, Magic-Bird ‘79 had no such long-lasting impact. We’ll always believe the thrills of that NCS-Houston game, complete with Valvano running on to the court looking for someone to hug after Charles’ shocking dunk at the end, fired up college basketball and turned on more fans to the sport than anything about the rather drab 1979 MSU-Indiana State contest.

In conclusion, we suppose Seth Davis and Michael Wilbon are entitled to their own opinions about the most-important and transformational college game. We just like our opinions on the subject a bit better!


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