On March 26, 1979, two names that are synonymous with one another clashed for the first time on the basketball court. It was on this day that the Michigan State Spartans played against the Indiana State Sycamores for the men's basketball national title in Salt Lake City, Utah. This was a day in basketball history that forever is remembered because of Earvin "Magic" Johnson playing against Larry Bird for the first time in their storied rivalry.
Michigan State was 26-5 heading into the national championship after pounding Pennsylvania 101-67 in the Final Four matchup. Jud Heathcote's team was led by Magic Johnson and they also had a convincing win over No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the Elite Eight in the Mideast Region.
Indiana State was undefeated at 33-0 heading into this contest and reached the final game after beating a tough DePaul team 76-74. Head coach Bill Hodge had star forward Larry Bird leading the team. Bird also had a fractured thumb just a few weeks before, but it didn't stop him from having a near triple-double in the Final Four against DePaul with 35 points, 16 rebounds, and nine assists in that game.
At the time, basketball on both the pro and college levels were not widely televised in all markets. In fact, most fans only had seen some video highlights or in newspapers of both teams and players because it was mostly viewed as a second class sport to the majority of the country.
The championship game with the two future rivals went on to become the highest rated game in the history of college basketball on television. And this was only the beginning of greatness to a sport that was in desperate need of something positive.
The game itself was very competitive between both teams, but the defense from Michigan State overwhelmed Indiana State. Bird really never got on track only shooting 7-for-21 from the floor, and Michigan State pulled away with a 75-64 victory to clinch the national championship.
Bird had already been drafted by the Boston Celtics in the 1978 NBA Draft at No. 6 overall. At the time, teams could hold on to draft picks from the previous year until a rule change later prevented that. As it was, Bird helped the Celtics reclaim their glory on the court.
After seeing the New Orleans Jazz finish with the worst record in the league, the Los Angeles Lakers were able to guarantee themselves the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft after a trade in 1976 between the teams. Teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences would then have a coin flip to determine the top pick in the NBA Draft. The Chicago Bulls had the worst overall record, and called th coin flip which they lost. The Lakers won the rights to draft first in 1979.
Johnson declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft, and it was no secret that he was the No. 1 rated player going in. So the Lakers landed Magic Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick and this move was very significant in the rise of the NBA.
The Celtics and Lakers had an intense rivalry in the 1960s and into the 1970s that was mostly dominated by Boston. The NBA's ratings were slipping, and had a negative image that mainly came as a result of on-court fights that damaged the league's reputation. But then Bird-Magic came along. The two teams were so different and this fueled the NBA to heights never seen before.
Boston was a blue-collar town, and Los Angeles was show business. It was East vs West. The half-court play of Boston vs the fast-paced play of the Lakers. The two most successful franchises in NBA history had finally been able to recapture their past glory in a way that not only saved the NBA, but the very existence of the sport of basketball.
Bird and Magic will always remain synonymous with one another for their epic on the court feud and the way they helped lead the NBA to unseen heights. The Celtics and Lakers needed these two to make it happen, and they are a major reason why the league was able to expand again in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Ratings between the two teams were always high, and at least one of the two teams played in the NBA Finals every year from 1980 until 1990 when the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers end the run.
Although Michael Jordan forever made his mark on the sport when he joined the NBA, it was Magic and Bird that brought the sport much needed notoriety and fame. Jordan took the torch from them to lead the NBA to record ratings in the 1990s when the Chicago Bulls took over the league.
This was a time before ESPN came on the air which they would eventually do later in the year. ESPN was able to do its part in bringing life to the sport of basketball after years of being seen in local regions across the country.
If there was ever a time that the sport of basketball needed a shot in the arm to turn its negative image around, this was it. This day in basketball history is as important as any in the sport's history. No one at the time knew that this national championship game would mark the beginning of the rise of the sport of basketball. The financially successful game is why March Madness is what it is today, too. For us basketball fans out there, this is one day in history that we should all be thankful for. Even as a big Chicago Bulls fan, I wouldn't have had this any other way.
I wanted to show how their rivalry to the pro level changed the game. Here's an article by ESPN and Washington Post Sports Columnist Michael Wilbon about his take on why this game became the staple for March Madness: 30 Years Ago, March Madness Tipped Off. For the record, I think Wilbon is a great columnist and he presents solid facts to back his opinion up in that article. I'm sure this will be debated on PTI, too.
Also, I wrote an article that received critical praise from the Associated Content staff on their site last year that talked about the 1976 trade that started the rise of the NBA(admittedly, some writing errors do exist in the article): How the NBA was Changed by a Trade & Coin Flip.
This is a topic going around pretty well on the internet today, too. Nice to see many remembering the impact this game had on the sport of basketball.
Photo courtesy of USA Today.
Thanks for viewing, and I hope you enjoyed today's sports history flashback!
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