In March of 1979, a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania caused alarm coast to coast. The first Space Shuttle was delivered for use to Cape Kennedy. And there being no NCAA tournament yet for women’s basketball, Old Dominion beat Louisiana Tech for something called the AIAW title.
In March of 1979, the Seattle SuperSonics and Washington Bullets were in the closing stages of an NBA season that would end with them meeting for the title. But in a glaring sign of just how low the league had sagged, game 2 on a Thursday night was not even shown live in the East, but rather on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. The NBA Finals were not considered good enough for prime time.
In March of 1979, two extraordinary college basketball players — one from the factory side of Lansing, Michigan, the other from a small town in southern Indiana — met on a court in Salt Lake City. Their sport would never be the same.
It was the most fortuitous and fateful of plot twists for the game, when Magic Johnson and Michigan State faced Larry Bird and Indiana State. The NCAA tournament was still looking for a post-John Wooden identity, while pondering more expansion from its 24-team field in the 1980s. Clearly, the NBA was in dire need of an infusion of . . . something.
It was not a great game that night in Utah. Not in terms of last-second drama, anyway. Michigan State took the lead and relentlessly suffocated Indiana State with zone defense that had been worked on the day before, when the role of Larry Bird in practice had been played by Magic Johnson. It would end 75-64, with 24 points from Johnson, with 19 points and 13 rebounds from Bird, who struggled with his shot, missing 14 of 21 attempts. Nor was the crowd memorably large: barely 15,000 in those days before domes.
But the grandeur of the moment was impossible to miss. There was something about the two giants sharing stage for the first time — with their similarities and their differences — that had the nation turning to its TVs. It was the highest rated NCAA tournament game ever at the time. Four decades later, it still is. So what made them such perfect partners, the effervescent Johnson and earnest Bird, to take the tournament to another level, and later maybe save the NBA?
“Because we played the game the right way,” Johnson said years later. “We didn’t play it for ourselves, we played it for our teams. We were two unique guys being over 6-8, being able to handle the ball, being able to score inside, outside, being able to make the right pass to our teammates. Because we didn’t’ really care about scoring, we cared about winning . . . and then you have one player black, one player white, one player smiling, one player who don’t.”
Bird: “Playing each other . . . it was the ultimate experience for me, because I finally found somebody who thought and played the game the way I thought it should be played.”
Their teams had taken different journeys to that Monday night: Michigan State was 25-6 and had endured the January blahs, losing four of six games, including an 18-point thumping at Northwestern, who would finish the season 6-21. Indiana State had not even been picked to win its own conference, but Bird’s brand of magic had the Sycamores perfect at 33-0.
Each man understood what was coming. Two days before in the semifinals, had Bird managed one more assist, they both would have had triple doubles. Talk about your promo for the championship game.
Bird produced 35 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists in Indiana State’s two-point win over DePaul.
“We went back to the hotel and we were like, `Oh my goodness, what are we gonna do to contain Larry Bird?’” Johnson said in 2009, when the 30th anniversary of the game was celebrated. “We had never seen a player like Larry Bird.”
Johnson had 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists as the Spartans crushed Penn 101-67.
“After the DePaul game, I remember back at the hotel I had some time to myself,” Bird said. “I was thinking, `If I don’t score 40 points Monday night, we don’t have a chance to win.’”
Jud Heathcote’s game plan was not about to let him get 40. “They had me covered pretty well. They had a guy in front of me, a guy in back of me,” Bird said. “When I put it on the floor, somebody else was coming.”
When Indiana State erected a Bird statue on campus in Terre Haute in 2013 — making bloody well sure it was taller than the Magic statue in East Lansing — Bird was still brooding about a night 34 years before.
“You never get over that. It’s impossible to get over it when you have your heart broken. I knew going into that game that I was going to have to play the best game I’d ever played in my life, and I didn’t do it. I let us all down.”
That contest might be one of college basketball’s golden moments, but he has never watched a replay. He never will. “I know how it ended.”
Said Johnson in 2009, “I’ve watched it enough for him and I.”
Together, the two men gave the NCAA tournament a momentum push to take into the next decade, when the field would be expanded to 64 teams, making room for all the underdogs and giving birth to March Madness. Then they midwifed a rebirth for the NBA.
As Johnson once said, “There would be no Magic Johnson without Larry Bird.” And vice versa. That’s why an 11-point game in Utah can never be forgotten.