You look at college basketball today it almost seems like it’s been like this forever. Like the States have always been crazy about the NCAA tournament. Well, they were not! Back in the late 70s the March wasn’t mad at all. People did not care too much about what was going on during this today magical month. Back in the late 70s there was no hype surrounding the tournament. TV ratings were low, analysis was rough, players were hardly known to a broader audience.
But in spring of 1979 things started to get different. A tension was growing. Everyone wanted to see this one single matchup. Not a matchup of two teams, a clash between two players. Magic and Bird. Bird and Magic. That was all people could think about. They wanted this single game to happen. And it happened. Magic and Bird met in the 1979 championship game – and changed college ball forever.
Bird? Must be Black!
Granted, having Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing competing for a championship in the years to follow might have helped as well, but without that Magic-Bird clash thinks would very likely have been different. It was the circumstances that made it so special.
For a start, many had only heard of the things those two were capable of. Although not having lost a single game that season, Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, for example, had only been on national TV three times. Hence people had only heard about this young fella from French Lick, Indiana, about his crazy passing game, his deadly shooting. Of course they had made up their mind, though. They had a certain picture in mind. A picture Bird did not quite fit. Because, you know, people expected the then not yet “Legend” to be black. Surprise! He wasn’t – and isn’t.
Magic, that didn’t come as surprise, was and is. So there they were. The introverted white guy with the deadly shot from Indiana State, and the charismatic, always smiling magician from Michigan State. They were the perfect antipoles. If they hadn’t been, their respective games might have been enough, but this set-up made the duel special.
It overshadowed everything. Magic and Bird overshadowed everything. Especially since the two rivals did not yet show too much affection for each other. They were far from being what you would call friends. After having played together as reserves in an amateur tournament in Kentucky a couple of years back, having beaten the starters on every single occasion, Johnson wasn’t averse of the thought, “but Larry didn’t want none of that. So I started disliking him, too”, recalls Magic.
All about Bird and Magic
Hence, the basis for a fierce rivalry was laid. Oh, and did I mention that this particular championship game marked the first time the two ever faced each other? Even Spielberg wouldn’t need more to build up tension. Anyway, the public was up for it. They didn’t care about Michigan State or Indiana State, but they cared about Magic and Bird. Heck, it was only Magic vs. Bird. Of all TVs, that had been turned on that night in the whole US of A, 35 percent tuned in to the clash between the nations two most highly anticipated young talents.
And so it began. Michigan State won the tip-off, the game was on. With Bird only hitting 7 of his 21 shots and Michigan State pulling away for an eleven-point win, some might say the game didn’t hold up to the expectations. Come on! It went far beyond sports. Far beyond a single result.
Bird’s Toughest Loss
It much more marked the beginning of a rivalry that did not only propel college ball to new highs, but went on to – as many believe – safe the NBA. 8 of the 10 championship rings the Association gave away in the 80s either belonged to Johnson’s Lakers (5) or Bird’s Celtics (3). That’s insane! There was mutual respect, yes, yet a huge amount of rivalry going on between the two – until a Converse commercial made them realize, how alike they were. Until they finally became close friends.
Back then, though, they were just two young talents, the best in the country, who had grown up in the Midwest, who had been taught the game a similar way and had been playing college ball a four hour drive apart from each other. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson might have changed an entire sport, saved an entire league, yet, to this day, they still think back to that one game that started it all. To “Larry Legend” the loss is even “the toughest one I’ve ever taken”, as he admitted on David Letterman’s „Late Show“.
The Good Ol’ Days
With that quote in mind, it is now time to think back at this memorable picture. Bird, just having lost the championship game in his final appearance as a Sycamore. His head covered by a white towel. Sobbing. And then Magic. Smiling. Hugging Coach Jud Heatchcote. There they were again. Those two antipodes.
Many had just gotten their first glimpse of them. And that’s what made the whole thing so beautiful – or as US journalist Dave Kindred would say: “If Magic and Bird came along today we’d have 29 different scouting reports on each guy. We’d have ‘Outside the Lines’ documentaries, ‘Instant Classics.’ We’d know too much.” Luckily, people didn’t care too much about college ball back then.