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Larry and Magic

Posted by Bob Ryan, Globe Staff  March 26, 2009 05:17 PM

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Not only was I there, but I could practically touch Jud Heathcote. Had he wanted any advice during that championship game 30 years ago tonight, I could have offered some.

But Michigan State didn't need any help. The Spartans won their first NCAA championship, rather easily defeating Indiana State, 75-64. Truth be told, it was a rather pedestrian game.

Larry Bird gives a helping hand to a fallen Earvin Magic Johnson of Michigan State during the final game of the NCAA men's basketball championship in Salt Lake City in this March 26, 1979 photo
Larry Bird gives a helping hand to a fallen Earvin Magic Johnson (AP)
What? That's not what you've been told? Wasn't this the highest-rated basketball game ever, college, pro, or YMCA? Yes, that's true. Wasn't it the game that put college basketball on the map and set the forces in motion to create the juggernaut that is college hoops today?

It certainly was the highest-rated basketball game, before or since. Can't deny that. But as for the rest of it, myth has overtaken reality in a rather big way.

The game was important, no question. But please understand that it was the anticipation, the hype, and the simple fact that it took place that matters. The game itself was one-sided and dull. Michigan State was better, much better.

Larry Bird shot 7 for 21. He did have a game-high 13 rebounds, but he only had two assists, and this would probably be ranked as one of his five worst games of the season. Magic Johnson had 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting. That, combined with his 9-for-10 performance against Penn in the semifinal game, made him an easy choice as the tourney MVP.

So what happened? Number one, as I said, State was simply better. They won this game, and, in fact, got through an NCAA tournament in which they had successive victory margins of 31, 16, 18, 34, and 11 with minimal help from their second-best player, frontcourt swingman Jay Vincent, who would go on to have a viable NBA career.. A skinny forward from the Caribbean named Ron Charles filled in nicely. We'd have said he had "stepped up," except that phrase was unknown at the time. So we just said that he filled in nicely.

What must be understood is that Larry Bird was nowhere near 100 percent in that game. He had injured his left thumb earlier in the tournament. Ambidexterity being a Bird staple, not having full use of his left hand was a significant matter, and never mind the fact that no one is a one-hand shooter. The off-hand is a necessary support.

There didn't appear to be much wrong with him when he shot 16 for 19 from the floor as Indiana State nipped the Ray Meyer/Mark Aguirre DePaul squad on a Bob Heaton shot at the buzzer in the semis, but I believe he re-injured his thumb early in the championship game. I distinctly recall him wincing as he received a pass, and he was very much a one-arm player that night, several times rebounding with a one-hand scoop, rather than with his customary, highly orthodox, two-hand method.

But the thumb wasn't Larry's only problem. The Spartans had a masterful 2-3 zone, and, save for one second half 15-4 run, they never solved it. They also shot 10-for-22 from the free throw line. Even Larry missed three.

The buzz for this game had begun the instant the Saturday afternoon semifinal doubleheader was over and Michigan State and Indiana State were definitely going to be in the championship game. That Sunday and that Monday were two longest days I've ever encountered at an NCAA tournament, and I've been going to them since 1971.

What may account for the fuzzy memories of the game itself is the possibility that many people also watched the Saturday afternoon semifinal game in which Larry dropped 35 on the Ray Meyer/Mark Aguirre DePaul team, and they have blended in that remembrance with their recollection of the championship game. Even our Hoopster-in-Chief, who says he watched the game as a high school senior in Hawaii, says it was a great game.

Mr. President, I hate to contradict you, but it was a very ordinary game that just happened to be deciding the national championship.

But it set the table for the decade to follow. This was the first time Larry and Magic had met on the court, and though the game itself did not live up to the hype the very fact they had finally been matched up was exciting. These would engage in many memorable confrontations in the NBA, but the truth will always be that Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans kicked the butt of Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores on the night of March 26, 1979 at the Special Events Center on the campus of the University of Utah.

Big hype, so-so game. Don't let anyone tell you anything to the contrary.

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About bob ryan's blog Opinions, observations and anecdotes from Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan.
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