April 8, 2019

WHEN MARCH USED TO MATTER (profanity alert):

The Legacy of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's NCAA Championship Showdown, 40 Years Later: In 1979, two generational talents faced off on college basketball's biggest stage. The game sparked a rivalry that helped shape the landscape of the sport as we know it, and four decades later it still serves as a cultural touchstone. (Michael Weinreb, Apr 8, 2019, The Ringer)

During a March weekend in 1978, Bob Ryan covered what was, in retrospect, the most prophetic back-to-back of his decadeslong writing career. This came three months before the Boston Celtics would use the sixth pick in that June's NBA draft to select a forward from a state university in Indiana, and 15 months before the Los Angeles Lakers would use the first pick in the following year's draft on a guard from a state university in Michigan. And it came a year before those two players would converge in the 1979 NCAA championship game, a moment that would forever alter the trajectory of college basketball, the NBA, and America's cultural and racial fabric.

There is, of course, no earthly way that Ryan could have contemporaneously grasped the full context of what he was about to witness during those two days. He was merely a Boston Globe journalist on assignment, headed to Indianapolis to cover Providence's first-round NCAA tournament matchup against Michigan State and its ebullient point guard, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. That game was on a Saturday, but Ryan decided to fly to Indiana on Friday, rent a car with a pair of colleagues, and drive the roughly 75 minutes down Interstate 70 to Terre Haute to catch another game featuring a young prospect who had been gathering buzz despite having never appeared on national television. That night, not long after Ryan took his seat for Indiana State's first-round NIT game against Illinois State, a lanky forward named Larry Joe Bird rebounded an Illinois State miss, dribbled to half court, cocked his right hand, and seamlessly whipped a 45-foot bullet pass to a teammate streaking to the basket for a layup.

It was in that instant that Ryan first became an evangelist, the one, he says, who was "beating the drums" for the Celtics to draft Bird, who finished that night with 27 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists. The next day, Ryan watched Johnson put up 14 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds in Michigan State's 77-63 victory over Providence. Ryan could not have known then that he would spend a large portion of his career chronicling the interplay between these two men; he could not have known, either, that he would watch them go head-to-head in Salt Lake City for the national title a year later. But after watching Bird make that pass, Ryan felt--for the first time, but not for the last--like he was witnessing something almost supernaturally ordained.

"Oh my god," he exclaimed.

Forty years later, that 1979 NCAA championship game, with all of its narrative threads and lasting mythology, feels more like the starting point of a Great American Novel than a real-life occurrence. The funny thing is that the game itself was an unmitigated dud: Michigan State led virtually the entire way and defeated Indiana State, 75-64. Johnson played very well, scoring 24 points, and Bird shot uncharacteristically poorly, going 7-of-21 from the field and finishing with 19. But the game stands as perhaps the greatest historic convergence in college basketball history, an origin story of Marvelesque proportions that affected everything that came after.

Here was the first meeting between two players whose careers would soon become intertwined--as nemeses (and later friends), as stylistic mirrors, and as avatars of America's racial obsessions. Here was the moment when the NCAA tournament graduated into something larger than life, and here was the moment when the NBA, without even realizing it, first bore witness to the path that would lead to its own resurrection in the midst of declining ratings and fan interest--much of it driven by the open discussions among both fans and executives about the lack of star white players like Bird and the lack of passing-driven guards like Magic. "In the late 1970s, the NBA was in trouble," says former Chicago Tribune columnist David Israel. "And the reason why people decided it was in trouble was because they had too many black players."

By the time Magic and Bird reached that title game, they were already burgeoning celebrities and potential avatars of basketball's future; their names alone, says former Washington Post columnist Dave Kindred, "suggesting flight and sleight of hand," felt as if they'd always been destined to meet. "It was Phantom of the Opera and Gone With the Wind and the Olympics all in one," former NBC commentator Al McGuire, whose network televised the game, told the Los Angeles Times a decade later.

Posted by at April 8, 2019 12:03 AM