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Johnson Vs. Bird And The Dawn Of March Madness

Magic Johnson dunks the basketball against Bob Heaton of the Indiana State University Sycamores while Larry Bird (standing in front of #23) watches.
Magic Johnson dunks the basketball against Bob Heaton of the Indiana State University Sycamores while Larry Bird (standing in front of #23) watches.
/ Getty Images

March hasn't always meant madness for basketball fans; the obsession might have started 30 years ago, when millions of viewers tuned in to NBC to watch Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans take on Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores for the national college basketball championship title.

It was a classic matchup — the first time two future superstars would meet on the same court — and no basketball game has attracted more viewers since. In his new book, When March Went Mad, Sports Illustrated columnist Seth Davis writes about the March 26, 1979, game — and the way it changed basketball forever.

"You couldn't have asked for a better dynamic between these two central characters," Davis tells Steve Inskeep, referring to Johnson and Bird. "On the one hand, they were extremely similar — they were ultimate winners; they were great team players — and yet by the same token, you couldn't find two guys who were so different on so many fundamental levels."

Perhaps the most obvious difference was one of race: Johnson was black, and Bird was white. But the two players also differed in temperament. Introverted and shy, Bird had trouble making eye contact and went the entire college season without talking to the media, while Johnson couldn't seem to get enough of the public adulation.

"[Johnson] loved to sign autographs. He would talk to sports writers until they were out of questions," says Davis.

Though they were both great shooters and scorers, Davis says their power went beyond athleticism: "We're not talking about Michael Jordan and LeBron James," says Davis. "[Johnson and Bird] were not great athletes in the sense that we think of athletes. They were just unbelievable basketball players because of the way they could think the game."

Davis describes the game between the Spartans and the Sycamores as a "catalytic event" — one that occurred when the typical American household only received four television channels and when even the NBA finals weren't carried live on television. By attracting so many viewers, the matchup between Johnson and Bird paved the way for America's enduring fascination with college hoops and the "March Madness" events of today.

In the decades that followed, the sports world would expand exponentially via cable television, becoming a much bigger business and commanding a new level of media attention. As a measure of the changes, says Davis, consider this: If Larry Byrd and Magic Johnson came along today, they would play more often on national TV as high school players than they did in their entire college careers.

As for their first meeting, Bird did not play well, and Johnson led the Spartans to a 75-64 victory over the Sycamores. It was a loss that Bird did not take well, says Davis.

"It still bothers [Bird]. ... It took a little while for Magic and Larry to develop a friendship when they got into the NBA. At first they wouldn't even shake hands before tip-off. ... But Larry could never get that night back. He had one shot at winning the championship, and it still bothers him greatly to this day."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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