How March Mad­ness raised a sport

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Once upon a time col­lege bas­ket­ball didn’t have the na­tional pro­file it does now, and its play­ers could fly be­low the radar screen of all but the most ra­bid of fans.

As we ex­pe­ri­ence a March Mad­ness in which a bas­ket­bal­llov­ing pres­i­dent un­veils his picks on na­tional tele­vi­sion, it is fas­ci­nat­ing to go back to the cham­pi­onship game that did much to raise the pop­u­lar­ity of the sport.

That’s ex­actly what “When March Went Mad: The Game That Trans­formed Bas­ket­ball” does in a well writ­ten and en­gag­ing man­ner.

The 1979 NCAA cham­pi­onship game fea­tured Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity, led by Earvin “Magic” John­son, vs. In­di­ana State Uni­ver­sity led by Larry Bird. It had all the el­e­ments of high drama: two fu­ture Hall of Famers, an un­de­feated un­der­dog team (In­di­ana State) against one that had na­tional ac­claim and played in the Big 10. Toss in the fact that nei­ther team’s coach had been pegged as likely to have their team make the Fi­nal Four and you have the mak­ings of a great story. One could eas­ily imag­ine Ernest Hem­ing­way turn­ing this into a novel.

Seth Davis han­dles the sub­ject with aplomb, mostly by stay­ing out of the way and let­ting oth­ers do the talk­ing. He in­ter­viewed many of the key play­ers, coaches, jour­nal­ists and col­lege staffers and drew them out so the reader feels that he was at the prac­tices and games de­scribed.

Mr. Davis, a writer for Sports Il­lus­trated and in-stu­dio an­a­lyst for CBS, uses the bas­ket­ball games as a spring­board for pro­fil­ing Messrs. Bird and John­son and the state of bas­ket­ball dur­ing the pre ESPN era when there was so lit­tle in­ter­est in the game that the NBA fi­nals were broad­cast on tape de­lay.

“The nar­ra­tive was set. This was not a cham­pi­onship game be­tween Michi­gan State and In­di­ana State. This was Magic against Bird, the best big man matchup in an NCAA fi­nal since Bill Rus­sell led the Uni­ver­sity of San Fran­cisco to a win over Tom Gola’s LaSalle Uni­ver­sity in 1955,” he writes.

In Mr. Bird, you have an ex­traor­di­nar­ily tal­ented, me­dia shy (though at times quite witty) player whose team was coached by Bill Hodges, who only had the job be­cause his boss had got­ten se­ri­ously ill.

Mr. John­son, an­other once in a gen­er­a­tion tal­ent, loved the spot­light and han­dled the at­ten­tion and had a sea­soned coach Jud Heath­cote whose team had won two Big 10 Cham­pi­onships in his first three years at the helm.

The two men be­came pro­fes­sional ri­vals (the Celtics-Lak­ers ri­valry of the 1980s was one of bas­ket­ball’s most en­gag­ing) yet per­sonal friends. When John­son learned he had con­tracted HIV Mr. Bird was one of the first peo­ple that he told be­fore re­veal­ing the news to the pub­lic.

Al­though Mr. Bird is white and Mr. John­son is black, Mr. Davis doesn’t dwell on the racial as­pect of the story. Nor does he try to ex­trap­o­late any grand po­lit­i­cal or so­cial themes. It was an im­por­tant game in the his­tory of bas­ket­ball but wasn’t a sem­i­nal event the way Jackie Robin­son’s break­ing base­ball’s racial bar­rier.

Mr. Davis leads up to the big game by re­trac­ing each team’s sea­son and most of his game sum­maries are quite con­cise which keeps the nar­ra­tive mov­ing. Indi- ana State Uni­ver­sity as the big fish in the small pond won ev­ery game but never re­ally faced a world class op­po­nent un­til DePaul Uni­ver­sity in the semi­fi­nals and then Michi­gan State in the fi­nals.

By con­trast, Michi­gan State faced tougher com­pe­ti­tion dur­ing the sea­son and even though the team lost six games it was much bet­ter than In­di­ana State and heav­ily fa­vored to win the game.

The game it­self was an­ti­cli­mac­tic in that Michi­gan State led through­out (though In­di­ana State came within six points with nine min­utes left) and won 75-64.

The fi­nal score be­lied the match up’s im­por­tance and “When March Went Mad: The Game That Trans­formed Bas­ket­ball” nicely cap­tures the essence of the game, the play­ers and the era.

Claude R. Marx is an award­win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on pol­i­tics, his­tory and sports.

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