March Madness will soon be upon us, followed invariably by heated arguments about which were the best championship games. The latest entry to dive into the historical debate is Madness: The Ten Most Memorable NCAA Basketball Finals, which considers the quality of the games as well as their historical significance (see: Texas Western v. Kentucky).
The following is an excerpt from the story of the 1979 Michigan State–Indiana State championship game, best known for being the first time Larry Bird and Magic Johnson faced each other on the national stage.
Excerpted from Madness: The Ten Most Memorable NCAA Basketball Finals by Mark Mehler and Charles Paikert. Copyright © 2018. Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
Opening nights on The Great White Way are a great big deal, whether it’s Marlon Brando opening in A Streetcar Named Desire or the one and only performance of Moose Murders, a comedic drama from the 1980s that is widely considered the worst play ever performed on any stage, anywhere.
It doesn’t matter. It’s opening night. Put on your best duds, hop in the limo, and grab a piece of theatre history.
And so it was that theatre history was made on April 11, 2012, when a new drama called Magic/Bird opened at the Longacre Theatre. The play itself was less than memorable, falling into that immense creative divide between Marlon and Moose. Magic/Bird opened to tepid reviews and closed after only thirty-seven performances. But the opening night audience got its money’s worth, when the true stars of the show emerged after the curtain came down. What ensued between Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and their rapt audience was, indeed, Broadway drama of the highest order.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in the theatre,” says Fran Kirmser, a Broadway veteran who produced the play with her partner, Tony Ponturo. “This wasn’t just basketball fans, there were jaded theatre people in the audience who barely knew before the play who these two men were. They all leaped out of their seats as one and cheered. I had goosebumps. I can’t imagine that anyone didn’t.”
Magic, by far the more loquacious of the two legends, began to tell the story of his first encounter with Bird, which occurred at an -all-star amateur tournament in 1978 in which they were teammates facing off against an international team from Russia. The city boy and country boy were duly impressed by each other’s amazing basketball skills, but did not immediately hit it off socially, given their hyper-competitive natures and their widely different backgrounds. Magic got only part of the way through the story and started breaking down in tears. Then Bird stepped in, put his arm around Magic, and picked up the tale. And then Larry Bird—yes, Laconic Larry, himself—began choking up, too. It was, to be sure, the only time that the word “choke” would apply to either of these two men and the first time that anyone could remember Bird weeping in public (unless you count the bitter tears he shed sitting on the bench, his head completely wrapped in a towel, after a loss in the 1979 NCAA championship game).
Madness: The Ten Most Memorable NCAA Basketball Finals
by Mark Mehler and Charles Paikert
The tales of the games and unique backstories behind the ten most compelling and memorable championship games in NCAA tournament history, many of which resonate far beyond the court.
“What we all saw on that stage,” continues Kirmser, “was love, a deep and lasting friendship between two men. My biggest fear in producing this play was that it would come off as some kind of fable . . . but I knew at that moment that the connection that Larry and Magic had between them was real, and it was very -special.”
Ponturo, who sat behind Bird and his wife at the opening, reports that he and Kirmser went to visit Magic back in December 2010 to convince him to sign off on the project. “If I’m comfortable with this, then Larry will be, too,” Magic confidently told Ponturo. “That’s what these guys had become by that point,” explains the producer, “two minds acting as one.”
Magic shortly thereafter came to New York to see Lombardi, an earlier Ponturo/Kirmser production about the life of football coach Vince Lombardi. Magic was concerned that a play about he and Bird could end up turning their private lives into a joke, but seeing how Lombardi treated its legendary subject with dignity, Magic was sold on the idea. He ended up having most of the input into the creation of the characters, although Bird did weigh in with some thoughts, as well.
When the curtain fell on opening night, notes Ponturo, both men, although highly accustomed to entertaining large crowds, were overcome by the moment.
“You have to understand,” says Ponturo, “they were seeing actors living out their lives on a live stage. That’s something neither of them had ever experienced. That’s why I believe they became so emotional taking their curtain call.”
Ponturo looks back on Magic/Bird with a combination of pride and regret; pride in bringing their story to Broadway and regret that the play was not more successful and that the writer and producers did not do more to flesh out the human drama in the two men’s lives.
“First, I think we should have allowed more of Larry’s sly sense of humor to come out, and there were major dramatic elements that we didn’t take advantage of.” Those sensitive elements, says the producer, included the suicide of Bird’s father and the obvious questions surrounding Magic’s contraction of the HIV virus.
“In the process of trying to show respect for these two fantastic men, we may have forfeited drama which ended up hurting us with the critics.”
Not coincidentally, the action of the play kicked off with a recreation of the first-ever competitive battle between the players, which occurred in that NCAA final between Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores and Magic’s Michigan State Spartans on March 26, 1979, in Salt Lake City. The action in that game, like that of the play, was less than compelling, as Bird had an uncharacteristically poor outing, shooting only 7-for-21, and Michigan State, behind a terrific match-up zone defense that stifled the Birdman and the stellar play of Magic and teammate Greg Kelser, won going away, 75–64. But, as the 2012 opening night on Broadway illustrates, it isn’t only the live performance that creates the drama. What made the 1979 final worthy of inclusion among the most iconic NCAA championships is what it augured for the college game, the National Basketball Association, and for the world at large. Sometimes, one has to look beyond the live action to the moment of commencement of a journey, the impact of which would prove to be transformational. The Bird-Magic final was just such a transformative moment, in more ways than one.
What’s in a Game?
“The college game was already on the launching pad, and then Bird and Magic came along and pushed the button,” is how the late coach and commentator Al McGuire summed up the ’79 final in Seth Davis’s book, When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball. Davis posits that the ’79 televised final, regardless of what transpired that night on the court, was the game that ushered in March Madness as we now know it. The evidence strongly supports his thesis. About 18 million households housing 40 million sets of eyeballs—translating to a 24.1 Nielsen rating—tuned in that night. That broadcast rating still stands as a record (although the impact of cable TV, live Internet video feeds, and social media interactions greatly skews the numbers).
Millions of members of the viewing class of ’79 tuned in simply to get a look at the mysterious “Hick from French Lick,” who hadn’t mouthed a single word to the print media in months and whose team had appeared on national TV just three times that season, despite having gone undefeated to that point. Many of those newly-minted fans were surprised to discover that the Birdman was a white man. Naturally, the racial angle made the first matchup of the two best players in the college game all the more fascinating to viewers. A press agent could not have drawn up a better scenario upon which to construct a foundation of hype.
Jud Heathcote, who was in only his third year as head coach of Michigan State, remembered well his first, rather unpleasant, taste of March Madness. According to Heathcote, who passed away in August 2017 at age ninety, the members of the press in the days leading up, and immediately after the game, were utterly “relentless” in pursuing the story of “the Magic man and the Bird man,” as if the NCAA final were a game of one-on-one.
“I had to take two players out before the game to meet the media,” recalled the former coach, who at the time of this interview was preparing to host his final reunion of his 1979 champions. “So I decided to take along Magic, who was great in these situations, and Greg Kelser, an academic All-American who was also very articulate. Kelser comes back at the end of his media session and tells me all he got asked in the interviews was who did he think was better, Bird or Magic? And Magic says all they wanted from him was to say something negative about Bird, and that was, of course, the last thing Magic would ever do.” Heathcote noted that he and his players treated the press onslaught as an opportunity to hone their skills in the game of cat and mouse. “It was a kind of con job we did on the media. We gave them nothing juicy.”
Later, after the postgame press conference, just one lone freelance reporter was left in the Michigan State locker room, trolling for scraps of gossip. “He was going around the room, asking [Terry] Donnelly and [Mike] Brkovich and other guys about how Larry Bird had let down his team,” said Heathcote. “I was eavesdropping on the conversation. I walked over to the guy and told him if he didn’t stop trying to get my players to badmouth Larry Bird, I was going to pick him up and toss his little ass out of the building.”
Besides heralding the age of the overbearing media, many other things about the college game would never be the same after the debut Magic/Bird show. The NCAA tournament, financially and metaphorically speaking, was on the cusp of moving from a mid-cap stock to the Fortune 500. The forty-team NCAA tournament expanded to forty-eight teams the next year and to sixty-four teams five years later. TV rights fees of $5.2 million in 1979 nearly doubled the next year, then quintupled in the next two years, and doubled again to just under $100 million by 1985. In the spring of 2016, the NCAA negotiated an extension of its TV deal worth $8.8 billion over eight years. As a member of Congress once observed, a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.
In basketball terms, the 1979 final also helped advance the notion that smaller schools from mid-major conferences, such as Indiana State out of the Missouri Valley, could compete with the big boys and in the process do wonders for the TV ratings. After all, nobody loves an underdog the way Americans do. The triumph of the small fry over the big guy has since become a staple in the March Madness narrative (see Butler, George Mason, Middle Tennessee, et al.).
“Here comes Indiana State and this big blond guy and four chemistry majors,” broadcaster Dick Enberg remarked to Seth Davis. “The argument was, they played in a minor league. Are they really that good? And they’re matched up against a Big Ten power. Dramatically speaking, it was truth strangling fiction.”
Last, and definitely least, as regards the 1979 final’s cultural contribution to the Madness of March, there was “Disco Bird,” an execrable song parody produced at Terre Haute radio station WPFR that celebrated the exploits of Larry Bird. Of all the awful disco parodies of that period—“Disco Duck,” anyone?—it would be hard to identify any that is less listenable than this Bird-brained confection.
Two Men, One Destiny
There are events in life that come under the heading of Historical Inevitabilities. Obvious examples include the Civil War, the Cold War, and the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress. The first battle between Bird and Magic can also be seen as predestined, as has just about everything that has happened to the two men since.
As Bird and Magic have journeyed from their respective humble roots in rural Indiana and Detroit to an NCAA final, a combined eight NBA championships, an opening night on Broadway, and the executive suites of corporate America, they’ve carried with them this aura of inevitability. And, at bottom, it is not hard to see why, for the differences between the two men—in background, personality, and style—are skin-deep. Their commonalities, on the other hand, cut right to the bone. Each is a natural, inspirational leader; each lives and breathes competition; and each was possessed of all the essentials for basketball stardom, the most critical being a preternatural ability to make everybody around them better players.
Coach Heathcote asserted that anyone with eyes and some basketball knowledge could pretty much predict what the future had in store for Magic and Bird—entering the NBA together and proceeding to remake it in their own image.
“Writers would ask me about them back then, and I would say they’ll be going to the NBA and they’re going to make history,” said the coach. “Speaking just about basketball skills, to me it mainly came down to two things. Each had great court vision and great hands, and those are qualities you can’t teach. I’ve never seen two guys so built for success on the court.”
“I knew the first time I saw Earvin and Bird together that they would be joined at the hip for all time,” seconds Mike Brkovich, a member of the ’79 Spartans, who fondly recalls the day Magic had him over to the family home to watch a ballgame with the folks. Brkovich’s thoughts, as a player in the championship game, are of a piece with the theory that the game’s long-term impact dwarfs the event itself. “Not a day goes by where I don’t feel lucky to have been a small part of this story,” he says. “In fact, that final probably means more to me now than it did when I was playing in it.”
In their 2009 autobiography, When the Game Was Ours, written with journalist Jackie MacMullan, Magic and Bird acknowledge knowing each other even before they were formally introduced. Bird says in the book’s introduction that the spirit of Magic Johnson began pushing him, goading him, dominating his thoughts from the time he first heard tell of this Motown phenom. Ditto Magic’s initial ideations concerning Bird. Well before their initial encounter in a gym in Lexington, Kentucky, the two had been poring over each other’s box scores in the newspapers, comparing their stat lines. Mutual respect, from the very beginning, was mixed with jealousy and a competitive flame that burned like Ali-Frazier. For a long time, given the fierceness of their rivalry, it was extremely hard for these two guys to like, let alone love, one another. The friendship, it is safe to say, took a long time evolving to the point where Magic and Bird were finishing each other’s stories and sharing unscripted tears of joy under the bright lights of Broadway.
“We were trying to beat each other year after year,” wrote Bird in reference to their NBA years, with Magic winning five titles in LA, and Larry winning three in Boston. “People kept comparing us. I wanted what he had, so I didn’t want to get to know him, because I knew I’d probably like him, and then I’d lose my edge.” Magic, on the other hand, was better equipped emotionally to couch his envious feelings in a laugh or a joke.
In short, what you had here was an odd couple on the outside and kindred spirits on the inside. Destined, as Larry Bird has often said, to be forever connected, whether they liked it or not. Bird long resisted the connection, until resistance became futile. As he and Magic grew into men, they grew to love each other and accept the inevitability of their common destiny.
Magic/Bird—the slash is almost superfluous.