Last Monday night, in the championship game, Michigan State confirmed a notion that had been gaining credence as the NCAA tournament progressed and State rolled to one easy win after another. The Spartans, despite a 21-6 regular-season record, are a superb team—perhaps even a great one—largely because of their perfect mix of superstars in the spotlight and supernumeraries in the shadows. Together, they accomplished what Earvin Johnson and Gregory Kelser could never have done by themselves—indeed, what no team had been able to do this season. The Spartans caged Larry Bird and ended the 33-game winning streak of Indiana State 75-64 to win their first national basketball title.
For Bird, the word in Salt Lake City was frustration. He missed shots, he committed turnovers and he failed to find the open man. He also needed what Johnson and Kelser had, a supporting cast of bit players who could come up with the critical basket or rebound. Yes, Johnson scored 24 points and Kelser 19 in the final, but a little left-handed guard named Terry Donnelly popped in 15 points and a substitute center named Ron Charles grabbed seven rebounds.
Donnelly played a particularly important role. His first shot, less than five minutes into the game, gave Michigan State a lead it never relinquished, and his last four, early in the second half, blew the margin to 16. After averaging only 6.3 points during Michigan State's first 31 games, he was hardly accustomed to this sort of performance. "I was surprised," he said. "Earvin was throwing the ball to me the same as everyone else."
With that kind of balance and that kind of lead, the Spartans were not about to lose. Indiana State never got closer than six points after Donnelly's burst, and the Sycamores took themselves out of the game when they blew four opportunities to cut the deficit further with the score 61-54.
April 2, 1979
The Spartans made it clear from the beginning that they were the better team, and they proved it in the most convincing fashion possible—by containing Bird. The player of the year shot seven for 21, scored only 19 points, committed six turnovers and passed for only two assists. Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote designed a variation of the Spartans' matchup zone that put "a man and a half" on Bird. "He was very, very frustrated," said Spartan Center Jay Vincent. "He kept saying, 'Give me the ball, give me the ball,' but his teammates couldn't get it to him." On those occasions when Bird did get the ball and, in turn, wanted to pass it to someone else, he seldom found anybody open. The Spartans prepared for Bird's usually dazzling passing game the day before by having Johnson work his magic against the other Michigan State regulars in practice. After that, the real Bird was a piece of cake.
At the end, Bird and his teammates were left with a 33-1 record, which was about 10 games better than anyone had predicted for them, and a dream that very nearly came true. When the game was over, Sycamore Forward Alex Gilbert walked to the bench and yelled, "Get your head up. Get your head up. We don't want people to think we aren't winners. We're still No. 1!"
Not really, of course. That accolade belonged to Michigan State, which had 15 wins in its last 16 games. "We'd been a very, very good team the last month," said Kelser. "I felt that if we won we could say we are a great team. Well, we are. We play together, and we use the talent that we have. I haven't realized we're champions yet, but I will, and it will hit me like a brick. I'll explode."
By reaching the championship game, the finalists brought a semblance of sanity to a freaked-out season. The biggest upset in Saturday's two semifinals was that there were no upsets; the third-ranked Spartans swamped Penn 101-67, and the top-ranked Sycamores edged DePaul 76-74. So much for upstarts and old men.
The Quakers had hoped to gain recognition for their Eastern Establishment team, which was making its first appearance in the final four, and for the Ivy League, whose last representative in such distinguished basketball company had been Princeton in 1965. They certainly sounded confident enough, as when star Forward Tony Price declared, "I have no fear of Michigan State. They're just a bunch of dudes who play ball."
But, alas, they play it well, and they know it. "It would be very, very easy for us to get complacent and overconfident," admitted Kelser, "but I don't think we'll do that."
Instead, Michigan State got vicious, zooming to a 50-17 halftime lead, the widest first-half margin in the final-four history. With the score 38-8, Kelser sat on the floor near the sideline during an injury time-out and observed to the yawning newsmen on press row, "We're doing it to them, aren't we?"
Of course the Quakers did a lot of it to themselves, because they were suffering from a severe case of "stage fright," as Center Matt White put it. Penn was so shaken by the bright lights that it committed all the usual mistakes and even invented a new one when Vincent Ross passed to James Salters, who was standing out of bounds.
The Johnson-to-Kelser combination was more effective. They combined for five buckets—two of them dunks—and Johnson wound up with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Kelser had 28 points and nine rebounds. When Johnson left the game with 5:33 remaining, he hugged his friend and whispered into his ear, "If we keep playing like this, it's going to be worth a couple of million dollars for us in the pros."
The Spartans equaled two records in their romp, scoring 101 points and winning by 34. But their fans were so bored that before the first half was over they were yelling, "We want the Bird!" On the other side of the arena, the Indiana State rooters answered, "You'll get the Bird!"—and proceeded to show the Spartan backers the bird, too.
In the game that followed, DePaul very nearly clipped Bird's wings. Although he led everyone with 35 points—on fabulous 16-for-19 shooting—16 rebounds and nine assists, his 11 turnovers helped keep the Demons in the game, and he did not score a point in the final 7:32. "If I had known I would make 11 turnovers," he said, "I would have thought we would lose."
Oh, yes, that was the Bird himself talking. As a matter of fact, he chirped like a canary last week. It turns out that, when he cares to, Bird can be a very good talker, not in the grammatical sense, but for his country-boy honesty and sense of humor. "The final four means more to my teammates than it does to me," he said. "I thought we should have been here last year." Looking ahead to his pro career, he declared, "If we win or lose here, it don't make no difference to me. I'm gonna get my money anyway." And what is he going to do with it? "I might buy everybody on the team a new car, and Brad Miley [the Sycamores' non-shooting defensive expert] a new jump shot."
The Sycamores needed all the jump shots they could muster against DePaul. In the first half there were 15 ties and three lead changes, and neither team could do better than a four-point lead.
Indiana State seemed to take control in the second half when it extended a three-point lead to 11 with only 3:23 gone. DePaul was able to scramble back for three reasons. First, after taking over from Forward Curtis Watkins, Center James Mitchem held Bird to eight points in the last 18:44 of the game. Second, Indiana State players began turning the ball over at an alarming rate, especially Bird, who was bothered by his fractured left thumb. Third, the Blue Demons began shooting the lights out; a stretch of six-for-six accuracy brought them from a 67-61 deficit to a 73-71 lead with 4:59 remaining.
DePaul's upset chances looked good a few seconds later when freshman star Mark Aguirre rebounded a Bird miss and the Blue Demons went into a four-corner delay. But a bad pass gave Indiana State a chance to tie, and with 3:27 left substitute Bob Heaton sneaked inside and converted a pass from Bird into a layup. Following an exchange of missed shots, Guard Gary Garland put DePaul back in front by making the first of two free-throw attempts at 1:37. Bird rebounded the missed second foul shot, and 47 seconds later Carl Nicks, usually the Sycamores' No. 1 supporting actor, finally did something right. After having a horrendous game—Nicks shot four for 13 with five turnovers—he helped cinch the victory by driving past Garland, drawing Watkins away from the basket and passing to Heaton, who scored another uncontested layup to make the score 75-74 in Indiana State's favor.
DePaul still had plenty of time to come up a winner. During a time-out with 36 seconds left, Coach Ray Meyer, 65, told his team to either take the first good outside shot that came along or work the ball inside to Aguirre. This was the 929th game of Meyer's 37-year career, and not surprisingly his strategy was right. But, unbelievably, Garland passed up a short jumper—he did not realize he was open—and Aguirre did not touch the ball until he was 20 feet away from the basket and only four seconds remained to be played. Backing in on Miley, Aguirre tried a turnaround jumper that bounced off the rim into the hands of Sycamore Leroy Staley. A foul shot ended the scoring for Indiana State, and a DePaul full-court heave with one second left came off the backboard into the hands of Bird to end the marvelously played game.
"Today we was lucky," was Bird's analysis of the victory. "We was very lucky."
Luckiest of all were the people who had come to Salt Lake hoping to see Bird and Johnson in the finals. Confrontations between stars of this magnitude have been surprisingly rare in the final four. More often they have come in the semifinals, where Thompson met Walton, Alcindor met Hayes, Russell met Bradley. But this one would be in the title game, and as Brigham Young said when he first came upon what is now the site of Salt Lake City, "This is the place."
The fans weren't the only people excited by the showdown. "I'd just like to go out there and watch it myself," said Terry Donnelly. "You can't help but get caught up in a confrontation like that," said Heathcote. "From what I've seen of Bird, he's not just one bird. He's a whole flock."
Bird preferred to emphasize the differences between Johnson and himself. "He is more of a passer, and I'm more of a scorer," he said. "And to me it's a very serious game. I can't be laughing like he does out there. I just hope when it's over he ain't laughing at me."
No one laughed at him in the end. But while Johnson and Kelser embraced for a final time under the basket, Bird sat on the Indiana State bench, sobbing into a towel.