That Magic Moment A look back at the '79 NCAA title game recalls the days when TV didn't overwhelm the sport

March 15, 1999

When President Clinton professed "profound regret" last Friday
over last year's accident in which 20 people died when a U.S.
military plane severed the cable on an Italian ski lift, he
echoed another recent pronouncement: In February, recall, he was
"profoundly saddened" by a PEOPLE magazine puff piece on his
daughter. If two events--one tragic, one trivial--evoke the same
rhetoric of grief, is either statement meaningful? Depends what
your definition of is is.

We live in an age of profound baloney. Certain words have been
turned upside down and had all meaning shaken from their
pockets. In sports there have been enough Historic Moments,
enough Epic Games, enough Greatest Players of All Time to render
those phrases empty. Superlatives, even when appropriate, are
bees that sting once, then die. The 1979 NCAA Championship Game
between Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores and Magic Johnson's
Michigan State Spartans is widely regarded as having 1) brought
college basketball into the big time; 2) spawned the modern era
of the NBA; 3) sparked an unparalleled rivalry and friendship
between two stars of different races; and 4) given minty-fresh
breath to all who tuned in. Or something like that. The game's
significance can scarcely be overstated, though many have tried.

Which is why NBC's broadcast of the event, still the
highest-rated (24.1 Nielsen) college basketball final ever, is a
revelation when viewed today. Such network coverage in 1999 is
unimaginable: eloquent in its simplicity, scrupulously
understated and so spare as to seem--dare we say it?--profound.
"Perhaps we've never seen a final game with two greater
individual players," Dick Enberg said, and then the two teams
were simply allowed to play the game. Viewers were spared
gratuitous graphics, the graffiti of telestration and constant
cutaways to coaches doing Hamlet. Analysts Billy Packer and Al
McGuire never made a man-to-man defense sound more complicated
than the tax code. In the entire broadcast there was not a
single reference to Final Four or March Madness, both of which
are now registered trademarks, flogged beyond recognition.

As the evening evolved, so did the announcers' perceptions of
the participants. "Magic Johnson is trying to make the pass and
score," Packer said in the second half. "He can't do it all."
McGuire, experiencing a genuine Eureka! moment, replied, "I
think he can." McGuire was right, of course, and by the next
year Magic was scoring 42 points at center in the clinching game
of the NBA Finals, and basketball was forever changed, largely
for the good.

But on that Monday night 20 years ago, before a human-scale
crowd of 15,410 on the University of Utah campus, the NCAA final
was not yet a bloated carcass, sealed inside a Superdomed
sarcophagus. CBS now fashions an entire broadcast around
Selection Sunday. Soon, no doubt, we'll have Equipment-Testing
Tuesday. In '79 even the commercials were sparely produced and
less frequent. A spot for the not-at-all-understated,
vinyl-roofed, pimp-ready Ford Fairmont--the automotive
equivalent of a Fox baseball broadcast--bore the fine-print
graphic, WHITE WALLS NOT INCLUDED.

NBC's tasteful production was among the last, it seems, in which
whitewalls were not included. For when that game ended,
everything changed: Basketball walked upright out of the ocean,
yes, but brought with it excess and hype and b.s. What's
astonishing is that it happened immediately. NBC sideline
reporter Bryant Gumbel asked the triumphant Johnson if he would
return for his junior season. "As far as I know right now," said
Magic, "I'll be back."

He never went back, of course. And neither did we.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)