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April 04, 2010

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EXCERPT | April 2, 1979

The Magic Show

Earvin Johnson led Michigan State to the NCAA title

The rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson got its start on March 26, 1979, when the two met in what is perhaps the NCAA tournament's most famous championship game. Larry Keith reported for SI.

Last Monday night 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, 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 lefthanded guard named Terry Donnelly popped in 15 points and a substitute center named Ron Charles grabbed seven rebounds.

In 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.

Bird, a senior, and Johnson, a sophomore, both turned pro after the game. They faced off three times in the NBA Finals (1984, '85 and '87), with Magic's Lakers twice defeating Bird's Celtics.

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Editor's Choice

Final Four Bound

SI's Seth Davis examines how Da'Sean Butler and West Virginia KO'd No. 1 seed Kentucky to reach the school's first Final Four in 51 years

West Virginia was the most impressive team in last Saturday's Elite Eight action. This is not a knock on Butler, which beat Kansas State 63--56 for a spot in the Final Four against Michigan State, but the Mountaineers faced a tougher opponent and looked like a champion, dictating how the game was played. You can criticize the young Wildcats for taking so many threes (32), but West Virginia didn't give them an opportunity to do much else. That was the Mountaineers' strategy: Cut off Kentucky's passing lanes, eliminate its driving lanes and choke off the post. It's impossible to penetrate against a 1-3-1 zone. West Virginia dared the Wildcats to win it from beyond the arc, and obviously they couldn't. Meanwhile, Butler (above) hit four of WVU's 10 triples. The Mountaineers perfectly executed their game plan, and now they're in the Final Four.

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PHOTOPhotograph by JAMES DRAKEMAKING A POINT Bird entered the Final Four as the NCAA Player of the Year, but Magic was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. PHOTOJAMES DRAKE PHOTOCARL SKALAK PHOTOMANNY MILLAN THREE PHOTOSJOHN BIEVER (BUTLER, PISTOL PETE, BILLUPS) PHOTOBILL FRAKES (BUCKY BADGER) PHOTOBOB ROSATO (THE WILDCAT) PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (PAYDIRT PETE) PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (HARVIN) PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (BYFUGLIEN)

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)