The game was the biggest of its kind ever — and it happened right here in Salt Lake City.
It was more than big. It was transcendent.
It launched the NCAA Tournament on a flight to its current status as one of the sports calendar’s premier events, prompting millions of Americans each March not only to watch the games, but to participate in them, to make them theirs by filling out brackets in countless office pools from coast to coast. And it lifted basketball — college and professional — to new heights.
Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores versus Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans.
This year’s NCAA Tournament marks the 40th anniversary of that championship game, played in the building now known as the Jon M. Huntsman Center, a contest that ended up being the most-watched basketball game of all time. One in four of the country’s television sets were tuned into that game on that night, March 26, 1979.
“It was the booster rocket that took college basketball to the stratosphere,” Dick Enberg, the late broadcaster who called the action for NBC, along with Al McGuire and Billy Packer, once told me.
Entire books have been written on the game’s magnitude and effect, including Seth Davis’ “When March Went Mad.” Basketball had never stirred that kind of interest, never pulled those kinds of ratings before. John Wooden’s UCLA teams were popular, and there had been notable athletes come though the college game and move on to the pros. But at that time even the NBA Finals were a relative afterthought, shown on TV on tape delay.
This event was different. It was can’t-miss.
Jud Heathcote, the late coach of Michigan State that night, put it this way: “The buildup was unbelievable. I had been to other Final Fours and they were just games, and this one, the media just descended on Salt Lake. Everybody wanted to watch me coach, is what I say.”
There were those two other guys who had captured the nation’s interest, too.
Magic and Bird were a couple of basketball’s greatest-ever talents. Nobody knew it with exactness back then, because they were yet in embryonic form, just starting on their arc toward the Hall of Fame. But there were compelling indications of the quickly emerging prowess. And there were backstories, as well.
They were a contrasted pair of school kids, one white, a shy, countrified lad who liked to hunt and fish and work on a maintenance crew back in French Lick, Ind., and the other black, with an expansive personality, a lanky showman of a point guard with physical and imaginative dimensions heretofore unseen, from Lansing, Mich.
A magician and a hick.
THE GAME THAT CHANGED BASKETBALL
• The Bird-Magic NCAA Championship Game in 1979 remains, with the exception of the 2002 Winter Olympics, the biggest sporting event ever held in Salt Lake City.
• The game was watched by 40 million people, meaning one in four television sets in the nation was tuned in to the contest.
• A crowd of 15,410 witnessed the game at the Huntsman Center, which is no longer big enough to host NCAA Tournament games.
• The game itself was bit of a dud. The Spartans won 75-64 and Bird made just seven of his 21 shots.
Each of them could score like crazy — Bird averaged 30.3 points over his college career — and do so with flash and panache, but they did more than that — they involved their lesser teammates by way of the pass, happily sharing the ball via timely, appealing, remarkable awareness.
“They had two things others didn’t have,” Heathcote said. “Great hands and great court vision.”
Enberg described Bird as “a dolt, a funny-looking farm kid who had a great game, but you wondered if he knew his middle name.” He described the Sycamores as “Larry Bird and four chemistry majors.”
Magic was all Hollywood, long before he owned that town as a Lakers star. And the Spartans looked to be better than Indiana State, even though they had played unevenly, at times. In Davis’ book, he tells Heathcote’s story about the reaction from Michigan State fans, after the team lost earlier in the season to Northwestern, revealing that he got only one letter requesting his resignation: “Unfortunately,” Heathcote said, “it was signed by 10,000 people.” On the other hand, the Sycamores were 33-0 the night they entered Utah’s home arena.
Neither star played for a traditional powerhouse, ISU and MSU being obscure hardwood outposts at the time, which fueled the intrigue even more.
“The two teams involved made it what it was,” Bird said a few years ago, adding that people to this day, even after all the championships he won with the Celtics, ask him about the game at the Huntsman. “Not just about the game, but the team I was on and how we got there. Winning 29 [regular-season] games that year, and the run we had and the players I played with, that is what I remember most. As for the game itself, I don’t like to talk about that.”
In the semifinals, Michigan State crushed Penn and Indiana State struggled to get past DePaul.
The night before the national title game, Heathcote tossed his team’s curfew, allowing his players to live in the moment, to do pretty much whatever they wanted: “I figured they couldn’t find any trouble in Salt Lake, anyway. Gregory [Kelser] said, ‘Coach, we’re all exhausted. We’re just going to go back and sleep.’”
Bird and his Indiana State team stayed at the old Hotel Utah, which might have been fine accommodations, except for the fact that Michigan State’s band and fans were also staying there, producing music and noise deep into the night.
Larry said he loved playing in Salt Lake City: “I remember thinking, ‘Man, this place is beautiful.’ Every time I go there, I think that … ‘This is an awesome place.’”
The anticipation in the run-up to the game was awesome, too. At one point, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir put on a performance for the schools’ assembled fans, committing a turnover, though, when it sang “The Victors,” Michigan’s famous fight song, instead of Michigan State’s, a tone-deaf, five-octave “Oops.”
Nonetheless, the pregame ambience was unforgettable.
“All our fans were there, and people were in the streets,” Bird said. “Everywhere, it seemed like there was a sea of blue or green.”
The sea flowed that Monday night into the arena, jamming its 15,410 seats — a minuscule number compared to modern-day Final Fours now held in football palaces — alongside some of the game’s notables, from Bob Knight to Digger Phelps. “The confines of the arena were great,” Packer said. “It was a knowledgable crowd.” The atmosphere was electric.
The game itself, though, was not.
Bird had an off night, scoring 19 points on 7-for-21 shooting against Heathcote’s matchup zone, and the Spartans breezed to victory by the count of 75-64. At the end, Larry the Legend buried his head in a towel.
“The game didn’t live up to its billing,” Heathcote said. “It wasn’t a classic.”
But the game’s impact was huge, having grabbed the attention of the American public, sending Magic and Bird onto additional fame and wealth and success in the NBA, lifting the college tournament, elevating basketball to the lofty spot it has occupied over the ensuing years, through eras from Michael Jordan to Tim Duncan to Kobe and Shaq to LeBron James to Steph Curry.
Forty years ago this week, Salt Lake City linked Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson, as Magic once put it, “together forever.” It is the place where the Madness of March began.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.