Bird vs. Magic and the Start of March Madness: Reliving the 1979 NCAA Title Game

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Bird vs. Magic and the Start of March Madness: Reliving the 1979 NCAA Title Game

Christian Laettner. 1991 UNLV. Phi Slamma Jamma. Villanova vs. Georgetown. George Mason. Stephen Curry.

We are all a little spoiled with these big names and moments that have become synonymous with the NCAA Tournament and the individual impact each moment brings to the table but often forget how special this game is.

A good chunk of the writers on this site were not born when the famous National Championship game was played in 1979 between Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird.

I was born in Boston in 1985, and at a young age was exposed to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, yet did not know his legend began at a small school in Indiana.

My parents were in their late 20s and would not wed until 1984, the year Magic and Bird first hooked up in the NBA Finals; game seven of that series is still regarded as the most watched game in NBA history.

For those of us that have access to YouTube and ESPN, we all know that the 30th anniversary of this game that changed the landscape of the sport took place today and many people have memories and stories of that fateful night in Salt Lake City.

Many say it was the game that gave us the terms "March Madness" and "Cinderella."

ESPN and SportsCenter did not come to light until that September, so highlights of the game were not seen.

Over 30 million people (NCAA television record rating of 24.1) saw the beginning of what would become one of the most storied player rivalries in the history of American sports; Larry Bird led his undefeated Indiana State Sycamores against Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans.

What was more suprising about the Sycamores' run was that the Final Four that year was compromised of two other "Cinderellas" in Penn (yes, that Penn) and DePaul. 

The tournament itself would not expand to its current 65 teams until 1985 (it expanded to 65 teams in 2001), so 1979's field featured 40 schools.

Indiana State (No. 1 seed in Midwest) and Michigan State (No. 2 seed in Mideast) were expected to reach the Final Four, not so much with the Blue Demons and Quakers.

The Blue Demons, led by freshman Mark Aguirre and coached by Ray Meyer, cruised through the West Region and defeated top-seeded UCLA in the final, 95-91.

The Quakers were 25-5, unranked and seeded ninth in the East Region, but the Ivy League Champions opened with a 73-69 win over Iona, coached by Jim Valvano.

Then, they shocked top-seeded North Carolina (72-71), Syracuse (84-76), and finally St. John's (64-62).

The Quakers' magic ran out when they ran into Magic and the Spartans, falling 101-67. 

Johnson finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a game played long before the term "triple-double" became part of popular basketball jargon.

In its national semifinal, DePaul nearly changed history, but the Blue Demons lost to Larry Bird and Indiana State, 76-74.

Aguirre had a chance to tie the game with three seconds left, but he missed a 20-footer; Bird finished with 35 points on 16-for-19 shooting.

In the 1970s, the United States was still somewhat adjusting to racial tolerance and with the changing economy and Iran-Contra situation dominating the headlines, many questioned how teams led by white and black star athletes could change the landscape of sports and society.

Michigan State captured its first national title that night, 75-64, with Johnson winning Most Outstanding Player honors; Magic finished with 26, Bird with 19.

The box scores do not begin to tell the impact of this game on the overall landscape of the sport of basketball.

The NBA heading into the 1980s was struggling and in need of new, fresh, young blood to bring its fans back.

Bird was actually drafted by the Celtics in 1978, but decided to come back to school for his senior season; he entered the NBA in 1979, as did Johnson.

Magic would be the first to capture a title as his Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets in 1981 while capturing MVP honors.

The two dominated basketball in the 1980s in trading championships, as Johnson won five and Bird won three; only the Sixers and Pistons won titles during this decade and either or both the Lakers or Celtics participated in each championship series.

Though Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls would pick up where the two left off, the game and ensuing rivalry have left its marks on the sport and the rippling effect is felt throughout society.

Billy Packer, who called the action that night, helped spawn a new generation of Cinderellas and memorable moments over the next 34 years on CBS.

It's easy to see the original broadcast of the game and appreciate the way the game was played 30 years ago but the way basketball has evolved, we may never appreciate just how rare a game like this will ever happen again.

 

 

 

 

 

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