On March 26, 1979, 24.1 percent of all American households tuned in to watch Indiana State play Michigan State in the NCAA tournament final.
To this day, it remains the highest-rated basketball game in television history—college or otherwise.
In hindsight, it's difficult to separate the historical implications of that one game from the future greatness of its chief combatants: Indiana State's Larry Bird and Michigan State's Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Johnson and Bird would go on to win a combined eight NBA championships and six MVP awards. Their rivalry would revolutionize professional basketball, inspiring a modest canon of artistic remembrance that now includes books, documentaries and even the occasional theater piece.
It's natural to wonder if our memory of the 1979 title game has somehow been warped by the narrative that followed.
Thank goodness, then, for that number, 24.1—tethered as it is to the moment, divorced as it is from the aftermath.
We know that public interest in Indiana State-Michigan State was indeed something extraordinary.
We know, because people watched.
College basketball scribe Seth Davis would later pen a book on the 1979 title game and its seminal importance in the evolution of big-time college basketball. Making special mention of the media hubbub that accompanied the clash, Davis writes:
While the success that Magic and Bird later enjoyed in the pros added retrospective luster to their first meeting, it does not account for the intense interest the two of them generated that night. Those millions of viewers had no idea they were watching the birth of the most storied rivalry in American sports.
As it so happened, what the masses saw that night was indisputably ordinary.
Johnson's Spartans raced out to a 30-19 lead, burying the over-matched Sycamores early en route to an easy 75-64 win. Bird, for all his future big-game heroics, was a pedestrian 7-of-21 from the field.
Of course, the basketball itself was secondary to the fact that people wanted to see it.
More than three decades later, they still do.
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