Monday, March 24, 2008

Magic, Bird Took NCAA Tourney To New Heights

Where I get my haircut, there’s sports memorabilia strewn all over the walls, from top to bottom. It’s enough to ask for some extra clipping time as the chair spins you around, so you can get as much as you can of the photos within your line of vision (and in the mirror).

What’s striking is a display directly in front of the chairs, which is a series of framed, enlarged front pages from the Detroit Free Press, heralding championships from our teams in recent years gone by.




The headlines are, what they used to call in the journalism business, in Armageddon type. Bold, black letters, several inches in height. And with an accompanying photo that extends to the bottom of the page. It put things like a Red Wings Stanley Cup on the same order as President Kennedy being assassinated. That’s progress for you.

But over on the right, devoid of color, is a front page from a sports section – not a Front Page. It’s from March, 1979. And the headline is far from Armageddon-like. In fact, if you weren’t looking for it, it might not be the first thing you read on the page.

“Spartans No. 1 in the Land.”

That’s it. Oh – and with a modest, black-and-white photo of Greg Kelser and an Indiana State player, battling for a rebound.

That’s how we read of Michigan State’s victory over ISU in the ’79 final. “Spartans No. 1 in the Land.” Today, a regular season game gets almost the whole darn front sports page. That 1979 sports page had enough room for some Tigers spring training news and a couple other stories.

So it’s ironic, to me, that the framed headline with the least fanfare at my barber’s just happened to be documenting the one event that, by itself, had more impact on its sport than the other five or six combined.

Bird ended up the one being down and out after the final buzzer in '79; but the tables would turn -- and turn, and turn

Michigan State beat Indiana State, yes, for the 1979 college basketball championship. They were, indeed, No. 1 in the land. But there was much more to it – oh, so much more.

It was the last college game for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, for starters. Magic, of MSU, and Bird of ISU only faced each other once in college, and it was for all the marbles in 1979. Then both would enter the NBA and carry their rivalry into the pro game – forever changing the face of the league. Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers and Bird’s Boston Celtics tended to pass the NBA trophy back and forth in the 1980s – often playing each other in the Finals. But more than that, the NBA before Magic and Bird was still primarily a bush league – showing its Finals series at times on late-night tape-delay, if you can imagine such a thing. It was a league of under-publicized, under-appreciated stars, played in hoops Meccas like Buffalo and Kansas City and Baltimore and Cincinnati. The New Yorks and Philadelphias and Los Angeleses – and even Bostons – weren’t enough to sustain prolonged interest across the country.

The NBA was, to put it in more easily understood terms, kind of like how the NHL is today, with the latter’s pipsqueak TV contract and ill-advised expansion.

Magic and Bird changed all that. They joined Julius Erving, who was working wonders in Philly, and gave Dr. J help, forming a trio that ushered in pizzazz, trash talk, and – how about this – INTEREST. From 1980, when the rookie Magic’s Lakers won the title, to 1988, either the Lakers, Celtics, or 76ers won the whole shebang. The league thrived like never before.

Bird and Magic's rivalry lasted throughout the 1980s

But let’s go back to school.

That ’79 NCAA title game did some terrific stuff for the college game, too. Bird’s ISU team was undefeated when it played Michigan State. Magic, as a freshman, had led MSU into the tourney the year before, but couldn’t get past the Sweet 16. Now, as a wily sophomore, Magic went up against the “hick from French Lick (Ind.)”, Bird and his team from tiny Indiana State. It was a match made for TV heaven, and for a tournament that, like the NBA, needed a jolt. Interest waned in the years after UCLA dominated the tournament. No school was taking the baton with any regularity or competence. It’s one reason why news of MSU’s victory was barely heralded, even in the supposed hometown papers.

MSU-ISU was really Magic vs. Bird, and normally it might be considered off-putting to classify a team sport that way. Yet the nation thirsted for such a depiction. Ratings for the game soared. The NCAA tournament suddenly became must-see TV. Even the two stars’ promotion to the NBA didn’t stop the momentum that their epic battle in March 1979 had started.

You think I aggrandize too much? In a country where the common folks forecast the tournament with such fervor that we’ve spawned a new word, this “bracketology”? Where news of a presidential candidate’s (Barack Obama’s) tourney picks jostle for top billing with REAL news headlines?

You can thank Magic and Bird for a lot of that, too. Honest.

What they did was bring the spotlight back onto college basketball. Their pro careers simply added to that aura, because that proved them to be no flashes-in-the-pan; no “college-only” stars who flickered out when they began to get paid for their services. It said that, yes, great college players can not only be pro superstars, but also basketball ambassadors. Everyone wanted to know when the next Magic and Bird was going to arrive on campus. They practically demanded it, once those dudes turned pro.

Even if the Free Press didn’t know it at the time, nor accorded the NCAA Final the hype that it deserved, back in 1979.

No comments: