Friday, March 06, 2009

Spartans Have Real Shot At Making 30th Anniversary Of '79 Team Truly Memorable

It's almost enough to make the old-timers (like yours truly) choke on their spittle, but it's been thirty years, incredibly. Thirty years since the Michigan State Spartans captured the NCAA basketball title in a matchup that they're still talking about, and as well they should.

Because it really wasn't MSU vs. Indiana State University, as nice of a thought as that was. It was Magic vs. Bird.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the Spartan sophomore, was to go up against Larry Bird, "The hick from French Lick (Ind)" -- and it was perhaps the most anticipated NCAA final in history. The Spartans had made mincemeat of just about every opponent in the tourney, but here were the Sycamores, led by Bird, who were undefeated at 33-0.

NBC, televisers of the Final Four, stumbled all over themselves, fawning over the impending battle between the flashy, smiling Magic Johnson and the more staid, blue collar Bird. It was the first made-for-television NCAA Final. Maybe the first true reality show to ever appear on NBC's airwaves.

For there were no writers -- this was unscripted stuff.

Magic, along with his second banana, Gregory Kelser, worked the Sycamores inside/out, as they had with the poor, helpless opponents leading up to the Final. Bird, working more solo than Magic, kept ISU in the game with his patented, slashing drives to the hoop and his dead-eye outside shooting.

NBC beamed the basketball drama into the tens of millions of homes whose occupants were transfixed by it. Those same living room folks had seen Bill Walton and UCLA have their way with hapless Final foes. They had seen, just two years earlier, Marquette University give their retiring head coach, Al McGuire, the best going away present of them all: a National Championship, as McGuire wept on the sidelines in the closing seconds, the TV cameras recording every teardrop.

Now McGuire was courtside again, but wearing a headset and gabbing into a microphone. He had done the usual coach's thing, post-career: begin a new one as a television talking head.

But never before had the people in TV land seen an NCAA basketball Final this rich in individual star power. Maybe they haven't, since. But that's another debate for another time.

Magic vs. Bird. The start of a beautiful rivalry, carried over big time, into the NBA.

The '79 Final: in the end, it was Bird who needed to be picked up by Magic

It says here that today's Spartans, thirty years later, have an excellent chance to duplicate the results of Magic and Greg Kelser -- but with considerably less star power, of course.

I'm sure it hasn't been lost on Tom Izzo's squad that they plan on playing this year's Final Four right smack downtown -- Detroit, Michigan, USA. It amounts to a home court advantage, which is more than Magic's Spartans had, for sure.

But today's Spartans aren't two players and three extras, as Magic's team had been in '79. So vast was the talent possessed by Magic Johnson and Gregory Kelser, so well-oiled their inside/outside game, that coach Jud Heathcote could have put Larry, Moe, and Curly on the court, and MSU would still have won a boatload of games.

Izzo's team, in 2009, doesn't have that "one guy" who totally overshadows his teammates. But it doesn't mean that the Spartans can't be national champs for the first time since 2000.

MSU won the Big Ten title, outright, and they really weren't challenged for it all season. Occasionally their lead was sliced to one game, but no worries. Of course, there were some hiccups along the way; an occasional stinker played on a foreign court, and even a couple at the Breslin Center. But not enough to derail Izzo and his kids.

The only derailment that can happen now is on the journey to Detroit's Final Four. Even an early-round upset in the Big Ten tournament won't be enough to keep the Spartans from receiving an at-large bid to March Madness.

Funny things have happened to (some would say) more talented Izzo teams in the NCAA Tourney. It seems it's either one and done, or a Final Four berth -- nothing in between -- when it comes to Tom Izzo-coached teams in the NCAA "Big Dance".

I won't predict a Spartan National Championship, because that's just so hard to pull off, even for the most elite teams. And I know some say (Big Al, for one) that just making the Final Four -- because it's in Detroit -- somehow gives MSU a backstage pass into the championship game, as if it doesn't have to be earned anymore, at that point. But I will admit this: if the Spartans can somehow win four games and be one of the Final Four, then they will indeed have a distinct advantage over the other three teams, because of the geography. And that's as far as I'll go.

The 2000 Spartans, led by guard Mateen Cleaves and the "Flintstones", missed the 20th anniversary of that 1979 team by one year in winning their national title. Now, nine years later, the 2009 Spartans have a chance to make it a nice, round number again: winning the whole enchilada 30 years since the school's first-ever National Basketball Championship.

I know Magic Johnson, for one, would simply eat it up.

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