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A Magic-al performance - 1979
By Joe Gergen
For Sporting News

SN Photo
Magic Johnson
As professionals, the two men would share the glory of the next decade. They would become great rivals, leaders of the NBA's dominant teams, catalysts in the growth of the game.

In time, Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson would be recognized as titans of their sport.

In view of their lifetime achievements, perhaps a historical marker should be struck and mounted on the wall of the Special Events Center on the Utah campus in Salt Lake City.

Such a plaque would be suitable recognition of the first meeting of these men on a basketball court. Even at the time, the early spring of 1979, it was acknowledged that the individual matchup was a special occasion over and above the NCAA championship contested by Bird's Indiana State Sycamores and Johnson's Michigan State Spartans.

Bird and Johnson not only were the two finest players in college basketball, but also versatile athletes with an intuitive understanding of the sport.

Bird was a 6-9 senior forward/center and Johnson a 6-8 sophomore guard, yet both passed the ball with dexterity matching that of the best little men. Both players were proudest of their passing, a skill that separated them from their peers and immediate predecessors.

"A lot of guys can find the open man by driving in and throwing the ball out," Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote said. "But few can find the open man in the basket area, can thread the needle like the Birdman and the Magicman.

"What you must realize is that the pass is more important than the basket."

Bird and Johnson had demonstrated their mastery of this lost art in the national semifinals. Johnson had led the Spartans in scoring with 29 points in a 101-67 rout of Pennsylvania, but he really mesmerized the crowd with his 10 assists -- some on the fast break, some on beautifully conceived lob passes to forward Greg Kelser, some just out of this world.

And while Indiana State needed all of Bird's 35 points to turn back determined DePaul, 76-74, it was his passing that captivated the fans. Among his nine assists was a lefthanded, behind-the-neck pass to 6-8 Alex Gilbert while driving across the lane.

"One of the greatest passes I've ever seen," Heathcote called it.

Perhaps it was fitting that they would rise to such prominence in the same year. So similar were their abilities, despite their differences in position and personality, that Johnson was given the task of imitating Bird in practice for the benefit of the Spartans' matchup zone defense. He considered it a compliment.

"I'm a fan of Larry Bird," he said. "You've got to be a fan of his if you like basketball."

The admiration was mutual.

"He's such a good player," Bird said of Johnson. "He's so young, a sophomore, but he already plays like he's a graduate."

Their appreciation of each other's talents was shared by the pros.

Bird had been selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics the previous spring even though he had a year of college eligibility remaining and planned to use it. And Johnson was sufficiently polished that he would be chosen by the Los Angeles Lakers as the first pick of the entire 1979 pro draft the following summer.

But before they moved into the upper tax brackets, the two consensus All-Americans had one final game to play for the teams they had carried to their initial appearances in an NCAA title game.

Only once had Michigan State qualified for the Final Four before Johnson, a hometown youngster, enrolled at the school in East Lansing.

And Indiana State, which had spent much of its history competing at the small-college level, had no greater claim to basketball fame before the emergence of Bird than the signing of John Wooden to his first college coaching contract.

Sycamores fans still might be talking about that in Terre Haute if a homesick Bird hadn't left Indiana University after 3 1/2 weeks. To the self-described "hick from French Lick," the Bloomington campus was too big, the lifestyle adjustment too great.

The small-town environment at Indiana State was more comfortable for Bird, ever the country boy.

Of course, Bird would have been surrounded by outstanding players at Indiana. But at Indiana State, he took average players and made them better. Remarkably, the Sycamores had won all 33 of their games that season before encountering Michigan State.

So commanding was Bird's presence that in one game, Bradley coach Dick Versace assigned two of his players to shadow him wherever he went. Bird went to a corner of the court, folded his arms and watched his teammates, playing four-on-three, win by 19 points.

Even in the course of Michigan State's semifinal destruction of Penn, the Spartans' cheering section chanted: "We want Bird. We want Bird." To which the Indiana State students replied: "You'll get the Bird. You'll get the Bird."

Indeed, his mystique was so great that it didn't seem excessive when Sycamore fans turned up on the night of the final wearing buttons proclaiming, "The state Bird of Indiana is Larry."

Johnson was no less central to Michigan State's success, even though he had a better supporting cast. There was the high-flying Kelser, burly center Jay Vincent and a wispy guard, Terry Donnelly, who could shoot holes in a zone.

The Spartans (25-6 entering the NCAA final) had been overpowering late in the season and throughout the NCAA Tournament, culminating with a 50-17 first-half explosion over Penn, which had upset North Carolina, Syracuse and St. John's to win the East Regional.

And they had that matchup zone that had befuddled opponents. Michigan State was not the only college team to employ it, but because of the Spartans' unusual combination of size and quickness, Heathcote's team played it better than anyone else -- as Larry Bird was about to discover.

It was clear from the outset of the championship game that Bird was not going to duplicate his performance against DePaul, which had watched while he made 16-of-19 field-goal attempts. As Bird commented later, "I was hitting so good, I felt sorry for the other team."

But the Spartans refused to let Bird get started. There was a man in his face whenever he touched the ball, two when he began to dribble and no open passing lane to the baseline.

"He was getting frustrated," Vincent said. "I never saw him so far off. He shot two shots over the basket."

When Indiana State fell behind in the first half, Bird tried to bring the Sycamores back, as he had done so often in the past. But five times he shot and hit nothing. Absolutely nothing. At halftime he had only four baskets in 11 tries and his team trailed, 37-28.

It would get worse.

The first five minutes of the second half belonged to Donnelly, whom Indiana State was leaving open in an attempt to contain Johnson. Quickly sensing the double team, Magic got the ball to Donnelly, who hit four consecutive long jump shots, swelling Michigan State's lead to 50-34.

It might have turned into a rout then and there if not for Bird's efforts.

His shots still weren't falling -- he finished with 7-of-21 shooting from the floor and 19 points -- but that didn't detract from other parts of his game. He was leading both teams in rebounding and his defense against Kelser was superb.

Bird had four steals in the first half alone, including an above-the-rim interception of Johnson's first lob pass. Then, during a two-minute stretch of the second half, he drew Kelser's fourth personal foul on a charging call, forced forward Mike Brkovich into a turnover with a quick defensive move at midcourt and intercepted an inbounds pass, only to step on the line as he whirled to pass to a teammate.

Bird kept working and slowly the Sycamores pulled themselves back into the game. With the Spartans' lead cut to six points with 10:10 left, Heathcote instructed Johnson to take charge of the game.

Johnson did just that, scoring seven of his game-high 24 points in the next five minutes. Magic hit one free throw, then a 7-foot jumper and finally delivered the key play of the game.

Working from a semi-delay, Johnson shook defender Brad Miley with a fake, took a return pass from Kelser and slammed the ball in just as Indiana State's Bob Heaton attempted to slide in front of him for a charge.

Heaton, a step late, was whistled for undercutting, a two-shot foul. Johnson made both free throws to complete a four-point play and boost the Michigan State lead to 61-50 with 5:06 left.

The rest of the game was a parade to the free-throw line, and the Spartans capped their 75-64 victory with a perfect lead pass from Johnson to Kelser for an emphatic slam dunk.

If a couple of Bird's teammates had been hot, Indiana State might have been able to complete an undefeated season. But the Sycamores combined for a .422 shooting percentage.

"We just had a bad shooting game, both from the field and the free-throw line," said Bill Hodges, the Sycamores' first-year coach. "That was the whole difference."

No Indiana State player took the loss harder than Bird. Only the previous day he had shrugged off the possibility of defeat by saying winning or losing the championship game would make no difference because he was going to sign a big professional contract either way.

But his actions betrayed his true feelings. At the buzzer, he walked to the Sycamores' bench, put a towel to his eyes and cried.

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