The Madness Resumes, Larry and Magic

Seth Davis tells the tale of the original Larry vs. Magic match up in When March Went Mad.

Seth Davis tells the tale of the original Larry vs. Magic match up in When March Went Mad.

March Madness resumes tomorrow night, and should bring plenty of excitement.

From Ty Lawson’s toe to Oklahoma big man’s Blake Griffin’s possible final college games to Memphis coach John Calipari’s quest for his first title, the tournament is chock full of plot lines.

The tournament has grown exponentially since 1979, when Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State Sycamores faced off against Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans.

Sports Illustrated writer and CBS television analyst Seth Davis argues that this game was the birth of what we call March Madness in his new book, When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball.

I should be clear that the book is much more of a behind-the-scenes tale of that pivotal match up rather than a scholarly argument.

Davis revisits the two protagonists in the drama, their markedly different personalities and their teams’ circumstances. 

The introverted Bird refused to talk to the media for nearly the entire season.  The gregarious Johnson could not get enough media attention and autograph signing.  Davis recounts the impact of the stars’ personalities on their teams, too.  At the end of a blowout, Johnson and his teammates were cutting up at the end of the bench.  In a similar situation, Bird sat stonefaced,  his teammates basically saying nothing.

Bird had just one teammate, Carl Nicks, who spent any time in the NBA, while Magic had a stronger supporting cast anchored by Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent.  Sycamores coach Bill Hodges replaced head coach Bob King before the season began, while Spartans coach Jud Heathcote was a Big Ten fixture.  Magic’s team had done well the previous season and was predicted to be a championship contender before the season began.  Bird’s squad was picked to finish third or fourth in their conference.

Despite these differences, the men shared fundamental similarities of a passion for excellence, a relentless commitment to victory, and an ability to improve their teammates’ play. 

Davis skillfully shows the build up to the final match up. 

Playing in the rough and tumble Big Ten, the Spartans had a rough patch midway through the season in which they appeared in danger of not making the tournament, while the Sycamores’ undefeated streak, and their confidence, grew throughout the season, aided by an occasional miracle shot by Bob Heaton.

Davis also does an excellent job of providing previously undiscussed tidbits throughout the story. 

I had not known about Bird’s ignoring of Magic’s greeting before the final game, for example. 

Nor had I heard about Magic’s retort, five years later, when the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game Seven to win their fourteenth championship. 

Bird told Magic, “I got you back.” 

His rival responded, in essence, “I’m gonna win other championships, but I’ll aways have something you don’t-a  college championship.”

The exchange is revealing. 

It shows both how much the loss stayed with Bird and Magic’s equal desire for victory and understanding of the moment.  It also demonstrates how, for all his cheerful demeanor, Magic had a ruthless side that refused to be bested.

In the end, Magic was right. 

Davis shows that, despite Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan’s claim that Bird’s leading his team to the finals was the greatest feat in NCAA basketball history, there could only be one victor at the moment and forever afterward.

Magic got the last word on a televised meeting between the two stars in 1999, 20 years after the game, and Davis ends the book with Bird’s voice wavering as he spoke about his play in the final game to an Indiana State crowd last year. 

The ending is a fitting demonstration of Davis’ storytelling skills.  One of the best parts of When March Went Mad is how Davis uses the benefit of hindsight of the game’s and the superstars’ importance while also keeping us rooted in 1979, when their later greatness was not yet known.

In short, When March Went Mad is an entertaining and accessible read that is nearly guaranteed to please hoops junkies.  It can be consumed in parts, too, so readers should feel free to get a few pages in between the hundreds, if not thousands, of commercials  that will take place between tomorrow night and Sunday, when the identity of this year’s Final Four participants will be known.

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