Tag Archives: Larry Bird

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.


March Madness, Larry Bird’s Drive

Larry Bird’s play 30 years ago contributed to starting what we now know as March Madness.


Drive: The Story of My Life is his autobiography.

March Madness has struck.

During the next four weekends, billions of dollars will be spent and countless work hours lost to office and other pools predicting which of the 65 teams who qualified for the NCAA tournament will emerge as the national champion.

It has not always been that way.

In fact, some trace the origins of college basketball fever to 1979, when Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State Sycamores met their match at the hands and feet of Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans, 75-64.

The game, which was highlighted by Magic throwing the then-innovative alley oop pass to Greg Kelser, ended with the dejected Bird covering his head and weeping in a towel.

Bird’s tears came from his deep passion.  As anyone who has followed pro basketball knows, he and Johnson, along with Michael Jordan and with plenty of marketing savvy from Commissioner David Stern, led the NBA to unprecedented heights.

The battles between Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers were the stuff of legend.  The teams met three times in the final, with the Celtics taking the first contest but the Lakers coming back to win the final two frames and take the series.

Last year’s final, which again pitted the league’s most venerable franchises, saw a revival of YouTube clips of the 80s teams as well as the old rivals saying, in split screen, “There can only be one.”

Bird tells the story of his humble beginnings and fierce passion for excellence in his autobiography, Drive: The Story of My Life.

Some have criticized media portrayals of Bird as representing a simpler, idyllic, enter whiter time.  In truth, as David Halberstam notes at the end of The Breaks of The Game, his family background was actually more similar to that of many other black players in the league than Johnson, who came from a stable two-parent family in which his father worked and his mother stayed at home with Johnson and his other siblings.

Bird recounts the poverty in which he grew up, the grit his father showed-he talks about having to peel ill-fitting boots off his feet-and his deep love for his mother Georgia, who was left to lead the family after her husband killed himself (Bird does not write about his marriage as a teenager or his fathering a child with whom for many years he did not have a relationship.).

Bird also writes about how he came to basketball relatively late, but quickly was hooked and played and practiced endlessly.  Hoops aficionados will learn the cautionary tale of Beezer Carnes, whose failure to practice free throws ended up costing Bird’s Springs Valley High School team dearly in the state tournament.

His years at Indiana State and his loyalty to his home state are duly noted-Celtics fans may remember that Bird, after the victory over Johnson and the Lakers in 1984, marked their earlier struggle by saying, “This one is for Terre Haute.”

Bird also writes about his seemingly uncanny ability to register everything that happened on the court and even in the stands while he was playing.

Written in the early 90s, the book straddles the question of whether Magic or Jordan was a greater opponent, and one doubts whether any would put Magic about Michael after the latter’s six championships in eight years and six NBA Finals MVPs.

The book is also tinged with irony as Bird speaks with optimism toward the end of the book about the 1991 drafting of Dee Brown.  The signing gave him hope that the team would return to the pinnacle.

This, of course, did not happen until last June, when we Celtics fans could finally stop saying, “Wait ’til 22 years ago!”

Still, for fans wondering where the madness that grips the nation around this time every year should consider checking out this straightforward telling of one of basketball’s brightest lights.

A couple other quick thoughts.

We're going to The White Hut for burgers.  I've got a couple of book recommendations for people feeling the Massachusetts vibe.

We're going to The White Hut for burgers. I've got a couple of book recommendations for people feeling the Massachusetts vibe.

I’m still here in Western Massachusetts, very excited about Meghan and Maureen’s wedding , and eager to go with Jacob and Sarah for my initial experience at West Springfield’s The White Hut, a legendary hamburger and hot dog joint.  I’ve been told I don’t need to shower before as I’ll be drenched in the sweet smell of grease afterward!

Here are a couple of books for those feeling the Massachusetts, and, more specifically, Western Massachusetts, love:

1. House, by Tracy Kidder.  I wrote earlier this week about Among Schoolchildren, the book that chronicled a year in the life of Christine Zajac’s fifth-grade classroom in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  House masterfully tells the story of the process of designing and building a house in Northampton. 

 Warning: this work is not for recent home builders, as it is likely to trigger post-traumatic house disorder. 

Kidder’s panoptic abilities are on full display here, as he shows the push and pull between the owners, the architect, the contractor and his workers.  The scene at the book’s end, when the house is finally built, the owners are ecstatic and the contractor’s melancholy sets in as he realizes how little he has made, is nearly perfect, and there are plenty of other gems that come before.  

2. Top of the World: The Inside Story of the Boston Celtics’ Amazing One-Year Turnaround to Become NBA Champions, by Peter May. 

This breezy book by longtime Boston Globe sportswriter Peter May covers the historic turnaround and championship run of last year’s Boston Celtics team.  As has been well-chronicled, the team defied the odds and beat the Kobe Bryant-led and heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers for the C’s record 17th championship.  

May, who wrote an earlier book about the 1986 Celtics, which he argued was the best team of all time, provides a lot of familiar, and some  not so familiar, material in this book. 

While the death of coach Glenn ‘Doc’ Rivers’ father and the maneuverings of General Manager Danny Ainge to bring ‘The Big Three’ had been thoroughly discussed, I had not known that Kevin Garnett had spent much of his senior year at Chicago’s Farragut High School on his own.

May’s game descriptions of the game lack drama and you feel that his heart is still will Larry Bird and the rest of the original ‘Big Three.’   Still, for those looking for a charge as the Celtics makes this year’s push for the playoffs and seek to retain their crown, Top of the World is a quick and enjoyable read.