Celebrating the 30th anniversary of '79 title game: Larry vs. Magic
The 1979 championship is still the highest-rated basketball game ever
Fans watching the game saw one of the most transformational games
While opposites, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the perfect protagonists
When I began working on a book about the 1979 NCAA championship game, one of the first things I did, naturally, was watch a DVD of the game. NBC's telecast began with host Bryant Gumbel narrating a pregame segment before handing the game off to the trio of Dick Enberg, Billy Packer and Al McGuire. During the segment, Gumbel stood by himself on the court. There was no set, no fancy trappings, no commercial presence at all aside from a small "Pro Keds" sign that disappeared from view when the camera zoomed in on Gumbel's face.
Not surprisingly, the segment centered around the game's two stars, Michigan State's Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Indiana State's Larry Bird. As Gumbel spoke over Bird's highlights, he said something that, when viewed through a 21st-century prism, sounded extraordinary. "If you haven't seen Bird," Gumbel said, "you're in for a treat."
That statement, more than anything else, exemplified the world that Magic and Bird stepped into that night. And that was the world they remade.
Today marks the 30-year anniversary of that epic 1979 NCAA championship game, and as we take stock of the journey we have traveled from that point, we find many of the ripples that were set in motion still reverberating around us. The impact of the event has clearly withstood the test of time. The 24.1 Nielsen rating generated that night is still the highest rating for any basketball game, college or pro, in the history of the sport. It's safe to say that number will always reign supreme. Back then, viewers had just four channels to choose from. Now we have at least 804. Consider that the riveting 2008 NCAA final between Kansas and Memphis yielded a 12.1 Nielsen rating, a healthy number by modern standards. When Magic and Bird's former pro teams, the Lakers and the Celtics, met in the NBA Finals last year, it was hailed as a dream scenario for the league. The highest Nielsen rating that any of their six games delivered was a 10.7.
Much of the impact of the '79 final has to do with timing. It just so happened that the game came along at the precise moment where it could have a maximum effect. For starters, it was played less than six months before the launch of ESPN. A few weeks before the 1979 NCAA tournament began, ESPN's founder, Bill Rasmussen, reached an agreement with the NCAA to broadcast a variety of collegiate championships, including the early rounds of the 1980 NCAA tournament. "Having a contract with the NCAA was huge to us at that point. Our network was really built on college basketball," Rasmussen said. "We kept telling ourselves, this time next year we're going to do the games leading up to this one."
The NBA, meanwhile, was at a low ebb and was starving for the infusion of these two exciting rookies. The NBA Finals at the time were broadcast not on live television but on tape delay. The league had never before put a rookie on the cover of its preseason media guide, yet that's where they put a picture of Magic and Bird that fall. Bird's arrival was especially critical because the NBA was suffering (probably unfairly) from the perception that white America would never buy into a sport dominated by black players.
On the college front, the game was followed by a 1979-80 season that saw the birth of the Big East, while the NCAA made sure to use the '79 final as a springboard to make its postseason tournament bigger, better and more lucrative. The field had been expanded to 40 teams for the '79 tournament, which also marked the first time the NCAA seeded every team in the bracket. Over the next five years, the NCAA expanded the tournament twice more -- to 48 teams in 1980 and to 64 in 1985. Aside from the creation of an opening-round game in 2001 to accommodate a 65th team, the tournament hasn't expanded since.
In fact, the Magic-Bird final launched a six-year span that could be characterized as the golden era of the NCAA tournament. From 1979 to '85, the tournament introduced America to six players who would dominate the NBA over the next two decades: Johnson, Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. In 1982, the NCAA accepted a higher rights fee from CBS and switched networks, and it staged the Final Four in a dome for the first time since 1971. This period also saw two of the greatest championship-game upsets in the history of sports: NC State over Houston in 1983 and Villanova over Georgetown in '85.
All of these factors make the 1979 NCAA championship game a rare example of an event that was a very big deal when it happened, yet one whose significance has grown even further over time. How many sporting events have had such a dramatic impact at both the collegiate and professional levels? And yet, the millions of viewers who tuned in that night could not have possibly known what was coming. They were simply drawn by the storyline ripped straight out of the Old Testament: Little Indiana State, which had competed in the NCAA's Division I for only 10 years, was taking on Michigan State, the mighty Big Ten power, for the title. Bird's Sycamores had begun the season picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference, yet they entered the championship game with a 33-0 record and ranked No. 1 in both national polls -- and many experts (most notably Billy Packer) were still questioning whether they were for real. The audience sensed that if these teams played 10 games, the Spartans would probably win seven or eight of them. But they were only going to play once. And in a one-game scenario, the thinking went, anything can happen. So you better watch.
"It was testimony to America's fervor for the underdog," Enberg said. "Here comes Indiana State and this big blond guy and four chemistry majors. The argument was, they played in a minor league. Are they really that good? And they're matched up against the Big Ten power. Dramatically speaking, it was truth strangling fiction."
Good drama requires compelling characters, and in Magic and Bird this story had a pair of protagonists who had to be seen to be believed. They were both highly skilled big men who were great passers and ultimate competitors. They even wore number 33. But it was the contrasts between them that were truly alluring. Magic was black, Bird was white. Magic grew up in urban Lansing, Michigan; Bird was the hick from French Lick. Magic was outgoing and effusive. He loved the limelight and would talk to sportswriters until they were out of questions. Bird was intensely introverted and painfully shy. He went most of the season without speaking to the media.
With so few viewing options to choose from, America couldn't help but tune in. The fact that so many of the viewers were seeing either Magic or Bird -- or possibly both -- for the first time made the experience all the more resonant. On countless occasions over the last two years, when I've told people I was working on a book about the Magic-Bird championship game, I've been amazed how often they've responded not just by telling me they watched, but by saying, "I remember where I was." It was that kind of moment.
Alas, many of the reasons that lent such weight to that moment are gone. The notion America could discover two basketball prodigies on the very night they're playing for the NCAA championship is as quaint as the rabbit-ears antenna on your old black-and-white television. If Magic and Bird came of age today, they would play more often on national television in high school than they did in their entire college careers. Even Rasmussen recognizes that something has been lost as a result of the revolution he started by creating ESPN. "Can you imagine today, between the way CBS covers the tournament and how ESPN covers everything, what it would be like?" he said. "Everybody would know Larry Bird's shoe size, the length of Johnson's shoestrings. You might expect an old guy to say this, but it's kind of a shame."
The 1979 NCAA championship by itself didn't create the world we live in today. We would have gotten here from there eventually. But as we celebrate the 30-year anniversary, we can look back and wistfully recall that this was the moment when March Madness began, when the basketball world was transformed by two of the most-gifted performers any sport has ever produced.
"The college game was already on the launching pad," the late Al McGuire once said. "Then Bird and Magic came along and pushed the button."
Because they did, we're still watching.
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