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That Magic Moment
Steve Rushin
March 15, 1999
A look back at the '79 NCAA title game recalls the days when TV didn't overwhelm the sport
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March 15, 1999

That Magic Moment

A look back at the '79 NCAA title game recalls the days when TV didn't overwhelm the sport

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When president Clinton professed "profound regret" last Friday over last year's accident in which 20 people died when a U.S. military plane severed the cable on an Italian ski lift, he echoed another recent pronouncement: In February, recall, he was "profoundly saddened" by a PEOPLE magazine puff piece on his daughter. If two events—one tragic, one trivial—evoke the same rhetoric of grief, is either statement meaningful? Depends what your definition of is is.

We live in an age of profound baloney. Certain words have been turned upside down and had all meaning shaken from their pockets. In sports there have been enough Historic Moments, enough Epic Games, enough Greatest Players of All Time to render those phrases empty. Superlatives, even when appropriate, are bees that sting once, then die. The 1979 NCAA Championship Game between Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores and Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans is widely regarded as having 1) brought college basketball into the big time; 2) spawned the modern era of the NBA; 3) sparked an unparalleled rivalry and friendship between two stars of different races; and 4) given minty-fresh breath to all who tuned in. Or something like that. The game's significance can scarcely be overstated, though many have tried.

Which is why NBC's broadcast of the event, still the highest-rated (24.1 Nielsen) college basketball final ever, is a revelation when viewed today. Such network coverage in 1999 is unimaginable: eloquent in its simplicity, scrupulously understated and so spare as to seem—dare we say it?—profound. "Perhaps we've never seen a final game with two greater individual players," Dick Enberg said, and then the two teams were simply allowed to play the game. Viewers were spared gratuitous graphics, the graffiti of telestration and constant cutaways to coaches doing Hamlet. Analysts Billy Packer and Al McGuire never made a man-to-man defense sound more complicated than the tax code. In the entire broadcast there was not a single reference to Final Four or March Madness, both of which are now registered trademarks, flogged beyond recognition.

As the evening evolved, so did the announcers' perceptions of the participants. " Magic Johnson is trying to make the pass and score," Packer said in the second half. "He can't do it all." McGuire, experiencing a genuine Eureka! moment, replied, "I think he can." McGuire was right, of course, and by the next year Magic was scoring 42 points at center in the clinching game of the NBA Finals, and basketball was forever changed, largely for the good.

But on that Monday night 20 years ago, before a human-scale crowd of 15,410 on the University of Utah campus, the NCAA final was not yet a bloated carcass, sealed inside a Superdomed sarcophagus. CBS now fashions an entire broadcast around Selection Sunday. Soon, no doubt, we'll have Equipment-Testing Tuesday. In '79 even the commercials were sparely produced and less frequent. A spot for the not-at-all-understated, vinyl-roofed, pimp-ready Ford Fairmont—the automotive equivalent of a Fox baseball broadcast—bore the fine-print graphic, WHITE WALLS NOT INCLUDED.

NBC's tasteful production was among the last, it seems, in which whitewalls were not included. For when that game ended, everything changed: Basketball walked upright out of the ocean, yes, but brought with it excess and hype and b.s. What's astonishing is that it happened immediately. NBC sideline reporter Bryant Gumbel asked the triumphant Johnson if he would return for his junior season. "As far as I know right now," said Magic, "I'll be back."

He never went back, of course. And neither did we.

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