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A Jewel of a Duel
Jackie MacMullan
November 29, 1999
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November 29, 1999

A Jewel Of A Duel


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From the beginning, my professional career was defined by two superstars: Larry and Magic. This is true of any writer who covered pro basketball in the '80s, because there was nothing more compelling than the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird.

Beyond Magic's baby hook and Larry's killer threes, I wanted to know it all. Was it true that the two barely spoke during their early years in the NBA, eyeing each other with mutual mistrust? Was it true that the filming of a Converse commercial at Bird's French Lick, Ind., home in the summer of 1984 finally cemented the friendship? Over time I came to know both men and to appreciate their respect for each other.

Larry and Magic revived the NBA with their talent, their court sense, their commitment and, most of all, with their personal competition. Their triumphs and their travails, their epic battles for championship crowns, read like a novel you could not put down. And yet I often felt as though I'd picked up their story one chapter into the book. After all, this glorious rivalry had debuted in March 1979, when Magic's Michigan State Spartans and Larry's Indiana State Sycamores battled in Salt Lake City for the NCAA championship, and I was not there.

I was a college student then, not yet a journalist, and there is something I must confess: I didn't even watch that game on television. Forgive me, but instead of watching Magic and Bird battle for the national title, I went bowling. In the interest of full disclosure, there was a guy involved—the wrong guy, as it turned out. How was I to know I was skipping out on a game featuring the two men who would save professional basketball?

The buildup to this particular NCAA championship was unprecedented, and it was the matchup between the two stars that dominated the headlines. A large contingent of media, thirsty for details, repeatedly asked both Magic and Larry, as well as their teammates, the same question: Who's better? This infuriated Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, who felt certain the press was trying to trap his players into saying something inflammatory about Bird.

Larry played in the title game with a broken left thumb, although he was loath, both then and now, to use that as an excuse for shooting 7 of 21 from the floor. The real culprit was Michigan State's 2-3 matchup zone, which assigned a player to trail Bird step-for-step. Whenever he received a pass or tried to dribble the ball, another Spartans player would shade over for the double-team. Bird had never seen such intense defensive pressure, and it showed. He could count on one hand the open looks he had, and the frustration was etched on his face that night.

The Sycamores could not employ a similar tactic to stifle Magic because he too had great passing skills as well as talented offensive teammates such as Greg Kelser. Magic, at 6'9", easily handled Indiana State's attempts to pressure him, finishing with 24 points and seven rebounds, and Reiser's play was vital. He and Magic had helped build a 16-point lead in the second half before Kelser briefly went to the bench with four fouls. Bird, aware that this was the Sycamores' last gasp, coaxed his teammates into making one more run, but Indiana State would not get closer than six points the rest of the way. By then Kelser was back in the game, adding the exclamation point on the 75-64 Spartans victory by slamming in a dunk off a no-look, over-the-shoulder, half-court lob from Magic in the final seconds. When the buzzer sounded, a jubilant Magic cut down the nets while a disconsolate Bird sat on the bench, face buried in a towel, crying softly.

In later years, when I queried both men about this historic night, it was the little things they remembered. Magic confided that he'd had almost as much fun the day before the big game impersonating Larry in practice, shooting from all over the floor and daring his teammates to stop him. Bird, a career 89% free throw shooter in the pros, said the thing that most gnawed at him for years was that he hit just 5 of 8 from the line that night. But by the time Bird was well established with the Celtics, he could talk about the loss to Michigan State with some objectivity. "We could have played them 10 times," he admitted, "and they probably would have beaten us eight."

Wouldn't it be nice to have 10 more chances to watch Magic and Larry in the duel that captured the imagination of the entire country that night? Well, almost the entire country. All I want is one more chance to soak in the game that made history and created one of the most fascinating rivalries in sports.

Funny thing. I haven't been bowling since.