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On This Day: Magic Johnson Beats Larry Bird in NCAA Title Game

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: April 1, 2023

On March 26, 1979, Magic Johnson led Michigan State past Larry Bird and Indiana State in the NCAA title game. The game, watched by nearly a quarter of U.S. television viewers, is credited with sparking an interest in the NCAA tournament that led to the development of “March Madness.”

Magic’s Spartans Beat Bird’s Sycamores 75-64

The 1979 NCAA basketball championship game brought together two teams and two players representing opposite ends of the spectrum in American society, a storyline that sparked great interest among sports fans and non-sports fans alike.

The Michigan State Spartans of the powerful Big Ten conference were led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a flashy, gregarious point guard who represented black and urban America. On the other side, the unheralded Indiana State Sycamores had gone 33-0 on the back of Larry Bird, the reclusive “hick from French Lick” who represented white and small town America.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better dynamic between these two central characters,” said Sports Illustrated writer and CBS analyst Seth Davis to NPR. “On the one hand, they were extremely similar—they were ultimate winners; they were great team players—and yet by the same token, you couldn’t find two guys who were so different on so many fundamental levels, the most obvious being race.”

Johnson was already billed as the game’s next great star, while Bird, having played just three games on TV and avoiding the media spotlight, was almost a mythical figure. Fans who heard of his exploits tuned in to the title game to see if the “great white hope” was as good as advertised.

On Monday night, March 26, nearly a quarter of U.S. television sets were tuned to NBC to watch the two teams play in Salt Lake City’s Special Events Center; the 24.1 rating remains the highest ever rating for a basketball game.

“The game, in many ways, was anticlimactic,” says sportswriter David DuPree. Bird, playing with a broken thumb, was held in check by Michigan State’s match-up zone, while “Magic orchestrated things to perfection,” in the Spartans’ 75-64 victory.

“The Spartans made it clear from the beginning that they were the better team, and they proved it in the most convincing fashion possible—by containing Bird,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Larry Keith.

Johnson and Bird continued their rivalry in the NBA, where Magic’s “Showtime” Lakers and Bird’s blue-collar Celtics met three times in the Finals, with Magic winning twice. “That ’79 title game has grown in importance in part because the Bird-Magic continued in the NBA,” writes ESPN’s Andy Katz. “No other individual rivalry has moved from one level to the next without a time gap.”

The Game’s Effect on Basketball

Sources in this Story

  • The Wall Street Journal: ‘When March Went Mad’
  • NPR: Johnson Vs. Bird And The Dawn Of March Madness
  • USA Today: Bird-Magic showdown of 1979 was start of something special
  • Sports Illustrated: They Caged The Bird
  • ESPN: From coast to coast, a magical pair
  • Fox Sports (Salt Lake Tribune): Bird-Magic: The night March Madness began in SLC
  • Sports Illustrated: A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad March
  • ESPN: Plain and simple, Bird one of the best

The 1979 title game is credited with popularizing the NCAA basketball tournament and rejuvenating the game of basketball. “The NCAA Tournament wasn’t the national happening—with pools in every office—that it is today. The NBA sagged below the college game in ratings, its championship series not even broadcast on live television,” writes Gordon Monson and Lya Wodraska in the Salt Lake Tribune. “Bird-Magic changed all that, on both levels.”

The game coincided with an expansion of the tournament and the growth of television. Later that year, ESPN was launched as the first television channel dedicated to sports; it began broadcasting early round NCAA tournament games the following year, giving fans the chance to watch the early round upsets that the tournament is renowned for.

The tournament has since expanded to 68 teams, with all games broadcast on national television and streamed live online under a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner.

Davis tracks how Bird and Magic sparked this growth in book, “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball.” “It was just a catalytic event,” he tells NPR, “two guys coming together at the precise moment where they could have a maximum impact.”

Biographies: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird

Magic Johnson
Earvin Johnson Jr. grew up playing basketball in Lansing, Mich., where he earned the nickname “Magic” for his “uncanny ability to see plays before they developed.” At 6-foot-9 inches tall, he had the size of a forward, but the quickness of a guard.

After leading Michigan State to the 1979 title, he was drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played his entire career, winning three MVPs and five NBA championships. His career was cut short after he learned in 1991 that he had contracted HIV.

Despite his illnesses, he made several comebacks to basketball and played alongside Bird on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.” He has remained in good health and become a successful entrepreneur, building theatres, coffee shops, gyms and restaurants in inner cities.

Larry Bird
Larry Bird was raised in French Lick, Ind., a small town of about 2,000 people. In high school, Bird showed that he was a great shooter and competitor, earning a basketball scholarship from Indiana University; however, feeling homesick and intimidated by the size of the school, he dropped out and returned to French Lick.

After a year of working for the town—in a job that included driving a garbage truck—Bird enrolled at Indiana State, where he developed into one of the best players in college basketball. The Boston Celtics drafted him in 1978, but Bird returned for his senior year and led to Sycamores to the championship game.

Bird signed with the Celtics, beginning a 13-year career during which he won three MVPs and three NBA titles. “Bird was one of those rare athletes who made everybody around him better,” writes ESPN’s Larry Schwartz. “His uncanny passing, deadly shooting and anticipation defensively transformed losers into winners.”

Reference: NCAA Tournament

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to March Madness features links to the best sites for learning about the history of the NCAA tournament, and finding the best news, analysis and television coverage of this year’s event.

Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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