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Magic wins first duel against Bird

Johnson leads Michigan State over Indiana State to win NCAA title.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 27, 1999


Realistically speaking, the 1979 NCAA basketball championship game wasn't that great. It was ostensibly decided when Michigan State pulled away from Indiana State early, never was challenged down the stretch and won 75-64.

The Spartans and the Sycamores weren't the real attraction at the Special Events Center in Salt Lake City.

It was the Magic show.

And the Bird act.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson was MSU's unquestioned star. He was spectacular with his drives, shots, ball-handling. When he took the court, it was showtime, a moniker that would be applied to the Los Angeles Lakers after he joined them.

Bird, the Player of the Year who went to the Boston Celtics, was ISU's deadly shooter and brilliant passer. He had a career average of more than 30 points. But Bird was reserved and soft-spoken -- when he spoke at all -- in comparison to the effusive Johnson.

"Is this my last college game?" Johnson asked rhetorically, his trademark smile widening. "I still don't know. Am I going to apply for hardship? (That's what leaving school early and signing a professional contract was called then.) I still don't know. I've got to enjoy this first. ... I've got a lot of time."

Bird signed with the Celtics, who had drafted him the previous year and still held his rights.

Each stood 6 feet 9. Each joined the NBA in the fall. And together, on opposite coasts, they led a revival of the NBA that would be in full swing five years later when Michael Jordan came out of North Carolina and joined the Chicago Bulls.

Michigan State got off to a quick start, held a 37-28 halftime lead, widened the margin to 16 two minutes into the second half and was never seriously challenged.

Johnson was his typically spectacular self, scoring 24 points and wowing the crowd with his drives and fakes. Bird, though, scored a tournament-low 19.

"The coach (Jud Heathcote) gave us a job to do on Larry Bird and all we had to do was go out and do it. He gave us a great game plan," said Johnson, who occasionally guarded Bird.

The Spartans limited the Sycamores' passing to Bird and collapsed on him when he did get the ball.

"If Bird couldn't get the ball," MSU center Jay Vincent said afterward, "I'd say that's 70 percent of their offense." When he did have the ball, he'd be guarded one-on-one. If he began to dribble, two-on-one. If he faked a pass, the Spartans wouldn't bite, waiting for the ball to leave his hands. And they'd keep him off the boards. "We defended him with an adjustment and a prayer," Heathcote said.

Bird, who took a tournament shooting average of 53 percent into the championship game, was 7-for-21 from the field, 33 percent. And the Sycamores missed 12 of 22 free throws.

At the end, Bird went to the bench, sat down, covered his head with his huge hands and sobbed into a towel. He declined interviews.

"When you play as hard and as intensely as Larry does you have to have emotion," Indiana State coach Bill Hodges said, apologizing for Bird's post-game absence. "For Larry it wasn't just the end of a game. It was the end of a career."

In reality, two Hall-of-Fame careers were just starting.


-- Information from the New York Times and St. Petersburg Evening Independent was used in this report.

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