Way back in February, a publicity group offered to send me a copy of the paperback edition of Seth Davis's book on Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and the 1979 NCAA championship game. I jumped at the chance, figuring I'd have a long month ahead of me in March with nothing happening on the college basketball front. That, of course, turned out not to be the case, as UNC caged an invitation to the NIT and continued to play all the way to the end, while the book fell to the wayside. I did tear through it, however – it's a gripping read – and I might as well tell you about it.
As a guy who grew up steeped in ACC basketball, the 1978-79 is a bit of a unknown to me, famous primarily for Black Sunday, where both UNC and Duke dropped second round games in Reynolds Coliseum. It was also the year the airball chant was invented, in a UNC-Duke game at Cameron Indoor. Neither of these events were particularly important to the college basketball world at-large at the time, however, so I was eager to get a view of things occuring outside of the Atlantic Coast.
And Seth Davis has certainly done the work to bring that viewpoint home. He has interviews with practically everyone involved outside of Johnson and Bird, including most of the teammates, both head coaches, many of the people involved with NBC's broadcast of the game, and a fair number of people on the periphery. The fact that Bird and Johnson's words only show up in archived interviews from the time and 1999 retrospective event helps the book, I feel, as it keeps Davis removed from the star players involved and their charisma. It allows him to get across the simple fact that both players are, for lack of a better word, competitive assholes.
If you were offended my Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame acceptance speech, you're really going to hate Johnson and Bird. Both are extremely competitive my nature and could be more than a little cruel to their teammates. When the Indiana State coach is forced to retire for health reasons, Bird demands that the senior assistant and administration favorite be passed over in favor of a relatively junior member of the staff, Bill Hodges. (Davis follows both coaches to the present day, and neither finds much success.) Johnson enjoys putting other players in their place, behind him, while Bird is fond of men practical jokes and has an outright refusal to give interviews. Davis weaves their two stories together well over the course of the 1979 season, as each team suffers setbacks and the increasing pressure as the college basketball world focuses solely on them.
The one place Davis falters is truly in supporting the second half of his title – proving that this game did indeed transform basketball. He credits ESPN with helping to explode the game's popularity, but ESPN had already signed the deal to air the early tournament games NBC wasn't going to broadcast before Bird and Johnson took the floor. The tournament wouldn't become a spectacle until CBS obtained the broadcast rights, but that was a full three seasons after the Johnson-Bird game. (CBS had the NBA rights at the time, and they didn't even air Johnson's first championship with the Lakers live.) CBS and NBC's battle for the tournament also, with ESPN, drove the increase in the number of regular season games aired, but that too commenced with the '81-'82 season. Did that the 1979 championship truly change the game, or was it merely a big game in the midst of evolutionary forces that were bringing college basketball to the forefront?
(As an aside, a much stronger case could be made that this game irrevocably changed the NBA, who were pretty much saved by the Johnson-Bird rivalry and the respective dynasties of the Lakers and Celtics that defined the eighties. This being a college basketball book, however, Davis only briefly touches on this.)
That aside, this remains an excellent read and a good insight into the minds of a couple of the greatest basketball players in the NBA. UNC makes a brief cameo, when the Tar Heels beat Michigan State in Carmichael in November, but otherwise are just a potential championship threat that fades away as the season progresses. Penn, the team that knocked out UNC on Black Sunday, was MSU's sacrificial lamb in the Final Four, but that was it for Carolina that season. There's also a fair amount of Billy Packer, as curmudgeonly then as he is today, but as someone who never hated Packer, I enjoyed his insights, and where he was willing to admit he was wrong at the time. Also, Larry Bird really disliked him, so you can read about his mistreatment of the play-by-play man and get a bit of a warm, fuzzy feeling if you so desire. All in all it's a god book; pick it up.