On March 26, 1979, Earvin “Magic” Johnson leads the Michigan State Spartans to a 75- 64 victory over Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game. The most watched college finale of its time, the game established Magic vs. Bird as a rivalry for the ages, and would catapult both players to NBA superstardom.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson was listed as 6 feet 9 inches tall (although he was probably 6’ 7″) and played point guard, a position usually held by the shorter men on the floor, who were charged with feeding the team’s big men the ball closer to the basket. Magic’s ball-handling skills and feel for the game were such that even in high school in East Lansing, Michigan, when he was the tallest player in any game, he was the go-to ball-handler. He was a sophomore at Michigan State in 1979, the unquestioned superstar on a team that also featured future NBA player Greg Kelser and junior guard Terry Donnelly.
Larry Bird, out of West Baden Springs and French Lick, Indiana, was also a high school basketball star. After graduation, he received a scholarship to play for legendary coach Bobby Knight at Indiana University, one of the finest teams in the country. However, Bird was homesick and uncomfortable in the spotlight in Bloomington and left after one month. He returned to French Lick, and eventually enrolled at the smaller Indiana State, far from a basketball powerhouse. There, Bird was a one-man offense, averaging 30 points per game as a sophomore, junior and senior. He led the Sycamores to an undefeated record in his senior season (1978-79) and that year scored 22, 29, 31 and 35 points, respectively, in the first four games of the NCAA tournament. Going into the final showdown with Magic and the Spartans, his team stood at an impressive 33-0.
Michigan State coach Jud Heathcoate’s game plan was to harass Bird into a bad offensive night, and that the team did. Although Bird still managed to stand out on defense, repelling Magic’s lob passes to forward Greg Kelser all night and grabbing 13 rebounds and five steals, Indiana State depended on Bird to score. The Spartans held him to seven of 21 shooting, 19 percent below his tournament average. Meanwhile, Magic was his typical brilliant self, scoring 24 points on his way to being named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
After college, Magic was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, while Bird went to play for the Boston Celtics. Their rivalry did much to reinvigorate the flagging NBA, boosting ticket sales and television tune-in. Much to fans’ delight, Magic and Bird played head-to-head for the NBA championship three times over the course of their pro careers: Bird’s Celtics won in 1984, and Magic’s Lakers won in 1985 and 1987.
Despite the rivalry, Bird and Magic became friends. In fact, when Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, Bird was the first player he called.