A lot of good came out of the 1979 NCAA championship game between Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. For one thing, it kicked off the storied rivalry between the two players, one that pretty much saved the floundering NBA. And as Seth Davis writes in When March Went Mad: The Game that Transformed Basketball, the game “helped to catapult college basketball, and especially the NCAA tournament, into the national consciousness.” The great irony is that such a meaningful contest was “not a very good game,” according to Davis. Michigan State won by 11 points as the can’t-miss Bird missed almost 70 percent of his shots.
Davis, a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports and a longtime writer for Sports Illustrated, doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing the game, nor does he just revel in Magic/Bird anecdotes. This entertaining, revealing book examines two very different teams’ journeys in getting to the final. Michigan State’s head student manager, Darwin Payton, was invaluable to coach Jud Heathcote, who relied on Payton for insight on his own players. Sycamores’ coach Bill Hodges discovered that bringing an unheralded small school to national prominence did not guarantee future success.
As for the basketball legends, it’s remarkable to see them as young men. Bird may have been at ease on a basketball court, but dealing with the media throngs was hell. Not only did the former garbage man want certain aspects of his personal life kept secret—his father’s suicide, an ex-wife who filed a paternity suit—he felt inept doing interviews. Johnson, he of the smiley persona and affable nature, was always comfortable being the man; twice a week as “E.J. the Deejay,” he’d spin records at an off-campus disco.
Davis’ decision to go beyond the superstars is what makes When March Went Mad work. By highlighting the stories and thoughts of the players and staff on both teams, Davis shows that everyone contributes, especially when it comes to producing a fine piece of sports journalism.
Pete Croatto owns a deadly jump shot and a Patrick Ewing replica jersey.