1979 NCAA Basketball Championship: Magic Johnson of Michigan State defeats Larry Bird of Indiana State

Last Monday night, in the championship game, Michigan State confirmed a notion that had been gaining credence as the NCAA tournament progressed and State rolled to one easy win after another.

The Spartans, despite a 21-6 regular-season record, are a superb team—perhaps even a great one—largely because of their perfect mix of superstars in the spotlight and supernumeraries in the shadows. Together, they accomplished what Earvin Johnson and Gregory Kelser could never have done by themselves—indeed, what no team had been able to do this season. The Spartans caged Larry Bird and ended the 33-game winning streak of Indiana State 75-64 to win their first national basketball title.

For Bird, the word in Salt Lake City was frustration. He missed shots, he committed turnovers and he failed to find the open man. He also needed what Johnson and Kelser had, a supporting cast of bit players who could come up with the critical basket or rebound. Yes, Johnson scored 24 points and Kelser 19 in the final, but a little left-handed guard named Terry Donnelly popped in 15 points and a substitute center named Ron Charles grabbed seven rebounds.

Donnelly played a particularly important role. His first shot, less than five minutes into the game, gave Michigan State a lead it never relinquished, and his last four, early in the second half, blew the margin to 16. After averaging only 6.3 points during Michigan State's first 31 games, he was hardly accustomed to this sort of performance. "I was surprised," he said. "Earvin was throwing the ball to me the same as everyone else."

With that kind of balance and that kind of lead, the Spartans were not about to lose. Indiana State never got closer than six points after Donnelly's burst, and the Sycamores took themselves out of the game when they blew four opportunities to cut the deficit further with the score 61-54.

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. The player of the year shot seven for 21, scored only 19 points, committed six turnovers and passed for only two assists. Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote designed a variation of the Spartans' matchup zone that put "a man and a half" on Bird. "He was very, very frustrated," said Spartan Center Jay Vincent. "He kept saying, 'Give me the ball, give me the ball,' but his teammates couldn't get it to him." On those occasions when Bird did get the ball and, in turn, wanted to pass it to someone else, he seldom found anybody open. The Spartans prepared for Bird's usually dazzling passing game the day before by having Johnson work his magic against the other Michigan State regulars in practice. After that, the real Bird was a piece of cake.

At the end, Bird and his teammates were left with a 33-1 record, which was about 10 games better than anyone had predicted for them, and a dream that very nearly came true. When the game was over, Sycamore Forward Alex Gilbert walked to the bench and yelled, "Get your head up. Get your head up. We don't want people to think we aren't winners. We're still No. 1!"

Not really, of course. That accolade belonged to Michigan State, which had 15 wins in its last 16 games. "We'd been a very, very good team the last month," said Kelser. "I felt that if we won we could say we are a great team. Well, we are. We play together, and we use the talent that we have. I haven't realized we're champions yet, but I will, and it will hit me like a brick. I'll explode."

By reaching the championship game, the finalists brought a semblance of sanity to a freaked-out season. The biggest upset in Saturday's two semifinals was that there were no upsets; the third-ranked Spartans swamped Penn 101-67, and the top-ranked Sycamores edged DePaul 76-74. So much for upstarts and old men.

The Quakers had hoped to gain recognition for their Eastern Establishment team, which was making its first appearance in the final four, and for the Ivy League, whose last representative in such distinguished basketball company had been Princeton in 1965. They certainly sounded confident enough, as when star Forward Tony Price declared, "I have no fear of Michigan State. They're just a bunch of dudes who play ball."

But, alas, they play it well, and they know it. "It would be very, very easy for us to get complacent and overconfident," admitted Kelser, "but I don't think we'll do that."

The NCAA men's basketball tournament has produced some of the most exciting, powerful and emotional moments in sports history, including some Hollywoodesque fantastic finishes. The 1979 championship game, though far from a blowout, wasn't a down to the wire thriller, but it is one of the most significant games ever played in any sport.

The match up between Michigan State Univeristy and Indiana State University was the first time that MSU's Earvin "Magic" Johnson and ISU's Larry Bird played each other. The two entered the NBA the next season and dominated it throughout the 1980s.

Happily, that game is now available on DVD through Greatest Games Ever. The DVD shows the broadcast exactly as it aired live on NBC with commentators Al McGuire, Billy Packer, Bryant Gumbel and Dick Enberg. The commercials are absent but the pre-game, halftime and post-game segments are included. The lack of commercials is a little disappointing because I think commercials are often fascinating in retrospect but that's my only criticism of the DVD.

Th game, played on March 26, 1979 at the Special Events Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, was an unlikely pairing. Michigan State, from the mighty Big Ten and coached by seasoned veteran Jud Heathcote, was a natural participant. But Indiana State, from the relatively minor Missouri Valley Conference and led by a rookie head coach, Bill Hodges, was a surprise. Especially because the Sycamores had a long history of taking a distant backseat to the Hoosier state's Big Ten schools, Indiana University and Purdue University.

Adding drama was ISU entering the game with a 33-0 record, attempting to join an elite group of undefeated national champions. And on a trivial note, Hodges was the first head coach to reach the championship game with an undefeated career record. And Johnson and Bird were not the only great players on the floor. And least three others, MSU's Jay Vincent and Greg Kelser and ISU's Carl Nicks also went on to play in the NBA. And the pre-game interviews with Bird and Johnson are priceless.

Throughout the game, we get a preview of the way that Johnson and Bird would revolutionize the NBA in the next decade. In an era in which basketball was largely becoming a sloppy playground style sport, the two made teamwork and fundamentals popular again. Sadly, since they retried, the sport has regressed to an even worse state than it was at the time of this game. Though in two ways the sport has improved. Watching this game now reminds me how much more exciting the three point shot and the shot clock have made basketball.

The only thing that keeps this DVD from getting a 10/10 is that the game isn't particularly dramatic. Many NCAA championship games have had more memorable finishes. But none have ever given a better preview of the future of basketball. Bird and Johnson each went on to win three NBA Most Valuable Player awards and their teams won eight of the nine NBA championships from 1980-88. Johnson won five with the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird won three with the Boston Celtics.

The 1979 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament involved 40 schools playing in single-elimination play to determine the national champion of men's NCAA Division I college basketball. It began on March 9, 1979, and ended with the championship game on March 26 in Salt Lake City, Utah. A total of 40 games were played, including a national third place game.
Michigan State, coached by Jud Heathcote, won the national title with a 75-64 victory in the final game over Indiana State, coached by Bill Hodges. Indiana State came into the game without a loss all season, but couldn't win their final game. Magic Johnson of Michigan State was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Michigan State's victory over Indiana State was its first over a number one ranked team, and remained its only victory over a number one ranked team until 2007 (Wisconsin).
The final game marked the beginning of the rivalry between future Hall of Famers Johnson and Larry Bird. To this day, it remains the highest-rated game in the history of televised college basketball. Both Magic and Bird would enter the NBA in the fall of 1979, and the rivalry between them and their teams (respectively, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics) was a major factor in the league's renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s. The game also led to the "modern era" of college basketball, as it introduced a nationwide audience to a sport that was once relegated to second-class status in the sports world.

March Madness was in full swing in 1979 when the Michigan State Spartans locked horns with the undefeated Indiana State Sycamores in the NCAA basketball title game. With MSU’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson and ISU’s Larry Bird as the featured superstars, the 1979 championship game proved to be one of the most heralded in college basketball history.

Michigan State and the Magic Johnson Show

Big things were expected of Coach Jud Heathcote’s Michigan State Spartans for the 1978-79 basketball season. Their powerhouse lineup said it all, led by 6′8″ sophomore Earvin “Magic” Johnson at point guard, who dazzled crowds with his lightning-quick passes and pinpoint shooting. Joining the Magic Man in their deadly hardwood assault were 6′7″ senior Greg “Special K” Kelser, 6′7″ sophomore Jay Vincent and 6′4″ sophomore Mike Brkovich at forwards, 6′7″ junior Ron Charles at center and 6′2″ junior Terry Donnelly at the other guard position.

The MSU Spartans lived up to their pre-season hype, posting a record of 21-6. One of their most impressive wins came in December in the Far West Classic when they manhandled Washington State, 98-52.

Michigan State went on to win a share of the Big Ten title with Purdue and Iowa. By virtue of their overall winning percentage and the fact that they had beaten Iowa twice, however, the Spartans were awarded the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

Larry Bird’s Cinderella Indiana State

In one pre-season poll, Indiana State was picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference. The prediction was not unreasonable, as ISU would field a lineup of unknown quantity led by a man with no previous head coach experience.

One player in Coach Bill Hodges’ starting lineup whose talents were definitely known was 6′9″ senior forward Larry Bird. In his two previous seasons at ISU the French Lick native had averaged 32.8 and 30.0 points per game, respectively.

With Bird as the unquestioned leader and star of the team, the Sycamores rounded out their starting lineup with 6′3″ junior Carl Nicks and 6′2″ sophomore Steve Reed at the guard positions, 6′7″ junior Alex Gilbert at center and 6′8″ junior Brad Miley at the other forward position. Also figuring prominently as the sixth and seventh men were 6′5″ junior transfer Bob Heaton and 6′4″ senior forward Leroy Staley.

Indiana State went on to become one of the greatest cinderella stories in college hoops history, compiling a perfect 29-0 record following a 69-59 win over New Mexico State in the Missouri Valley postseason tournament. Appropriately, ISU fans had adopted “Amen” as their unofficial theme song for the season.

The 1979 Road to Salt Lake City

A total of 40 teams comprised the field of the 41st annual NCAA basketball tournament. Garnering the number one regional seeds were Notre Dame in the Mideast (Michigan State was #2), Indiana State in the Midwest, North Carolina in the East and UCLA in the West.

Indiana State opened play against Virginia Tech, with Larry Bird and Carl Nicks scoring 22 points each in an 86-69 victory. The Sycamores went on to dispatch Oklahoma (93-72), Arkansas (73-71) and DePaul (76-74), earning a shot in the title game. The DePaul contest was especially hard fought, with Larry Bird the deciding factor, going 16 of 19 from the field, grabbing 16 rebounds and handing out nine assists. “We couldn’t stop him,” said Blue Demons head coach Ray Meyer.

Michigan State opened tournament play with a 95-64 blowout of Lamar. The Spartans then rolled on to impressive wins over Louisiana State (87-71), Notre Dame (80-68) and Penn (101-67). In the latter, it was all Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser, with the two superstars pouring in 29 and 28 points, respectively.

1979 NCAA Basketball Title Game Predictions

“IT’LL BE MAGIC MAN VS. THE BIRD,” crowed one newspaper headline, as the Spartans and Sycamores prepared to do battle in the great Salt Lake.

The pundits now made their predictions. Both coaches Ray Meyer of DePaul and Bob Weinhauer of Penn favored Michigan State, while Al McGuire, former head coach at Marquette and an NBC sports commentator, gave the nod to Indiana State. “I think it is meant to be,” McGuire said.

The 1979 NCAA Championship Basketball Game

On Monday night, March 26, 1979, Indiana State and Michigan State met for the NCAA basketball championship in Salt Lake City. The place was buzzing with excitement, as a capacity crowd of 15,410 fans packed the Events Center at the University of Utah.

It was the MSU Spartans who took command early, rolling to a 37-28 advantage at halftime. The numbers told the story, with Michigan State shooting 52 percent from the field and the Sycamores 38 percent.

The second half didn’t prove to be much better for Indiana State, as the Spartans defense continued to bottle up Larry Bird while Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser and Terry Donnelly put the necessary tallies on the board. At one point, the Sycamores managed to pull within six, but that’s the closest they got, as Bird could only manage seven of 21 from the field and hand out two assists.

When the final buzzer had sounded, the score stood Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64. Magic Johnson, who scored 24 points in the title game, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.