Friday, August 27, 2010

The Other Guys

Few games have more historical significance than the 1979 NCAA championship game. Michigan State’s 75-64 victory over Indiana State in Salt Lake City gave fans the first taste of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. It remains one of the most-watched basketball matchups ever.

But, quick, what happened in the semifinals of the 1979 Final Four? It’s easy to forget about Penn, which was dominated by the Spartans, 101-67. And despite all that sprang forth from the title game, Bird would probably rather have people remember the Sycamores’ 76-74 victory over DePaul.

Often lost among all the mythologizing and rhapsodic re-telling is the fact that Bird struggled against Michigan State, playing with a hurt thumb and scoring 19 points on just 7-for-21 shooting. He was the focus of double teams by the Spartans throughout the game. That stood in stark contrast to the strategy of DePaul coach Ray Meyer in the semifinals. The Blue Demons thought that they would let Bird score, but completely shut down the rest of his less-heralded teammates.

In retrospect, that probably wasn’t Meyer’s smartest coaching decision. Bird had gotten a fair amount of publicity, but the Sycamores’ game against DePaul would be the first time that a large national audience got to see him play.

Bird didn’t leave anyone disappointed. He was outstanding from the jump ball, which fell to Bird, who expertly tapped it to a streaking Carl Nicks for a layup. A few minutes later, Bird found some space against DePaul’s Curtis Watkins and got his first points on a 15-footer off the glass.

It was a sign of things to come. After the first 20 minutes, Indiana State had a 45-42 lead and Bird had 23 points on 11-for-12 shooting. He scored from all over the court, with either hand, making true believers of the venerable NBC announcing crew of Al McGuire, Billy Packer, Dick Enberg and sideline reporter Bryant Gumbel.

Watkins was hampered by a bum knee and couldn’t slow Bird. The Blue Demons also played their five starters for the entirety of the game, so they sometimes switched to a 2-3 zone to conserve energy. There probably isn’t a player in basketball history more equipped than Bird to destroy a zone. He had the brains to find the soft spots, the shooting touch and the passing vision when the defense collapsed on him. Bird finished with 35 points on 16-for-19 shooting, with 16 rebounds and nine assists.

Still, Indiana State could not put away DePaul. All five of the Blue Demons’ starters would be drafted by NBA teams, and they were led in this game by hotshot freshman Mark Aguirre and Gary Garland, who went by the nickname “the Music Man” and later worked as a backup singer for half-sister Whitney Houston.

Aguirre had 19 points, but missed his chance to alter history. With DePaul trailing, 75-74, in the waning seconds, Aguirre’s long jumper bounced off the rim and into the hands of Indiana State’s Leroy Staley, who added a free throw for the final margin.

If Aguirre’s shot had fallen, who knows how the next few years of basketball would have played out. Johnson and Bird certainly still would have been NBA stars, but there wouldn’t be the narrative of their rivalry without the founding story of the 1979 NCAA championship game. You just don’t mess with destiny.


  1. 35, 16 and 9? Shit, that's a monster game. I had no idea, and I'm a lifelong Celtics/Bird fan.

  2. Stumbled on your blog.. Really enjoy your writing. I kill far too much time blogging on Hoosier basketball sites. Read your piece entitled "Hoosier Dandies"...very good stuff. You have a new fan.

    Downing's 5th(D-5)