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The Game That Transformed Basketball

by Seth Davis

Pub Date: March 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8810-6
Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

Sports Illustrated writer Davis chronicles the 1979 NCAA basketball championship game, which featured two future legends: Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird.

The game was a pivotal moment in the development of the sport, leading to an explosion in popularity and a change in the way the game was played and promoted. Davis charts the entire magical season in exhaustive detail, beginning with Bird’s failed attempt to play for legendary curmudgeon Bob Knight at Indiana University before dropping out to work as a garbage collector in his hometown of French Lick, Ind. Fortunately for the basketball world, the über-talented “hick from French Lick” was persuaded to matriculate at Indiana State University, where he led the team to an undefeated record heading into the championship game. Johnson, the charismatic polar opposite of the reticent Bird, brought his unique brand of basketball to Michigan State University—not a perennial dynasty, but a suitable Goliath to ISU’s David. Johnson’s combination of size, deft ball-handling skills and flair for showmanship offered an ideal mix for a sport desperately trying to build a national TV audience. The NCAA had its dream matchup: Johnson’s irrepressible charisma and powerhouse school against the “Great White Hope” and his underdog Sycamores. The game proved to be anticlimactic, with Johnson’s Spartans winning handily and Bird suffering a rare off night. It was a galling loss for the competitive Bird, one that Johnson—now Bird’s friend—still holds over his head. The narrative occasionally bogs down under overly detailed game descriptions, but more often, Davis’s digging pays off in anecdotes both amusing (Bird’s teammates tossing Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh into the showers after the final game of the regular season) and poignant (Bird’s troubled relationship with his daughter).

An essential primer for tournament junkies, and ideal reading material for TV timeouts.