- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

DETROIT (AP) | Thirty years later, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are still as captivating.

The duo, whose rivalry changed college basketball and turned the NCAA tournament into March Madness, were together again Monday. The NCAA asked them to present the ball before the title game in honor of the 30th anniversary of their iconic matchup, and the friends joked and laughed as they reminisced about that game and what it meant to them.

“We played the game the right way. We didn't play it for ourselves; we played it for our team,” Johnson said. “We were two unique guys being over 6-8, being able to handle the ball, being able to score inside or outside, being able to make the right pass to our teammates. Because we really didn't care about scoring. We really cared about winning the game.

“And then you have one player black, one player white. One player who smiles, one who don't - except right now,” Johnson said, flashing that dazzling smile as he put a hand on Bird's shoulder. “I think it was just special.”

Bird and Johnson were already stars in 1979, but it was a different era then. There were a handful of channels to choose from, not a few hundred. Players were lucky to get on national television once, maybe twice during the regular season, and there were no Web sites or ESPN to chronicle every move of every team.

That the fierce rivals became such good friends made them all the more appealing. Their affection was clear, with Johnson often putting his arm around Bird's shoulders and both making references to conversations they have had before. And Bird is still Johnson's straight man.

“I always tell people, Michael [Jordan] was the greatest in the air that I've ever seen, and Larry Bird is the greatest that ever played on the ground. Because Larry couldn't jump but that high,” Johnson said, holding his thumb and index finger slightly apart.

Next generation

Former Tar Heels star Michael Jordan took a moment to greet Ty Lawson after the North Carolina junior won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation's top point guard.

“You ready?” Jordan asked Lawson, putting his hand on his shoulder.

Jordan said he wouldn't speak to the team before the game, noting that he didn't do so before the Tar Heels beat Illinois for the 2005 title.

Title game deja vu?

North Carolina's path to the national championship game had a familiar feel, especially when compared to the Tar Heels' past two title runs.

All three teams went into the final with almost identical records to face opponents from the Big Ten. Heading into Monday, the Tar Heels had the same 33-4 record as the 1993 team that beat Michigan's “Fab Five.” The 2005 team was 32-4 before beating Illinois.

In addition, all three teams lost at Wake Forest in January and headed into the NCAA tournament following a close loss in the ACC tournament despite winning the league's regular-season crown.

Proud papa

Gene Hansbrough has watched his son go from always heralded to often criticized after returning to North Carolina for his senior season. Monday night, Tyler Hansbrough and the Tar Heels played for the national championship.

Hansbrough opted to put off the NBA because he enjoyed college life and wanted another shot at that title. As a returning national player of the year, his game was scrutinized, especially when some of his stats dipped slightly.

But there's been no second-guessing the decision.

“Like Tyler said, he loves his teammates, and he loves his coaches,” said Gene Hansbrough, who watched Saturday's win against Villanova from a front-row seat at Ford Field. “Life will never get better than being a basketball player at Chapel Hill.”


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