- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

By Seth Davis
Times Books, $26, 323 pages

Once upon a time college basketball didn’t have the national profile it does now and its players could fly below the radar screen of all but the most rabid of fans.

As we experience a March Madness in which a basketball-loving president unveils his picks on national television, it is fascinating to go back to the championship game that did much to raise the popularity of the sport.

That’s exactly what “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball” does in a well written and engaging manner.

The 1979 NCAA championship game featured Michigan State University, led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, vs. Indiana State University led by Larry Bird. It had all the elements of high drama: two future Hall of Famers, an undefeated underdog team (Indiana State) against one that had national acclaim and played in the Big 10. Toss in the fact that neither team’s coach had been pegged as likely to have their team make the Final Four and you have the makings of a great story. One could easily imagine Ernest Hemingway turning this into a novel.

Seth Davis handles the subject with aplomb, mostly by staying out of the way and letting others do the talking. He interviewed many of the key players, coaches, journalists and college staffers and drew them out so the reader feels that he was at the practices and games described.

Mr. Davis, a writer for Sports Illustrated and in-studio analyst for CBS, uses the basketball games as a springboard for profiling Messrs. Bird and Johnson and the state of basketball during the pre ESPN era when there was so little interest in the game that the NBA finals were broadcast on tape delay.

“The narrative was set. This was not a championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State. This was Magic against Bird, the best big man matchup in an NCAA final since Bill Russell led the University of San Francisco to a win over Tom Gola’s LaSalle University in 1955,” he writes.

In Mr. Bird, you have an extraordinarily talented, media shy (though at times quite witty) player whose team was coached by Bill Hodges, who only had the job because his boss had gotten seriously ill.

Mr. Johnson, another once in a generation talent, loved the spotlight and handled the attention and had a seasoned coach Jud Heathcote whose team had won two Big 10 Championships in his first three years at the helm.

The two men became professional rivals (the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the 1980s was one of basketball’s most engaging) yet personal friends. When Johnson learned he had contracted HIV Mr. Bird was one of the first people that he told before revealing the news to the public.

Although Mr. Bird is white and Mr. Johnson is black, Mr. Davis doesn’t dwell on the racial aspect of the story. Nor does he try to extrapolate any grand political or social themes. It was an important game in the history of basketball but wasn’t a seminal event the way Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s racial barrier.

Mr. Davis leads up to the big game by retracing each team’s season and most of his game summaries are quite concise which keeps the narrative moving. Indiana State University as the big fish in the small pond won every game but never really faced a world class opponent until DePaul University in the semifinals and then Michigan State in the finals.

By contrast, Michigan State faced tougher competition during the season and even though the team lost six games it was much better than Indiana State and heavily favored to win the game.

The game itself was anticlimactic in that Michigan State led throughout (though Indiana State came within six points with nine minutes left) and won 75-64.

The final score belied the match up’s importance and When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball nicely captures the essence of the game, the players and the era.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on politics, history and sports.

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