The Game that Started it All

On March 26, 1979, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced off for the first time when Magic’s Michigan State Spartans battled Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores for the 1979 NCAA title.  That Monday night in Salt Lake City, Michigan State topped Indiana State 75-64 in the most watched college basketball game of all time. The contest transformed the NCAA Tournament and launched the Bird-Magic rivalry that propelled the NBA in the 1980s. 

Bird played the entire NCAA Tournament with a broken left thumb. And still, he led his Sycamores squad to the national title game averaging 27 points and 13 rebounds as ISU dispatched Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, and Arkansas in tournament action.   

The Final Four performances of Bird and Magic only intensified national interest in the championship tilt. In the Spartans’ 101-67 thrashing of Penn, Johnson notched a triple-double with 29 points, 10 boards, and 10 assists. Bird, meanwhile, tallied 35 points on 16-19 shooting to go along with 16 boards and 9 assists as the Sycamores edged a talented DePaul squad. 

While the ISU-MSU battle was billed as Bird and Magic’s first-ever encounter, the two weren’t strangers. In fact, they had played alongside one another on the World Invitational Team that battled the Russians. Johnson even admitted to being a fan of Bird’s “because he does so many things well,” though Magic did note their stark differences: “I’m outgoing. I love people. I love conversation.” 

In a pre-game press conference featuring some 200 reporters, Magic reveled in the attention.  “I’m eating it up,” Magic said. Bird, however, showed less enthusiasm. When a reporter suggested that Bird, who had largely avoided the press all season, seemed to enjoy all the media buzz, the French Lick, Indiana, product offered a simple retort: “Wrong.”  

After years of UCLA domination with scattered success from other programs, the ISU-MSU matchup was a welcome departure featuring two captivating figures in Bird and Magic. “You only had a short period to build up the final game, but it seemed like everyone in the world had already written a comparison [between Bird and Magic],” MSU coach Jud Heathcote said.  

In sizing up Magic and Bird, Chicago Tribune scribe Bill Jauss noted: “The 6-8 Spartan and the 6-9 Sycamore are 180 degrees apart in every department but one – brilliant basketball ability.” True.

In preparation for the title game, Heathcote placed Magic with the Spartans’ reserves in practice to impersonate Bird and his passing genius for MSU’s regulars. “A few of our reserves may get bloody noses from Earvin’s passes, but I want us used to seeing those passes against us,” Heathcote said.   

For all the hoopla surrounding the 1979 title game, it wasn’t the prettiest of affairs. MSU and ISU missed a combined 51 shots and shot 60 percent from the line. The game also included 26 turnovers and 43 fouls.  

The Spartans’ 2-3 matchup zone, which included shading a second defender toward Bird, limited Bird’s effectiveness. Entering the game averaging nearly 29 points per game on 53 percent shooting, Bird went seven of 21 from the field and finished with 19 points. He also had six turnovers. “I didn’t have a good game. I didn’t shoot the ball well. I didn’t have a lot of good looks. They defended me very well. They had guys surrounding me at all times,” Bird said. “Still, that’s no excuse.” 

Immediately following the loss, Bird’s legendary competitiveness appeared. “I’d like to play Michigan State again,” he charged. Years later, though, Bird acknowledged the Spartans’ power. “We could have played them 10 times and they probably would have beaten us eight,” he admitted.