March 5 2009 12:00 AM

Author recounts how Magic, Bird took college hoops to new heights


When the month of March rolls around, do you find yourself making excuses to your boss about coming in late for work? Are your eyes bloodshot from watching a laptop and a big screen simultaneously? Do you carry something called a “bracket” around in your pocket? If so, you may suffer from the seasonal malady “March Madness.”

CBS sports analyst and author Seth Davis has the tonic for you. His new book, “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball,” is about the game that raised college basketball to the frenzy it is today. That game is the 1979 NCAA Basketball Championship shootout between Michigan State University and Indiana State University. In many ways, it wasn’t so much a game between two teams as a contest between two players: Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, whose talent and personas transformed basketball and propelled it into the modern era.

The Bird versus Johnson contest is still the most watched basketball game in history. One in four American television sets were tuned to the 1979 NCAA Finals in Salt Lake City. (The numbers may have been slightly skewed by viewers in Lansing and French Lick, Ind., home bases for Johnson and Bird, where virtually every TV set was tuned in.)

In fall 2007, Davis got a call from an editor asking if he would like to write a book about Magic and Bird. “I felt a physical rush,” he said. “A good idea doesn’t need to be explained. It was just brilliant. I wish I would’ve thought of it.”

To write the book, Davis conducted 98 interviews, talking with everyone from trainers to coaches. He spent two days each with former MSU coach Jud Heathcoat and former Indiana State coach Bill Hodges. In Lansing, he talked with Johnson’s high school coach, George Fox; former MSU coach Gus Ganakis; Charles Tucker, a family friend and Johnson’s first agent; and Johnson’s boyhood friend Dale Beard.

The two interviews Davis didn’t get were with the subjects themselves, but he believes not talking with Johnson and Bird may have helped the book, because the two larger-than-life players didn’t nominate it.

In the book, Davis details the tremendous personal differences between the two players. Johnson was a sophisticated, urban player who had already adopted the nickname “Magic.” He had a gig DJ-ing at a local nightclub, and he had already appeared on TV in high school. In 1978, Johnson had helped lead MSU to the Final Four, where the team lost to Kentucky. Early in the 1979 season, MSU was No. 1 in the country. But by midseason, MSU began to falter, and narrowly made it into the post-season tournament.

On the other side, the only nickname attributed to Bird was the “Hick from French Lick,” a reference to the small Indiana town Bird grew up in. Bird was painfully shy and as unflashy as they come. Indiana State was on TV only once during the season, which it began barely ranked. The team had never been to the NCAA tournament, but entered the championship game 33-0 and No. 1 in the country.

Davis details the two super athletes’ teen years and family lives, as well as arcane game details and thousands of other things you either forgot or were not public at the time. We learn Bird was a father, a mushroom hunter and a beer guzzler who worked on a garbage truck and whose own father committed suicide. Johnson, on the other hand, was under a microscope in the Lansing area, so locals will probably just nod in agreement. But outside mid-Michigan, readers will be just as amazed with the “other” superstar and his “E.J. the DJ” hobby.

Davis also gets into the alleged racism claims thrown at Heathcoat. At the time, MSU center Gregory Kelser, who has written his own book on the era, was especially suspect of the coach’s attitude toward race. The author said he doesn’t believe Heathcoat was racist. “He was often too blunt,” Davis said. “[He was] very funny and had a biting sense of humor, but he didn’t see color. In some ways, he was a victim of the same stereotyping. It was mostly the process of folks getting to know each other.”

Although the game made way for some exciting changes in college basketball, including the shot clock, three-point shot and the expanded tournament format, he laments that college basketball has also lost some of its mystery since coming into the spotlight. “There’s something to be said for surprise and not knowing every detail of the game,” he said.

Davis said he learned one important thing working on the book and watching DVDs of a dozen games featuring MSU and Indiana State. “You will never hear me point to a player and say he reminds me of Magic or Bird,” Davis said. “In my 20 years [in sports reporting] I have never seen players as good as these guys. They were unique. They weren’t great athletes, but both guys thought the game well.”

Seth Davis author of ‘When March Went Mad’

7 p.m. March 4 Schuler Books & Music, Eastwood Towne Center, Lansing (517) 316-7495 www.schulerbooks.com