Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reflections on a Magical Game and its legacy, 30 years later

My son said yesterday, "Mom, I didn't think you liked basketball."

Well, I do not play basketball. This white chick cannot jump or shoot hoops.

I also do not watch random televised basketball games just to pass the time.

Nope. I only watch basketball when there a team that I care about is playing. And there are only two teams I care about:

The Detroit Pistons and Michigan State Spartans.

Thirty one years ago I heard after the fact, that Michigan State University (MSU) had almost won the NCAA championship in basketball. They lost to Kentucky who went on to win the title game.

MSU had this phenomenal freshmen who great things were expected from in the future. He led his high school team to win the state championship and many thought it inevitable he would lead MSU to the national championship as well.

His name was Earvin Johnson. The nickname that he picked up in high school was "Magic." This was because of his uncanny ability to know exactly where his teammates were on the court and pass the ball without looking at them.

I was still in high school at the time, but I was looking forward a few years down the line to when I would be in college. Many in my family were MSU alumni, and it offered my chosen field of study as well. MSU was my first choice.

I started thinking of myself as a Spartan. I decided if MSU was fated to win the NCAA basketball tournament in 1979 that I should pay attention to the entire season.

So I did.

I watched every televised game that season. The games that weren't televised, I listened to on the radio.

Every game. Even the heartbreaker where MSU lost to Northwestern.

I followed the stats of all the Big Ten schools.

I still remember the names of the starting players.

Earvin Johnson.

Greg Kelser.

Jay Vincent.

Terry Donnelly.


Mike Brkovich.

I happened to like Brkovich because I thought he was cute. Not dreamy, just cute.

Jay Vincent and Earvin Johnson had been cross town rivals in high school. Then they were teammates in college. T-shirts were made bearing the slogan "All the Way with Earvin and Jay" proclaiming the aspirations of Spartan fans to win it all.

Knowing how important Jay Vincent was for the team, I agonized when he was sidelined for awhile because of an injured foot.

I remember during one game a second (or third) stringer play with the last name of Huffman played for a few minutes. He stopped in the middle of the court to tie his shoe. An announcer was so taken aback by that unusual sight that he proclaimed from henceforth that player shall be referred to as "Shoes" Huffman.

There weren't many people in my high school who shared my interest, or obsession, in Spartan basketball. I remember my friend Debbie also wanted to go to MSU. She was about the only person I compared notes with during that fateful season. Except for my MSU alumni relatives who I met sporadically at family functions.

Otherwise, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy without really sharing it with anyone else.

That is, until the NCAA Tournament began.

The announcers began playing up their expectations for Michigan State. Preferential treatment toward my favored team? It was fine by me.

Then there was talk about another team which was thus far, undefeated. It was a little known team out of the basketball crazy state of Indiana. It was not the Big Ten conference Indiana University home of the lunatic coach Bobby Knight. No, it was Indiana State University. Their leading player was named Larry Bird.

The general public in a short period of time became fascinated by the match up of "Magic" and Bird.

I cannot say why this struck a chord in the general public.

I was going to watch the game because the school I wanted to attend was playing for the national title. If they had lost an earlier round, I would not have watched.

The game was fabulous, although what I remember best are the images after the game was over. Earvin Johnson helping to cut down the winning net and Larry Bird crying in his towel.

Both images were captured in photographs the next day in the Detroit Free Press.

I was deliriously happy the night we won.

The game was the most watched game in NCAA history. To this day.

A few weeks afterward, a teacher stuck his head into our classroom to pass on the news that "Magic" Johnson was the very first player picked in the NBA Draft.

I had mixed emotions at the news.

I had hoped he wouldn't go pro just yet. He was still a sophomore at State and I selfishly wanted him to stay and win two more years of NCAA titles. Before the term was coined I wanted a Threepeat. I was greedy.

I also knew that a single injury could end an athlete's career.

So I understood that it would be better for him to turn pro while all eyes were upon him and he was in demand.

Getting past my own selfishness, I was thrilled that a player from MY team was the number one draft pick. I took it as an affirmation of my beloved Spartans.

That 1979 game between Michigan State and Indiana State is heralded as a turning point in NCAA tournament history. It also helped reinvigorate the NBA once Magic and Bird transferred their magic to the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Thirty years later and the NCAA wanted to mark the anniversary of that landmark game. They are having Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird give out the game ball to the winning team.

And thirty years later Michigan State University is once again in the NCAA Finals.

This time, the game is being held in Downtown Detroit.


Or as they say in Detroit: Deeeeeeetroit.

Or sometimes: Day - Twah.

(I know there's no "s" in Detroit, but when Detroiters want to sound like they're pronouncing their town in French, they say Day - Twah.)

Detroit is only an hour and a half drive from East Lansing, home of Michigan State University.

Ford Field will be filled with Spartan fans. Look for a sea of rabid green supporters making a lot of noise.

With this tough economy, there's not a lot to cheer about in Michigan. The MSU Spartans right now have captured the hearts and imagination of Michiganders.

And Michiganders are not known for showing passive approval. They are known for raucous crowds at rock concerts and boisterous cheering at sporting events.

There will be no golf claps.

I will be watching and screaming myself hoarse in the comfort of my living room while wishing I were in the nosebleed seats in Detroit with my friends.

The University of North Carolina will have their supporters cheering for them.

They even have the blessing (or burden) of being picked by President Obama as the team predicted to win it all.

But I do not think the Tar Heels can win.

They will be in a hostile arena, surrounded by crazed Spartan fans.

And the Spartans will have an X Factor in play.

They want that game ball from Magic Johnson.

It is their legacy.

And it is their time to shine.

Go Green! Go White!

Edited to add:

My heart was broken. I saw the basketball rim the hoop and refuse to fall into the basket many times for the Spartans. As if the basketball gods simply did not want my favored team to win.


I remember being in high school and attending a home football game in Spartan stadium with my mother. It was a non conference game against Miami of Ohio. It was at the beginning of the season and did not mean much. However, do not tell that to the fans of MSU.

At one point the visiting team was close to getting a touchdown. The fans in the stands did not want that to happen. We cheered.


So much so that the officials had to call a time out because the opposing team could not hear their quarterback giving his signals.

Then they tried a second time.

We cheered louder.

The announcer gave us a warning from the officials that if the team couldn't hear the signals for a third time that our beloved Spartans would be penalized due to the interference by the crowd.

So we quieted down. Someone then decided to wave their arms over their heads. It spread like wildfire. Soon the entire stadium (save for the bloc of seats reserved for visitors) were waving their arms. Capacity of Spartan stadium is 75,000. Imagine 120,000 arms being waved at once. There was this eerie sound like a massive flock of birds flying overhead.

Our opponents did not score.

Because the fans would not allow it to happen.

That is the type of home court advantage that I expected in Ford Field. I expected the massive green and white fan contingent to lift the spirits of the Spartan players to a level where they could not lose.

Except they did.

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