NBA fans and officials, for that matter, know that the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the league revived the play-for-pay ranks with their talents, their basketball wizardly, their commitment and most of all, their competitiveness.
Not everyone knows though that in their early days as pros, they barely spoke, seeing each other with mistrust. That only during the filming of a Converse commercial at Bird’s French Lick, Indiana that they finally became cose friends.
The duo’s glorious rivalry came into being during their amateur days in 1979 when Magic’s Michigan Stage Spartans battled for supremacy with Larry’s Indiana State Sycamores for the NCAA championship in Salt Lake City.
Those who witnessed the rivalry didn’t even know these the two men who starred in their respective team would someday save the NBA.
The build up to that particular NCAA championship was so big, it was built around the two amateur standouts who dominated the headlines. Larry played in the title game with a broken left thumb although he was loath then and up to their days in the pros to use this as an excuse for shooting 7 of 21 from the floor when the real culprit was Michigan State’s 2-3 match up zone which assigned a defender to trail Bird step for step.
Whenever he received a pass or tried to dribble, another Spartan would shade over for the double team, which Bird confessed later a defensive pressure he hadn’t seen before. He could count on one hand, he admitted, the open looks he had and the frustration was etched all over his face that night.
The Sycamores couldn’t answer back with similar tactic owing to Magic’s passing ability to locate free talented teammates to shoot like Greg Kelser. Magic’s 6-0 frame was Indiana Sates no. 1 problem as he accounted for 24 points and seven rebounds. Magic and Kelser helped Michigan State build a 16-point second half lead which Indiana was only able to reduce to six the rest of the way.
Kelser applied the exclamation to the Spartans’ emphatic 75-64 championship triumph by slammig a dunk off a no-look, over-the-shoulder, half-court lob pass from Magic as the clock died down.
In later years, Magic confided that he’d had almost as much fun the day before the game impersonating Larry in practice, shooting from all over the floor and daring his teammate to stop him. Bird a career 89% free throw shooter in the pros, said the thing that most gnawed at him for years was that he hit just 5-of-8 from the line that night.
But by the time Bird was well established with the Celtics, he could talk about the loss to Michigan State with some objectivity. “We could have played them 10 times,” he admitted, “and they probably would have beaten us eight.”