On This Day: Basketball’s greatest rivalry born before the eyes of millions

More than 40 million Americans tuned in to see these legends spar for the very first time.

 

40 million Americans tune in to watch Larry Bird and Magic Johnson battle it out for the 1979 NCAA Championship

 

March 26, 1979 – Special Events Center, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

 

While the National Basketball Association has only grown in popularity as the decades have rolled on, by the end of the 1970s, the competition was at a crossroads.

 

On and off-court issues had led to attendance shrinking in many markets across the nation, with playoff games – yes, those events that draw millions of eyeballs around the glove every year – being shown on tape delay.

 

In short, the league needed a savior.

 

In reality, it would get two.

 

 

Although the NBA couldn’t boast anything above a flagging popularity level, by the end of the 1970s, college basketball was gathering serious momentum, with future stars spending several seasons helping legendary programs succeed, over and again.

 

And by the cessation of the 1979 season, it had hit its zenith.

 

Playing off for the title that year were the Indiana State Sycamores, the owners of a 33-0 record entering the NCAA Tournament final in Salt Lake City, and the Michigan State Spartans.

 

Yet, while 40 million Americans from 18 million households tuned into this do-or-die date at altitude, all eyes were on the two future kings fighting out of their respective corners.

 

Despite presenting as stylistic polar opposites, Larry Bird and Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson acted as the yin to the other’s yang, with both imperious once they stepped foot out onto the hardwood.

 

And though each would go on to divide a pair of rival NBA franchises even further while covering themselves in glory, it was on this night that the vaunted duo first met.

 

During his days with Indiana State, Bird had earned the reputation for being as tight-lipped off the court as he was loose-lipped on it. And All-American in 1978, the ‘Hick from French Lick’ steered his Sycamores from unheralded to the one-seed and then onto the final, stuffing the stats sheet after repetitively beating several defenders at a time.

 

In the forest green corner, Magic’s verve and vision proved insurmountable for most, as he and the Spartans stormed through March in search of landing Michigan State’s first NCAA title.

 

And surge they would, with Magic (24 points) chopping down Bird (19) and his Sycamore trees to become the toast of the nation.

 

In the months to come, Johnson would be taken with the first pick of the 1980 NBA Draft. However, it would be Bird that would make his mark earlier in the pros, claiming Rookie of the Year honours and a championship ring during his debut season in Boston.

 

Bird would eventually bow out with his No.33 in the Garden rafters, three rings and a pair of MVPs to his name, cementing himself as the guy in Bean Town.

 

Magic would eventually hold up his end of the rivalry that would save the NBA, hitting back with five rings and three MVPs of his own.

 

Gideon Canice

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