30 years ago, the Bird-Magic era dawned

The Dawn of Madness
30 Years Ago, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson clashed for the NCAA title and changed basketball forever

March 26, 2009 marks the 30th anniversary of the epic NCAA championship clash between Larry Bird of Indiana State and Magic Johnson of Michigan State. Now the President of Basketball Operations for the Indiana Pacers, Bird shared his memories of the event in a lengthy media Q&A session, excerpts of which are presented here.

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Q. Larry, you have done a lot in basketball. That season, that team, community, everything that went into it in '79, where does that rank?
A. Well it ranks up pretty high because expectations weren’t great. You know our head coach Bob King was ill and going into the season with a new coach (Bill Hodges) we really didn’t know what was going to happen. And then we had some decent players … we got lucky a couple times but going into the finals 33-0 that’s something I never dreamed about.

Q. Was that your toughest loss?
A. Oh, yeah.

Q. Would you really trade an NBA title for that one?
A. I don’t trade anything (laughs). I work very hard to win what I have won, but you know it’s a once in a lifetime chance and growing up and watching the finals and just have an opportunity to play in it. I knew going into that game we were going to play a team we hadn’t seen before. I knew that. … They were long, athletic, they ran. We were more of a controlled team where the ball went through my hands the majority of the time. I watched them play a few times that year and knew going into that game it was going to be a battle.

Q. Somebody tells a story about taping your ankles before the game (and) you said to Bob (Heaton), 'I hope you are you ready,' and he said, 'yeah,' and you said, 'I hope so, 'cause I ain't feeling it."
A. Well I don’t know about not feeling it, but I never did feel good in any games I ever played. If you asked me that question before any game I ever played I did not want to play. I had a sick feeling that I really thought I was going to die every time I went out there until I stepped on the court. But from 2 o’clock till game time every high school, college, and professional game, that time frame it was not a good time for me. So if anyone had asked me the day of the game if I was ready to play I would have said no. But once I got out there I was fine.

Q. Larry as the years go by, looking back on that game do you feel differently about it, do you appreciate it more, does it change in your mind at all about the appreciation for it?
A. Well, I think after leaving college and being able to play against the Lakers and Magic, it means probably a little bit more now because we competed not only in college but 13 years in the pros and getting to know him over the years. But that game was special and it broke my heart that I wasn’t able to bring back a championship to the city of Terre Haute and the Indiana State Sycamores because I put so much into that. I practiced very hard, I played on a pretty decent team and you know I was the guy and I had a lot of pressure on me to perform well. We played DePaul in the game on Saturday and I played very well and we just beat them by two points so going into that game I knew it was going to be a little different. I thought maybe we had a chance if everybody played well but just the way they played and their length and the quickness and the way they could score points I knew I had to play a perfect game and it didn’t happen.

Q. All the years that have gone by it really hasn’t changed the memory of the feelings?
A. No not at all, it meant a great deal to me to win that game and we didn’t do it. You know, going 33-0 is nice but even if we would have had a couple losses and got there the loss would have hurt just the same. I thought Bill Hodges did a great job with us, you know he was just thrown in there. I mean there were a lot of things that were said over the years, who should have got the job and I made the decision to come back and all that, My decision was easy I told everybody I was coming back, I was drafted as a junior, I was coming I didn’t care who the coach was. I was there for one reason, to try to get into the NCAA tournament and do as well as we possibly could. (Hodges) had us playing at a level that we probably never played at before and he got a team together that guys played their roles and if they didn’t play their roles we wouldn’t have had a chance to win.

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Q. People say (you) coached that team. Did you have to watch how forceful you were?
A. Well, practice was very intense. When we played we had some tough guys on that team that played hard but no I didn’t coach that team. Bill Hodges did and I played for a great coach before him and Bob King taught me a lot about the game but Bill Hodges had complete control of that team. I had control of my teammates; I thought that I sort of intimidated them a little bit and was on them pretty hard at times but you know sometimes you've got to pay the price to get where you want to go.

Q. During the season, how aware were you of all the comparisons with Magic?
A. I didn’t pay attention to any of it but I did see him play a couple times and I can remember watching him earlier in the season. They played the Russians and we played the Russians after that or before that but I watched him play and I knew, I even told my teammates that I think that’s the best team in the country and had no dream of us playing against them and they proved me right.

Q. How many conversations have you had with Magic over the years about this?
A. We don’t talk about this. We did one interview together. Now, if I had won it probably would have been a little different. We did an interview probably five years ago, every five years this comes up, but that’s the first time I think we have ever talked about it.

Q. What does it mean to you the fact that people still want to talk about this 30 years later?
A. It’s pretty surprising to me because there has been a lot of great champions throughout the years a lot of great finals and it seems like every five years they keep bringing this one up I think it’s because there is a lot of people around the country that watched it and there is still some interest in it.

Q. At what point did your rivalry turn into a friendship?
A. We really don’t hang out together but over the years we have spent some time together but, once we stepped on that court, all that was out the window. Believe me, now guys hang out before the game and they go over to each other’s house to eat and all that. I could never do that and I am sure Magic wouldn’t have anything to do with that, either.

Q. You said you were surprised people are still talking about (that game) 30 years later. In your mind, why do you think it's had such an impact?
A. I have no clue. It's just two guys trying to play the game the right way and coming from a small school, state school, and playing a big powerhouse out of the Big Ten and I guess it just got everybody’s imagination around it. I mean, I enjoyed every time I played against Magic, whether it was regular season or college or the playoffs but you know if you’re a competitor you want to play against the best and I always thought he was the best. Then (Michael) Jordan came along and it was a little different.

Q. Have you ever watched it from start to finish?
A. Never.

Q. Do you still have your ring from the title game?
A. You know, I have no idea. I have had a lot of stuff I accumulated over the years and somehow it continues to be missing but just like I said when I won a championship in Boston a ring didn’t really mean anything to me, it was the banner that was hung in the Boston Garden that meant everything to me because it didn’t have anyone’s name on it, it just said the year, so that’s more important.

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Q. You said you never watched it from start to finish, I would imagine someone probably couldn’t pay you to do that right now?
A. Well I don’t know. I can remember the game, if we got into a conversation, if you watch it and ask me questions about it, I can remember. But it hurts just as much today as it did back then. It was a great time in my life. I went through some tough times earlier in my college career and right before I got to college, I was able to throw that aside and concentrate on going to school and playing basketball and then I got drafted after my junior year and there was all that speculation that he’s going to the pros. But I promised my mother that if I started school then I would finish after going to I.U. and dropping out. So I had a lot of things going on but I didn’t let it distract what I was trying to do so I got my education and I got to play for a national championship.

Q. What were some of the most magical and special moments to from the season, from your magical undefeated run that you had?
A. Well I thought the shot that Bobby Heaton hit in New Mexico against New Mexico State was special. I fouled out, Carl Nicks fouled out and they had a one-and-one free throw with about 2 or 3 seconds left and they were up two and he misses it, and Heaton banked one in and then we go into overtime and the guys that really didn’t get to play at all up to the point played great. … Then against Arkansas in another close game Heaton throws up a left-handed shot and it rolls around and falls in so those things stick out and it really had nothing to do with me. Bobby made both of those shots.

Q. Those guys when I talked to them said that you made them all better players and loved practicing with you and they see you diving for the ball and your effort in practice made them think, 'if he is doing it then I’ve got to do it.'
A. Well, that’s the way I play, That’s the way I played in high school, college and even in the professional league but you know those guys were good guys, it's unfortunate at that time there was a lot of jealousy cause everybody wanted to talk to me and they weren’t really getting the interviews but people were coming after me pretty hard all the time. That’s one of the reasons I sort of stepped aside and let the press talk to them. It was always about me, everything was about me and I feel bad about it but there was a lot of jealousy throughout that year I understood it but I didn’t like it, so I took it out on them in practice.

Q. Did the championship loss in college have any impact on you as a player in the NBA?
A. No, not really. The one thing about it you know I have heard all of my life, he’s from a small high school, from a small college then the talk kept coming that he might not be able to get a shot off in the pros or this or that. So when I went to Boston for rookie camp I thought, well we’ll find out and after three days I knew right then that I could be one of the top players in the league and it didn’t take me long. It was pretty amazing to me knowing that throughout my whole career people, no matter what you did, they always said that you couldn’t play at the highest level, It took me three days to figure out that I was going to have absolutely no problem playing against these guys.

Q. Larry, how cool was the homecoming, at the airport, people on the streets?
A. That was one of the best parts. When we left to go out there it was pretty magical, we never expected thousands of people when we got back but it was pretty special. You know I loved Terre Haute, I liked my college, I liked my teammates, so it was really sad when it came to end because I felt pretty comfortable there and of course you want to win the whole thing for them.

Q. Is there anything that happened in your life that makes up for losing that college game?
A. No, No, it’s a killer, I’m telling you. But I knew once we got out there and started playing that we were playing against a different type of team and we all had to be on top of our games to keep it close and we weren’t able to do that.

Q. How did their defensive strategy affect your play?
A. They were long and athletic, you know I could usually pass over guys pretty easy. I knew I was going to get the touches, get my shots, just their strategy of stopping the pass. I played against a team at Bradley and they put three guys on me and I was able to pass the ball and stand in the corner and watch the other guys do all of the work. I had seen all the defenses they had but these guys were just a little bit taller, more athletic.

Q. You had three new starters, a new head coach, a couple of new assistants; how did you have that type of season?
A. I have no clue. We had some tough-minded kids. … Leroy Staley was our eighth man, I thought he was tougher than nails, he played well every game. He played the same way -- he played hard, I thought he was a major key to our success. I thought he was a fine player but he was our eighth man. We had unselfish guys that knew their roles. Brad (Miley), he probably shot 40 percent from the free throw line. Alex (Gilbert) shot under 40 percent so I was always worried that at the end of games that they were going to be put on the line but they never did do it. I thought if anything that would be our downfall.

Q. What decided the game?
A. They came back in the game and they made plays. We got a couple calls where we took charges and they got a couple free throws and the ball back, I mean that’s a killer. I think we did that three times during that game. If those calls went the other way we were right back, right back in it. And if I had hit a couple shots you know, you never know.

Q. Earvin said to this day that you’re the best college player he has ever seen and it was an honor to play against you.
A. Well, that’s very nice but obviously he didn’t see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton and some of the other guys.

Q. He mentioned those but he still said that in his opinion that you were the best and that playing against you made him a better player.
A. We have sort of fed off one another throughout our careers. I would check the paper every day to see what he did. We got to play first because he was on the West Coast so we would try to put up numbers to see if he could match it. Magic was a different kind of player, he was more of a passer than a scorer but later on he started scoring more. Obviously I played against Magic at the height of my career, when we both were at our peak and that was great competition because we drew our teammates into it. There were battles and even in Boston my teammates would talk about the Lakers and throughout the whole year we geared everything from the beginning all the way through to get to the finals and play the Lakers. And if they didn’t make it we were very disappointed because we wanted to play against the best. We played against some good teams but they weren’t the Lakers, so really in '84 playing against them and winning was the best.

Q. You were able to fly under the radar your first three years of college, then the Sports Illustrated cover comes out. Did everything change?
A. Everything changed overnight. … Wish I didn’t do that. It changed our team, going from a pretty quiet 30 points a game and doing what I did to a lot of requests, a lot of photos it just took away from what I felt. I felt very comfortable at Indiana State but after that everything changed. It was just unbelievable. I guess the country couldn’t imagine a kid from a small town that went to I.U. and dropped out and then went to work and then came through all of the tragedies that I have been through to bring a small school to the next level.