Tuesday, March 27, 1979

That was an NCAA championship, huh? For awhile there I thought it was November and it was Utah vs. Fullerton.

The trouble with classics is sometimes they aren't. This one wasn't. The Paris Peace Talks were better at living up to their pre-meet press. Compared to this, Ali-Foreman wasn't a farce. The game was sort of a shame. Where were all those marvelous passes? Where were the great shooters? Where, for heaven's sake, was Larry Bird?

I saw, no lie, Bird shoot an air ball. A unit. So did the whole nation, or 45 million out of the whole nation.

That, of course, was part of the problem. When one of every four in the entire country is checking out your moves you have the basic problem of tightening up. Especially when it's a life-and-death thing like basketball. Even the referees choked. They needed new whistles by halftime. Five fouls should have been the minimum. It looked like the highway patrol trying to make an end-of-the-month quota. But you couldn't blame the three refs. Who wants to lose control of a game in front of what amounted to the entire combined population of New York and New Jersey?

Indiana State sure didn't want to.

But it did anyway.

While there have been many other championship games that have soon overcome the bigness of the event and gotten down to being a great exhibition — usually after three or four butterfly moments — this one didn't. When Indiana State and everybody else was ready to really play, when it came time for the 1979 NCAA championship to switch from on-camera to on-court, a serious problem was discovered.

Michigan State.

You want a culprit on how come this was a non-classic, pick on the Spartans. They did it. They played so smart they ruined the game, not to mention a few point spreads and maybe some record TV ratings. These MSU guys again proved great at basketball but lousy at show business.

They grabbed the lead in those early, jittery moments and then took care of it like it was their little sister. "Obsession" is closer to how they handled their early advantage than "protection." They proved better at keeping a lead than Arthur Murray. The Spartans, who have been frontrunners all year, were again last night.

They were cagey, these Big 10 champions.

They came out smoking while ISU came out choking, and then they simply hung on; not necessarily the fastest breaking or most entertaining basketball you'll ever see. They rested their foul-plagued stars and stalled just enough to keep Indiana State from getting fastbreak momentum.

They were content to score just six field goals in the final 15 minutes. They weren't playing for next week's Nielsen ratings or to try and outdo the '74 UCLA-North Carolina State game, or to write any kind of a classic script at all. They were playing to win the national championship.

By dropping behind early, Indiana State gave Minnesota Fats the break; let A.J. Foyt have a one-lap lead; said "you go ahead and draw first" to Billy the Kid; borrowed from a loan shark.

The whole country should have seen it coming. This was nothing new for Earvin Johnson and The Magicians. By the time they made it to the NCAA title game they'd pretty well established their habit of taking a lead and running, or walking, with it to the end.

MSU started the tournament by clobbering Lamar by 31. Then Louisiana State by 16, then Notre Dame by 12 and then Penn by 34. By coming within 11, ISU at least did better than anybody else. There were some good games in the '79 national tournament but none with the Spartans in them. They wouldn't let it be.

Better than anybody in a long time, Michigan State epitomized the philosophy that a really great champion doesn't win the close games . . . it doesn't have any in the first place.