Twenty-five years ago, basketball percolated on the state of Utah's front burner.
For the first time, four local college teams Utah, BYU, Utah State and Weber State advanced to the NCAA tournament, a feat not duplicated for two-plus decades. The NBA's New Orleans Jazz had announced a move to Utah. And players sporting bell-bottom warm-ups, skin-tight tank tops, short shorts and knee-high tube socks could step out with $30-plus footwear like Nike's Franchise, Converse's All-Star II, adidas' Americana or Spalding's "Ron Boone" line.
Oh, and Salt Lake City was host to the 1979 Final Four March 24 and 26 at the University of Utah's Special Events Center.
Simply put, the 41st NCAA Basketball Championship introduced a two-man twin bill a Magic show and a Bird act and a title contest steeped in legacy and certainly unequaled in national interest.
The tournament and the site
Of the previous 40 Final Fours, only Greensboro, N.C., in 1974 was a smaller host city than Salt Lake City. The first on-campus Final Four site since Maryland in 1970, the 10-year-old, 15,000-seat Special Events Center provided an intimate championship setting. By 1979, the NCAA no longer awarded Final Fours to arenas smaller than 17,000, with its move to domed stadiums yet to come.
The 1979 NCAA Tournament marked several firsts a 40-team field (previously 32), three-man officiating crews, seeding for the four regions and the first lottery held for general-public tickets. Conducted a year earlier, the lottery drew 80,000 requests for the 4,410 tickets left after commitments to participating schools, the host university, the 400-plus media, the NCAA and the basketball coaches association.
To broadcast the 1979 Final Four, NBC brought its top troika of Al McGuire, Billy Packer and Dick Enberg, with Bryant Gumbel as halftime host. The network scrambled the week of the game, since a fire at the Hilton Hotel, where many of the 75-member crew were to stay, resulted in the loss of 107 rooms.
With TV ratings for title games having leveled off for five years, nobody foresaw 1979's successes a 20 percent increase in viewership, reaching an estimated 18 million homes and 40 million viewers, and a 24.1 rating and 38 share (one rating point is the equivalent of 1 percent of the homes and 1 share is the equivalent of 1 percent of the homes watching television at the time).
Subsequent Final Fours have drawn greater viewership numbers because of increases in population and television sets, but no title game has approached the '79 rating and share, which is still the best ever for an NCAA basketball final and a far cry more than the 12.6 and 15.4 of last year's Syracuse-Kansas championship.
Talk about a hodgepodge, less-than-traditional foursome what little Final Four history they shared was ancient history.
Only Michigan State and DePaul had reached the semifinals before, with the Spartans finishing fourth in 1957 and the Blue Demons reaching the semifinals in 1943 so early in his career that Meyer considered 1979 his Final Four debut.
With its signature zone defense, Michigan State set its sight on an NCAA title during a fall exhibition tour of Brazil, but the Spartans looked less than championlike when a lopsided loss to league cellar-dweller Northwestern punctuated a midseason slump.
As MSU won 10 of its last 11 games to share the conference crown with Iowa and Purdue, coach Jud Heathcote called his Spartans "not a great basketball team but rather a good one which can play very, very well on certain occasions."
The Spartans played very, very well in postseason, beating five NCAA foes by an average of 20.8 points a game the fourth-highest margin in tournament history. That included whipping Louisville 97-71 in the Mideast semifinals and waxing Kelly Tripucka, Billy Hanzlick and Notre Dame 80-68 in the regional finals.
Indiana State was undefeated, ranked No. 1 and seeded first in its inaugural tournament appearance heady stuff for the Sycamores, whose previous claim to fame was giving one John Wooden his college coaching start.
ISU started its dream season with assistant Bill Hodges taking over for fourth-year coach Bob King, who suffered a heart attack less than two weeks before the season-opener.
With an enrollment of 11,474 and hailing from the little-known Missouri Valley Conference, the Sycamores had plenty of detractors. Saying there was no better team in the country than the touring Russian national team, Hodges added: "And we beat them last November right then we knew we were as good as anybody."
ISU played before packed gyms as fans came out to see the do-it-all phenom Bird, along with big man Bob Heaton and guard Carl Nicks, who later played with the Utah Jazz.
In the tournament, Bird didn't disappoint, scoring 29 points in the Midwest semifinals against Oklahoma and 31 against Arkansas to reach the Final Four.
Bird didn't score the last-second game-winner in the 73-71 win over the Razorbacks, but he initiated it. Guarded by Sydney Moncrief, Bird passed to point guard Steve Reed, who relayed to Heaton for what the official play-by-play called a "double-clutch left-handed push." Press reports described it as "basically a prayer."
With the Sycamores bound for Salt Lake City, Bird called former Utah standout Jeff Judkins, then a rookie with the NBA's Boston Celtics. The two former World Games teammates were also 1978 Celtics draft picks Judkins in the second round and Bird in the first, as Boston used a seldom-invoked, since-revoked allowance to draft a fifth-year senior with NCAA eligibility remaining.
In his 37th season of coaching the urban Chicago Catholic team, 65-year-old Ray Meyer was forced to forego his trademark center-oriented team for a fast-paced squad dubbed "Men of Steal."
Reserves saw little playing time and accounted for only 3.5 points a game, as the Blue Demons featured Clyde Bradshaw, Gary Garland who often doubled as a national-anthem singer and Mark Aguirre, the nation's leading freshman scorer.
|Deseret News graphic1979 Final Four factsRequires Adobe Acrobat.|
Making its ninth NCAA appearance, DePaul reached the Final Four by edging top-seeded UCLA 95-91 at the West Regional final played at BYU's Marriott Center. Not surprisingly, four of the five Demon starters played the full 40 minutes the fifth forced out in the final minute when his knee popped out of joint.
A partisan Provo crowd proved to be a key sixth man after DePaul led 51-34 at halftime. Toward the end of intermission, UCLA returned to the court for warmups while BYU folk dancers were still performing, and the Bruin band struck up the school fight song. Unable to hear their music, the dancers stopped awkwardly in midperformance and left the court, with the Marriott Center crowd turning on UCLA with boos and soon welcoming DePaul to a heroes' entrance.
Founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1740, the nation's oldest university boasted a little basketball history as it made its inaugural Final Four appearance in '79. The Quakers had made eight previous NCAA trips, posted eight 20-win seasons in the previous decade and became the first Ivy League team in the Final Four since Bill Bradley's Princeton in 1965.
Still, most people didn't think Penn proved to be much of a powerhouse program and neither did the Quakers.
"We think ACC basketball is a TV show," quipped the Quakers' Tony Price, the Ivy League player of the year who averaged 23.7 points a game through the 1979 tournament and teamed with 6-11 center Matt White for Penn's one-two punch.
Magic vs. Bird
The Special Events Center served as center stage for not only the collegiate encores for Johnson and Bird but for the debut of a heralded rivalry stretching through their star-studded NBA careers.
Second nationally in scoring and fourth in rebounding, Bird averaged 28.9 points a game and 14.8 rebounds a game, totalling 185 assists. Surrounded by a more talented team, Johnson averaged 16.9 points and 7.3 rebounds but dished out 264 total assists.
Certainly the most-watched player of the season, Bird the self-proclaimed "hick from French Lick" who transferred from Indiana University a month into his freshman year because of homesickness perhaps was the least-understood, often refusing interviews for fear of being misquoted and only relenting when teammates were promised equal time.
As for Johnson, the Spartans knew not only how much their star sophomore guard meant to their successes but also how he compared to Bird.
When Heathcote had the scout team double as ISU to help the Spartans hone their zone defense in practice, the player he picked to mimic the do-everything Bird was Johnson.
In a record-setting game, Penn stayed with Michigan State momentarily, tied at 4-all before a Spartan runaway. MSU's 50-17 halftime lead became the largest in Final Four history.
Penn's deficit stayed as lopsided in the second half, as Michigan State closed out the 101-67 game, the 34-point margin the second-highest ever. Johnson led the Spartans with 29 points, 10 assists and an 11-of-12 performance at the free-throw line.
Toward the end of the game, MSU's crowd chanted "We want Bird! We want Bird." To which the Indiana State contingent countered, "You'll get the Bird. You'll get the Bird."
Actually, DePaul got the Bird first, falling 76-74 in the semis as the ISU star logged 35 points on 16-of-19 shooting in one of the best Final Four shooting displays shy of ex-UCLA star Bill Walton, who shot 21-of-22 in 1973.
"I was hitting so good, I felt sorry for the other team," said Bird, whose nine assists were topped off by a left-handed, behind-the-neck pass to a lane-driving Alex Gilbert.
All five Demon starters played the entire 40-minute game, rallying from nine down early in the second half to take a 73-71 lead with just less than five minutes to play.
The third-place game
In 1979, the NCAA tournament still included the anti-climatic third-place game between semifinals losers a practice continued through 1981.
DePaul outlasted Penn 96-93 in overtime in a foul-plagued contest, with the Demons shooting 34 free throws, Aguirre alone shooting 14-of-15.
The championship game
In the title game, the Spartans maintained their torrid tournament pace, while the Sycamores saw championship hopes fade as quickly as their shooting, leading only three times all in the first five minutes.
The focal point of MSU's matchup zone, Bird found a Spartan in his face when he touched the ball and a second when he dribbled. He made just 4-of-11 shots in the first half as ISU trailed 37-28 at intermission.
MSU guard Terry Donnelly, who had spent the previous two days in his sickbed, dealt the Sycamores a crushing blow early in the second half. Left open as ISU double-teamed Johnson, the left-handed Donnelly canned four consecutive long shots as the Spartans took a 50-34 lead.
After Bird helped Indiana State cut its deficit to six midway through the second, Heathcote called on Magic to take charge. His effort culminated with a rare four-point play Johnson dunked on a pass from Kelser and drew a two-shot "undercutting foul" from ISU's Heaton for a 61-50 lead with five minutes left. From there, Michigan State eased to a 75-64 win, with Johnson finishing with 24 points, Kelser 19 and Donnelly 15.
After shooting 53 percent in four previous tournament games, Bird managed 7-of-21 shooting including a rare airball and a postseason-low 19 points. Covering his face with his hands and his head with a towel, he ended the game sobbing on the bench and declined interviews afterward.
Heathcote's recipe for a cooked Bird? "We defensed them and him (Bird) with an adjustment and a prayer," he said.
Bird had company in his woes, as Heaton a 54 percent shooter missed 10 of 14 himself. A sparkplug in the second half, Nicks finished with 17 points, but ISU became only the second undefeated team to lose in the title game.
All four teams have since returned to the NCAA tournament, but only Michigan State has reached the Final Four. The Spartans sandwiched a second title in 2000 between a pair of semifinal appearances.
Johnson and Bird took their acts to the NBA as the championship rivalries between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics simply magnified their individual efforts. Two of the premier collegians transformed into two Hall of Fame pros, and the pair finally teamed up in the twilight of their intertwined careers on the "Dream Team" that dominated at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.<
Kelser has been seen as a sideline reporter for CBS broadcasts of 2004 tournament games. Bird had his No. 33 jersey officially retired by ISU earlier this season, although no Sycamore since him ever wore the number. And Magic's presence stands tall outside Michigan State's arena, thanks to the unveiling of a nine-foot bronze statue this fall.
Despite that, a walk around the concourse of the Special Events Center since renamed the Jon M. Huntsman Center offers no clue that the arena was host to the Final Four and the memorable championship matchup between Michigan State and Indiana State.
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