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Don Grayston
The historic 1979 Final Four matchup between Michigan State and Indiana State drew a lot of attention to its location -- Salt Lake City.

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.

No matter that the four-team field hailed from east of the Mississippi, without a Kentucky, UCLA, Notre Dame or any other perennial powerhouse among the bunch. It did include something for everybody:

  • Indiana State, ranked No. 1 in both the AP and UPI polls, looked to be only the ninth team to conclude an undefeated season with the national title.

  • Michigan State, rallying from a midseason slump, won 10 of its final 11 regular-season games and earned a share of the Big Ten crown.

  • DePaul, a high-octane independent, was coached by sentimental favorite Ray Meyer, who in the same season that he reached the Final Four was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and started pulling a Social Security check.

  • Pennsylvania served as the proverbial "Cinderella," the ninth-seeded Ivy League team in a 40-team tournament, with regions that went 10 seeds deep.

  • At the forefront were Indiana State's Larry Bird and Michigan State's Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a ballyhooed duo of triple-threat consensus all-Americans (Bird was also player of the year that season). They could shoot, they could rebound, they could take a game over — and they also put the flash back in the pass, combining flair with accuracy.

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.

One ticket was good for all four games — the two Saturday semifinals and Monday's third-place and championship games. Salt Lake City got its first real taste of ticket scalping, with $30 tickets selling for as much as $300, although last-minute bargains were found late Saturday and Monday.

The telecasts

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.

"There must have been a lot of snow, and everybody was sitting inside — nobody had nothing to do that day" mused Bird this month. "I'm sure there was interest because of this small school from Terre Haute, Indiana, that was undefeated and competing for the national championship against the Big Ten champion. There was hype about me and Magic, but I also think there was some small school versus big school interest there. We were good and they were good — with a couple of subplots thrown in."

The field

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.

Three top-seeded teams — North Carolina, UCLA and Notre Dame — had been ousted in the first NCAA tournament to feature the regionalized seeding. Bird's Indiana State team was the sole remaining No. 1 seed, with Michigan State and DePaul a pair of No. 2s and Penn advancing from its No. 9 spot.

Michigan State

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.

In the three games leading to the Final Four, Johnson logged 35 assists — five to sole MSU senior Greg Kelser against Notre Dame alone. And in the two regional wins Michigan State's depth was evident, since 6-foot-8 starting center Jay Vincent missed all but a couple of minutes because of lingering foot problems.

Indiana State

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.

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SIZE="2">From the 1979 archive:

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For the tired victors, spoils sink in slowly

Disappointment for ISU, but not unhappiness

Frontrunner all the way

Johnson's future still a question mark

Magic keeps a promise, and MSU reaches NCAA title goal

Johnson tabbed top player by large margin

Listless DePaul takes 3rd with OT win over Penn

'Magic act' gives MSU NCAA title

'Magic' was in the air

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.

Rather than Special Events Center insights, Bird sought recommendations for Salt Lake accommodations for his team. Judkins suggested the Hotel Utah, with a view over Temple Square. Bird complied.

DePaul

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 graphicDNews 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.

Grabbing the P.A. microphone after the game, Meyer told the crowd: "I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your support in the second period — it made a big difference to us, and we love you for it and will never forget you for it."

Pennsylvania

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.

Penn coach Bob Weinhauer, who took over when predecessor Chuck Daly bolted for the Philadelphia 76ers the previous season, guided the lightning-quick Quakers to a 72-71 second-round upset of No. 1 North Carolina, followed by wins over Syracuse and St. John's to reach Salt Lake City.

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.

"They will go down in history as maybe the two best players of all time," says longtime local basketball coach Ladell Andersen, Utah State's athletic director in 1979 and a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee that season. "They were the two best players in college, and to have them meet in the finals was proof of that."

The semifinals

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.

While ISU became the first team in NCAA history to win 34 straight games in a season, DePaul became noteworthy for futility with its 2-of-5 free-throw total and 21 rebounds.

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 Quakers tied a Final Four record with four players disqualified with five personal fouls each. With two Blue Demons fouling out, the two teams also equaled a two-team Final Four mark for disqualifications.

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.

Earning MVP honors was Johnson, whose two-game Final Four totals included shooting 17-of-25 from the field and 19-of-22 from the line, 17 rebounds, three assists, two steals and 53 points. Joining Magic on the Final Four's all-tournament team were MSU teammate Kelser, ISU's Bird and the DePaul duo of Aguirre and Garland.

Postscript

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.

No visible reminder that in 1979, this was the place — for Magic, for Bird and for basketball memories.


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