I have a confession to make: I have a terribly selective memory.

I can bump into someone I haven't spoken with in 15 years and usually come up with a name. Just don't ask me the score of Wednesday's Jazz-Sonics game.

I can recall the password to the boys-only club I belonged to in the third grade, but I can't remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday.

I couldn't name all the teams in last year's Final Four without looking it up. I don't recall that much about the 1979 Final Four, either, even though I was there.

But there are a few moments I'll never forget.

Especially the one with Ray Meyer.

The championship match-up that year was sublime: Magic vs. Bird, the two best college players in the game, who would go on to become the best in the pro game, too.

I was lucky. I had been out of college only months and was assigned to help cover the Final Four.

Magic Johnson was everything I expected — irrepressible, intuitive, innovative. He was also accommodating with the media.

Larry Bird, though, was surly and uncooperative. One of the big stories that week was whether he would talk to the media. He had boycotted reporters that season, after a writer referred to him as the "Hick from French Lick."

Bird did appear at a press conference once before the championship game. But that didn't mean he enjoyed it. His remarks were terse and unenthusiastic. Part of that was a natural reticence. But clearly his heart wasn't in doing interviews. After losing in the championship game, he boycotted the media again, issuing a press release instead.

Despite their differences in handling publicity, it was obvious both Bird and Johnson knew the game masterfully. They seemed to see the plays several moves ahead, recognizing patterns amid in the ebb and flow.

I went to the MSU locker room to do a sidebar on the winning team, long after the championship game ended. By the time I arrived, almost everyone was gone except a handful of reporters waiting for Johnson to return from the shower. He had already been through the TV stand-ups, post-game press conference and dozens of locker room interviews.

Someone asked what he felt, now that the reality of a national championship had sunken in. I could tell he'd been asked that question numerous times already.

"Man," said the Magic Man gamely, "it feels great."

I asked what he was going to do to celebrate. Not much, he said, just enjoy the moment.

He was tired, perhaps more from the interviews than anything.

"I can't answer no more questions," he said finally.

Someone asked another question anyway.

"OK," he added good-naturedly. "This is my last one tonight."

Then he smiled the smile that won a billion fans.

At that moment I was sure of one thing.

The man indeed had Magic.

You're probably wondering if I would get back to Ray Meyer.

He was the grandfatherly coach of the DePaul Blue Demons. Though they lost to Indiana State in the semifinals, aside from Bird-Magic, he was the big story. Thirty-seven years he had coached basketball, becoming the sentimental choice to win a championship. He had never been to the Final Four, unless you count 1943, his first season. But back then the NCAA Tournament was a small undertaking; only eight teams were invited. The NIT was the most prestigious tournament of the era. Meyer's team won its first tournament game that year, lost the second.

But when the 1979 Blue Demons lost by just two points to Indiana State, Meyer's dream ended. It seemed slightly sad to me.

Here is where my memory is as clear as a desert sunrise. A small group of reporters gathered around Meyer in a corner of the media center, after the game. Someone suggested it was a "tragedy" to miss out on his chance for a championship.

I expected him to feel sorry for himself.

"It's been gratifying to be here," said Meyer. "Of course we were disappointed, but we didn't lose our lives, we didn't lose a war. We made some mistakes and it could have gone either way."

It was, he pointed out, only a ballgame.

There is tragedy and there is losing, but they're never the same.

In the ensuing 25 years I've covered Super Bowls, Final Fours, NBA Finals, Olympics, bowl games, world title fights. They're dramatic, entertaining and sometimes even poignant.

But they've never been more than games to me, either.

Thanks, Coach. I still remember.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com