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The hype was there in 1979, and it still remains the most-watched NCAA men’s basketball game ever 44 years later. The anticipation of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird was raging, even before they became known simply as Bird and Magic.

Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans faced Bird’s undefeated Indiana State Sycamores. It was a matchup of two young superstars who would later go on to change the landscape of the NBA. Johnson and Michigan Sttate prevailed, but it took a gusty second-half performance by the 6-foot-9 point guard to make it happen.

Magic Johnson won Round 1 of the rivalry against Larry Bird

Indiana State’s Larry Bird and Michigan State’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson are tangled on the floor under the Michigan State basket early in the NCAA national basketball championship game in 1979. Johnson, ready to shoot a basket, tripped over Bird’s foot. Michigan State won the championship 75-64. | Getty Images.

The 1979 NCAA tourney was unique in that it was the only year that 40 teams participated. The field had been 32 but grew to 40 for just that one season. In 1980, the tournament expanded to 48 teams.

The Sycamores were the eighth undefeated team to reach the NCAA title game. They were also the second unbeaten squad to lose as the Spartans locked down Bird in a 75-64 victory.

While the Spartans held Bird to 7-for-21 shooting, Johnson stepped it up. It wasn’t just his game-high 24 points, nor was it the seven rebounds and five assists he added. Johnson played the entire second half of the game with three fouls, a gutsy move by coach Jud Heathcote.

Heathcote’s mission was to stop Bird. He constantly switched defenders on the Sycamores forward, using a tenacious and aggressive style of play. Although it helped contain Bird and carried Michigan State to a 37-28 halftime lead, it also saw Johnson and 6-foot-7 starting forward Greg Kelser collect three personal fouls before halftime.

Jay Vincent came off the bench for the Spartans and racked up four fouls in the game despite playing just 19 minutes. Ron Charles, Michigan State’s starting center, fouled out.

Johnson and the Spartans shut down Bird in the victory

In the four previous tournament games leading up to the championship, Bird had big games. They got better each time, as he went for 22, 29, 31, and 35 points. Michigan State was the far superior all-around team, but Indiana State had Bird, the best college basketball player in the country. Bird made 16 of 19 field-goal attempts in his previous game against DePaul.

“I thought every shot the Bird took would go in,” Heathcote said after the championship game, per The New York Times.

The Spartans made him work for everything, including getting the ball to his teammates. One of the best passing forwards in the game, Bird was consistently hounded by the Spartans, who invaded the passing lanes and helped force six Bird turnovers. He only had two assists.

Bird’s shots did not fall. He missed 14 of his 21 attempts from the floor. He went 5-for-8 from the free-throw line, finishing with 19 points. As a team, the Sycamores went 10-for-22 from the line.

“We defended him with an adjustment and a prayer,” Heathcote said of Bird.

Johnson and Bird, of course, took their rivalry into the NBA, joining the league’s two most storied franchises. Bird guided the Boston Celtics to three NBA titles, while Johnson led the Lakers to five. They each also claimed three MVPs. The rivals helped take the NBA to a new level, and it all began with that classic meeting for the 1979 national championship.


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