AT A CHARITY golf tournament about 10 years ago, Magic Johnson found himself reminiscing with reporters about his remarkable two-year career at Michigan State. Among all the highlights one disappointment stood out. "The Kentucky game," he said. "NCAA tournament, my freshman year. Close game. They beat us to go to the Final Four and win the whole thing. If we could have won that game, that could have been us winning that title."
Then Johnson said, "Oh, man!" and laughed that Magic laugh.
The memory of that 52--49 loss in 1978 still rankles him (he had just six points, four rebounds and five assists), but Johnson can console himself with the knowledge that it's the only tournament failure he ever experienced. The Spartans returned to the Big Dance the following year, and Johnson, their mold-shattering 6'9" point guard, led them to the championship, beating Larry Bird and Indiana State 75--64 in a historic final that is still the most watched college basketball game of all time.
It seemed like the entire country saw that championship game, but before Johnson arrived on the Michigan State campus, no one had ever seen anything quite like him. He was a pure playmaker, a first-of-his-kind amalgam of point guard skills with power forward size. That combination, along with the way he seemed to regard a basketball court as the happiest place on earth, made him unique. "I don't think there will ever be another 6'9" point guard," his Lakers teammate James Worthy once said, "who smiles while he humiliates you."
Johnson was his typical all-purpose self that night in Salt Lake City, with 24 points, five assists and seven rebounds, but he played on such a consistently high level throughout the tournament that his showing against Indiana State might rank below a few others: his 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Penn in the national semifinals, or the 13-17-10 line he had in Michigan State's first game, against Lamar. Johnson played in eight tournament games and dished out double-digit assists in five of them. All his transcendent qualities—versatility, vision, unselfishness and an unmistakable joy—were on display during March Madness.
It was little wonder that Johnson came out on top in his showdown with Bird (page 38). He was so much more suited to the bright lights and attention showered on this matchup of opposites—the outgoing African-American player from urban Lansing, Mich., against the introverted Caucasian young man from rural French Lick, Ind. Where others merely played, Magic performed, but in a way that brought the best out of his ensemble as well as himself. Johnson was so talented that he was given a special assignment in practice the day before the championship game: to play with the second unit, imitating Bird in a scrimmage against the other starters. Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote correctly determined that Magic was the only one who could give the Spartans a feel for defending a player with Bird's superior vision and passing skills.
When Bird was asked back then whether he had similarly pretended to be Johnson in practice, he said he had not. That's not surprising. Bird probably knew what the rest of us have discovered: Earvin (Magic) Johnson has always defied imitation.
Nielsen rating for the 1979 NCAA championship, which is still the highest for any professional or college basketball game.
Seasons in which Michigan State had missed the NCAA tournament before Johnson led the Spartans to the Mideast Regional final in 1978.
RICH CLARKSON/NCAA PHOTOS
FUN AND GAMES Johnson didn't play as much as he performed, laughing all the way to the 1979 national title.
RICH CLARKSON/NCAA PHOTOS
ACHIEVING LIFTOFF Johnson's mold-shattering skills helped usher in a new era for college basketball.