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Book review: When March went Mad.

Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated writer and CBS college basketball studio analyst, recently released "When March Went Mad: the Game that Transformed Basketball," which centers on the 1979 NCAA championship game matchup between Larry Bird's undefeated Indiana State Sycamores and Earvin "Magic" Johnson's Michigan State Spartans.  Full disclosure: I was offered and accepted a review copy of this book.  You can decide whether this makes me a cheap date, but I wholeheartedly recommend the book.  Obviously, Michigan State fans will love the subject and the ending.  Hoosiers, whether tied to Indiana State or not, will enjoy reading about Bird's circuitous route to prominence. 



Most college basketball fans know the basic outlines of the story: in a prelude to their future NBA Finals duels, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson squared off in the 1979 NCAA title game in front of a record television audience, and Johnson and MSU won.   As expected, Davis delves into the ups and downs of the teams' respective seasons: MSU struggled early in the Big Ten season, no small issue in any era when only two teams per conference could qualify for the NCAA Tournament; Indiana State went undefeated with an interim coach, Bill Hodges, who was forced into the job after coach Bob King fell ill.  Really, all four of the 1979 Final Four qualifiers could be considered Cinderellas.  ISU, obviously.  MSU, while highly touted before and during the season, had long been in the shadow of its (then) more successful rival in Ann Arbor, and nearly lost Lansing native Johnson to the Wolverines.  ISU's semifinal opponent was DePaul, which hadn't been that deep in the tournament since the George Mikan era.  MSU faced Penn of the Ivy League, which shocked North Carolina early in the tournament. 

As interesting as those aspects of the book are, the most fascinating parts, weaved throughout the book, show just how much college basketball has changed since 1979.  Maybe it's a sign that I'm getting old, but I remember 1979.  I was five years old, and while I don't remember the 1979 NCAA final, I do remember, vaguely, the existence of the Kelly Tripucka/Orlando Woolridge-led Notre Dame team that MSU beat in the regional final (I lived in the South Bend area at the time).  Jud Heathcote was MSU's coach for most of my time in college.  Still, in many ways the events in this book seem like a million years ago.  Consider these nuggets:

  • Indiana State ascended to #1 in the nation without having played a nationally televised game, and NBC called DePaul coach Ray Meyer to ask permission to drop a DePaul game so that the network could showcase ISU.
  • MSU faced Penn in the national semifinal.  The Penn coach had never seen Michigan State or Magic Johnson play and relied on a poor scouting report from an independent service.

This well-researched book is full of great little items like that and provides an excellent snapshot of what college basketball was like then.  Davis's description of the recruiting battle between Michigan and MSU for Earvin Johnson also creates a contrast to today.  Finally, the contrast in the personalities of the two players and their teams and schools is well-documented.

Of course, IU fans will be most interested in reading about Bird's short time in Bloomington.  Long-time IU fans will be familiar with the general story, with Knight's on-campus snub of Bird that contributed to his decision to head back to French Lick before practice began.  Eamonn of Inside the Hall said this about the incident:

Bob Knight, for all his faults, was a great coach, but come on, dude. You let one of the all-time greats slip through your fingers because you couldn’t say hello to him on his walk back from class? Couldn’t give him a quick fatherly nod or something? Some sign you recognized he existed? It’s not Knight’s fault Bird was so thin-skinned, but really. Help the greatest player to ever come from Indiana (right? is there someone else that takes this title?) out a little bit.

At the time, of course, no one realized that Bird would be an all-time great.  Knight didn't offer Bird until late in his senior year; Joe B. Hall of Kentucky didn't offer him at all.  Later in the book, Bird's former AAU coach opined that even if Bird had made it to the first practice, he would have headed back to French Lick as soon as Knight "cussed him out."  Considering what the book tells us about how Bird ruled the roost in Terre Haute, this seems about right.  (And, of course, IU lost only one game, total, in what would have been Bird's freshman and sophomore years at IU, and as a junior he would have shared the spotlight with NBA #1 pick Kent Benson, so it's not even clear that he would have developed his game the way he ultimately did at Indiana State).  In any event, reading about the brief time ISU spent as the center of the college basketball universe is interesting. 

Some of Davis's most interesting work is concerning what followed the 1979 game, particularly what became of Indiana State's players and coach.  IU fans might find some similarity between Mike Davis and the poignant tale of ISU coach Hodges.

Do I have any criticisms?  Not many.  The book is readable and full of the sort of information that anyone who is interested in the history of the game will enjoy.  Davis obviously dug deep and scoured the contemporary reporting, the telecasts, and interviewed many of the participants.  My one nit-pick is that I did a double-take at the suggestion that Bird had to walk "several miles" to class when he was at IU.    IU's campus is big compared to ISU or Springs Valley High School, but it's not that big (even compared to other Big Ten schools such as MSU and Purdue), and it would be hard to walk several miles and still be in Bloomington, let alone on campus (I presume Bird lived in a dorm).   Still, if that's the worst I can say, I think the book holds up pretty well. 

For the MSU perspective, see this Spartans Weblog review.  Also, follow the above link to Eamonn's post at Inside the Hall for his interview with Davis about the book.