Saturday, August 13, 2011

#57:When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball by Seth Davis

New York: Times Books, 2009. 323 pages

I loved this book and could not put it down. Here it is in 15 short bits:

1. This book concerns the impact of the 1979 NCAA Basketball Championship. This game featured Michigan State against......the mighty Indiana State Sycamores! Well, Michigan State had this 19 year old kid named Earvin Johnson and the Sycamores had this 22 year old senior named Larry Bird.

2. Larry Bird dropped out of Indiana in 1974 and wound up driving a garbage truck in French Lick, Indiana for a year.

3. Seth Davis does not spare some of the sportswriters of the time who were terminal assholes. Bird did not want to talk to the press for a multitude of reasons, and his coach Bill Hodges did not make him do it. David Israel of the Chicago Tribune wrote "I guess Larry Bird does not owe anything to his race" and "One fact about this season is that Larry Bird, a pretty good player from someplace called Indiana State does not talk to reporters" (Italics mine) (126). Even after the Sycamores won their first 22 games (they lost only one time all season) the guy did not back off. When Bird accepted the Naismith Player of the Year Award in New York, he asked is Israel was there. He then said "I wanted to see what a real live prick looked like."

4. If you read this book, you finally get to find out where Earvin's nickname "Magic" came from. It wasn't from him.

5. The 1978 and 1979 NBA Finals were shown on......tape delay. The league was hemorrhaging money despite the presence of players like Dr. J, Pistol Pete Maravich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bird and Magic would literally save the NBA. This is no exaggeration, and Smith makes the case for what must be the 10000th time.

6. The Final Four (a phrase which entered use in 1976) was in Salt Lake City. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang "Hail to the Victors" to the Michigan State team. This is, of course, the fight song for Michigan. At Michigan State, the student section sings a version that goes "Hail to those prick cocksuckers/Hail to those Motherfuckers/Hail, hail to Michigan/The cesspool in the East"

7. One forgets that Magic was only a kid until you read this book, but Magic's future is there in its glory and more sordid states. During one interview, he repeatedly has to answer the phone. When he does, it is invariably "Lisa? Lisa who?...Marie? Marie who?" One of his teammates said "Earvin didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't gamble. But Earvin loves women."

8. For those who never got to see Magic or Bird play, this book is an excellent intro to their prodigious talents. Neither one of them could run fast, jump very well (Bird especially) but they were still the best. Why? They played constantly; Bird left a graduation dinner in high school to shoot baskets alone in a gym for 2 hours. Magic was never without a ball when he was a kid. Secondly, they were insanely competitive. They shared this with the other of the three headed Monster of Awesome that dominated the NBA, Michael Jordan. That's what made them great; they would beat you however they could.

9. For those who don't know anything about Big 10 Basketball and think the sun rises and sets on the Big East, read this. Read the list of 1980s pro players these guys ran into on a nightly basis. The Big 10 may be a lesser basketball conference now, but then it was not.

10. This book is as much a short history of the NCAA tournament as anything else. This game took place 32 years ago, and the Sycamores, who entered the final game undefeated at 33-0, had been on national television twice. This is unthinkable in this current age of ESPN and ESPN The Ocho. The tourney was small and the book describes it as somewhat amateurish.

11. It also includes some stories about the players involved and their lives after the game and season, some of whom have great stories. Not the least of these is the coach at Indiana State, Bill Hodges.

12. This book is solidly written. The game recaps can get somewhat repetitive, but this is not a simple "this happened and that happened" book. The cultural impact of the Bird-Magic match up is well developed, crisp and effective.

13. The racial element of this book is right at the top, because it was at the top in 1979. Most of the country was convinced Larry Bird was black until he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was, in a sense, the Great White Hope. The "Hick from French Lick" persona played that up.

14. One gets some idea of the pressure of today's tournament from the description of this one. Many of the games were not televised nationally, there was not NEARLY the money involved, but the players still felt the pressure from their universities. Good Lord, it must be oppressive now.

15. When I was a kid, you were either a Magic guy or a Bird guy. Showtime or Blue Collar. I was a Magic guy, and he remains my favorite basketball player. I respected Bird for his game, but he was a prick. He is by turns a prick, gentleman, competitor and genius in this book. That is not an easy task for an author to make a character so, and Davis succeeds.

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