The following is an excerpt from a new book written by The Sports Post contributor Marty Gitlin titled Powerful Sports Moments: The Most Significant Sporting Events in American History. It was published this spring by Rowman and Littlefield. A wonderful review of the book by Publishers Weekly can be seen here:
To read the rest of this chapter and the others, please purchase the book for $25 through his Pay Pal account at [email protected] Or feel free to contact Gitlin at that same email address with any questions or for his home address. The $25 represents a huge savings over Amazon, plus Gitlin will autograph, personalize and ship the book for free. Thank you.
Two men put the Madness into March. Two men popularized a floundering NBA. And two men whose friendship off the court eventually matched the intensity of their rivalry on it will be forever linked in the history of basketball. Those who men are Earvin a�?Magica�? Johnson and Larry Bird.
March Madness was known only and blandly as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament before those two men hogged the spotlight and brought greater attention to it than ever before. What had merely been an event in previous years dominated by UCLA attracted feverish attention in 1979. Not because of the teams involved, but because of Johnson and Bird. And when they landed in the NBAa��Bird for Boston and Johnson for the Los Angeles Lakersa��the heated individual competition became even more pronounced.
The perception of fans and media of their rivalry was based not only on their brilliance on the court that resulted in the Celtics and Lakers battling it out for the championship three times in the 1980s, but also on their vast differences unrelated to shooting, dribbling and rebounding a basketball. Bird was white. Johnson was black. Bird grew up in the tiny Indiana town of French Lick. Johnson honed his skills on the playgrounds in a predominantly black area of Lansing, Michigan. Bird boasted an understated personality. The ebullient Johnson wore his emotions on his sleeves.
Their on-court personas perfectly represented the cities in which they played. Though a supremely talented passer who could on occasion wow an audience, Bird generally boasted a blue-collar style that played well in blue-collar Boston. Johnson, on the other hand, earned the a�?Magica�? nickname with the no-look and behind-the-back passes that ideally suited the flash-and-dash of Hollywood.
a�?We rekindled the fire,a�? Bird said. a�?We did it in a way where we caught the imagination of everyone in America. People wanted to see us play against one another. a�� If you like competition you want to play against the best, and that’s what we wanted to do.a�?
Little could anyone have imagined early in their college careers that they would eventually team up to energize the NCAA Tournament. Or, as some claim, save the NBA. But then, little could anyone have imagined that they would blossom into two of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of sneakers.
That could certainly be said about Bird. After all, French Lick is no basketball factory. It was there he was raised, though he was born in the nearby town of West Baden on December 7, 1956a��exactly 15 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. French Lick boasts a population of just 2,059. Bird spent much of his time shooting hoops and developing his skills. The fourth of six children in a poor family, Bird in seventh grade began working 40 hours a week at a grocery store that was connected to the restaurant in which his mother cooked.
He began receiving attention for his basketball prowess during his junior season at Springs Valley High School. College scouts flocked to his games. A growth spurt that sent his height soaring from 6-foot-1 to 6-7 as a senior increased his value. He averaged an incredible 31 points and 21 rebounds per contest that year. In one game, he scored 55 points and yanked down 38 rebounds. But he received few accolades. After all, his team did not play elite competition. It was no wonder that Mr. Basketball honors in Indiana in 1974 was shared by two others. Bird managed a spot on the third team.
But his skills proved strong enough to earn him a scholarship to Indiana University. Not that others didn’t try to pry him away. Louisville coach Denny Crum visited French Lick and suggested a game of H-O-R-S-E. If Crum won, Bird would be obligated to travel down to Louisville to check out the Cardinals. If Bird won, Crum would let him be. Crum missed his first shot. Bird missed none.
The culture shock that awaited Bird at Indiana proved overwhelming. He struggled mightily to cope with the move from a tiny town to a campus of 33,000 students in the comparatively huge city of Bloomington. Soon he hitchhiked back to French Lick. Basketball practice had yet to begin. Bird was homesick. He has refuted any claims that his decision to leave the school was based on his dislike for notoriously antagonistic coach Bobby Knight. His mother told Sports Illustrated that Bird did not want to go to Indiana in the first place, but was pressured to do so by folks in town that yearned for him to compete in the Big Ten. a�?I was dying to say to Bobby Knight, ‘Why don’t you leave him alone, he doesn’t want you,’a�? she said.
Yet his mother was angered by his decision to drop out. She didn’t speak to her son for two months. He was going to be the first in his family to graduate from college, but he let her down. He told her that he would return to school eventually, which he did. Then he enrolled at tiny Northwood Institute. He practiced with the team for six weeks, played in preseason games, then simply stopped showing up. First-year coach Larry Bledsoe tried to track him down. Bird’s mother finally called to ask him if he knew of her son’s whereabouts. Bledsoe never heard from Bird, who had dropped out. The coach lamented that the young man had wasted his talent.
By that time tragedy had struck. His father and fishing buddy called to tell his family members that they would be better off without him. Then he blew himself away with a shotgun blast. a�?I sort of always felt my dad gave up on not only himself, but us kids,a�? Bird said. a�?I still had two younger brothers at home and a mom. That’s the way I looked at it then, and the way I look at it now. I handled it pretty good, I think.a�?
His life was in limbo. He began toiling for the municipality of French Lick. He cut grass and he painted benches. And he drove a garbage truck. But persistent Indiana State recruiters Bill Hodges and Stan Evans would not take no for an answer. Shunned by Bird’s mother, who told them simply and forcefully that he did not want to play for them, they finally tracked him down outside a laundromat. a�?What are you going to do?a�? asked Evans. a�?Hang off the back of a garbage truck all of your life?a�? Bird seemed disinterested. He told them that they should instead be recruiting a friend named Kevin Carnes, then retracted the statement, acknowledging that Carnes was now married. a�?Kevin would have been a hell of a player if he’d gone to college,a�? Bird said. a�?Larry, that’s what they’re going to say about you,a�? Hodges said.
That sudden realization struck Bird. And by the time Hodges arrived for a second visit in April 1975, Bird had recalled his initial trip to Indiana State. He considered the comparatively small school an ideal fit and finally decided to make a commitment. But his ego got in the way. He was upset when head coach Bob King began sitting him down during scrimmages against the starters. He threatened to quit and head back to French Lick. King explained to Bird that he was so talented that his teammates were being humiliated on the court. a�?To hell with them,a�? Bird replied. a�?If they can’t win, they ought to lose.a�? King agreed to keep Bird active.
He was slowly gaining a reputation as a future star. Former Pacers standouts Mel Daniels and Roger Brown visited the campus on behalf of King, who had coached the former at the University of New Mexico. They played a game of pickup basketball with the Sycamores and came away glowing about Bird. Daniels gushed to King that Bird was the best player he had ever competed against. And Brown was not arguing.
One might have believed they were exaggerating for effect. But one would have been wrong. And Bird proved it when he became eligible to play. Competing in relative anonymity in the Missouri Valley Conference, he totaled 32.8 points and 13.3 rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from the floor. Yet, he did not earn a spot on the NCAA Division I first- or second-team. Bird followed that up as a junior by averaging 30 points and 11.3 rebounds to win MVC Most Valuable Player honors. By that time folks had begun to take notice. A photo of Bird was splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in November 1977. The headline read a�?College Basketball’s Secret Weapon.a�? He was becoming a star.
So was Johnson, whose nickname a�?Magica�? was provided by a local sportswriter in his hometown of Lansing after he compiled an absurd triple-double of 36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists in a game as a mere sophomore at Everett High School. But Johnson was more affectionately known as a�?Juniora�? and a�?June Buga�? by his family. He disliked the nickname a�?Garbage Mana�? given to him by neighborhood kids because he and father Earvin Sr. often collected trash off the streets to earn badly needed money. Instead, he returned the insult with the radiant smile that would become a trademark.