The 1979 NCAA basketball final is one of the most talked about ever, and is still the highest rated championship game in tournament history.
Salt Lake City. Bird vs. Magic. Indiana State vs. Michigan State.
The game had all the elements.
The upstart Sycamores, from the not-so prestigious Missouri Valley Conference, were undefeated. Larry Bird putting ISU on the national map with his shooting range and uncanny passing skills. Didn’t look like a basketball god, but most certainly was.
Michigan State, from the powerhouse Big Ten Conference, was 25-6 coming into the final, with precocious sophomore Earvin Johnson leading the way.
“Magic” was also every bit a hoops deity.
The Spartans would win that night, 75-64, setting the stage for a Bird-Magic rivalry that would forever link the two in hoops history.
They would battle for an NCAA title that night, and then go on to save the NBA. Magic with the west coast Lakers, Bird leading the east coast Celtics.
As memorable as that ’79 final was (it crushed me when Bird lost), my biggest memory from that tournament was the game I DIDN’T get to see: Oklahoma vs. Bird and Indiana State.
Yes, the Sooners met Larry Legend and the Sycamores on March 15, 1979 in Cincinnati in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
I remember that day (I was 15) going to a friends house to stay the night, thinking how great it was going to be watching Dave Bliss and the Sooners battle Bird and then stay up all night.
KTVY Channel 4 (now KFOR) was televising the game locally. We were all set.
My buddy and I stayed upstairs listening to records until it was a few minutes before tipoff and then headed downstairs to catch the game.
Just one problem.
His dad, a big, burly, bearded dude who looked like a lumberjack by day and professional wrestler by night, was seated comfortably in his recliner just starting a movie. He was clutching a Coors in one hand, the remote in the other. And he wasn’t letting go of either.
My friend noticed I had the look of sheer terror written on my face, so he meekly asked “Hey dad, Steely really wants to watch the game, can you change the channel?”
I still remember his blunt, one word answer.
And that was the end of it. There was no changing this miscreant of a man’s mind. He was all biceps and no personality. And I was already getting the evil eye from this non-sports watching infidel!!
It was over. “Cool Hand Luke” won out over “Bird meets the Sooners.” What we had here was “failure to communicate.”
There was only one TV in the house and it was completely controlled by the beast.
I trudged back upstairs a crushed soul, forced to listen to the radio broadcast with John Brooks, as Bird and Indiana State went on to beat the Sooners, 93-72.
Larry Legend had 29 that night, but Paul Newman was the man that got all the screen time.
Lesson learned. Never play a “road game” when it comes to a sporting event you really want to watch.
You never know when you just might meet the “beast” in a recliner.