If you watch March Madness, you'll surely recognize the man pictured above: college basketball's premier analyst - Seth Davis from CBS Sports and CNNSI.com. Last week, I had the chance to catch up with Mr. Davis by phone to discuss his new book, When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, an historical look at the 1979 NCAA Championship between Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores.
In the course of writing this book, Mr. Davis conducted more than 100 interviews and dug through tons of old newspaper stories to paint as thorough a picture as possible about what was happening on both on and off the court: the recruiting, the growth of television, the rivalry between two of basketball's greatest players and more.
When March Went Mad is a must-read for college and pro hoops fans alike as it provides an historical backdrop for the explosive popularity surge that the NBA enjoyed in the 1980s as it transformed to a personality-driven, mega-corporate league.
I picked Mr. Davis's brain about the book, Magic and Larry's backgrounds, high school recruiting and we even talked a little Blazers draft strategy. Here's the transcript of our chat. My questions are in bold, his responses are in blockquote. Thanks to Mr. Davis for speaking with us and I hope you enjoy it.
Blazersedge: My father was a student at Michigan State during Magic's time there. Huge Magic fan, obviously. But if you look at my dad's background: he's a white kid from a relatively rural upbringing. In a way, he's a lot more like Bird than like Magic. In the book you set up the story of the 1979 championship by talking about Magic's influence in Lansing and across Michigan. How was he able to unite so many different types of people?
[Magic] was raised well. He just really liked people.
When Magic was in high school, the JV games would be played before the varsity games. Magic would just sit in the stands [during those games] and sign autographs to the point where his coach, George Fox, would have to go get him and bring him in the locker room so he could get ready for his own game. And [Magic] would turn around and apologize to people.
From the beginning, he just really enjoyed being "that guy" where I think a lot of kids his age really wouldn't enjoy that. I think the main thing is he treated people well.
For someone to come in to Michigan State with that kind of hype, any college situation, with that kind of hype, to go to a team full of veterans, normally [that would be] a recipe for disaster. You'd have jealousies, you'd have egos, you'd get swell heads, Magic wasn't like that.
To talk to his teammates 30 years later, to hear just how much they genuinely liked him. [His teammate] Mike Brkovich, I quoted him in the book, here's a short kid from Windsor, Ontario, who didn't really play that much, didn't really know too many people. He said to me, "the two years I was with Magic I never once thought of him as a primadonna. He would take me over to his mom's house. She'd cook for us." He was just really good with everybody:
It's a rare combination of someone that loves the limelight, loves being a celebrity, yet there is a genuineness about him and the way he treats people on a 1 to 1 basis. At the end of the day, that's what permeated and made him so popular.
And, by the way, he could play a little bit. And that helps.
Blazersedge: With Larry, you paint a picture of a very shy, very aloof and withdrawn young man from a very, very small town. Just last week he was here in Portland with the Pacers and, you know, he's an NBA General Manager. Shaking hands is a big part of the job. He's obviously a long way from French Lick. Does it surprise you how far Larry has travelled in 30 years from a personality standpoint?
[Thanks to his basketball talent] Larry was finally forced out of his comfort zone. That's how you grow.
People talk about if Larry Bird was coming on today he wouldn't have slipped through the cracks as a player and people would have seen him and he would have played against top competition. Everyone would have realized how good he was so a guy like that would have never ended up at Indiana State. I think there's a lot of truth to that. But the main thing that would have done for Larry was that it would have forced him to leave French Lick and interact with people and get interviewed by reporters and try new things, see new things. That was hard for him and he avoided it for a long time.
I really thought one of the most poignant anecdotes that I heard was his former assistant Stan Evans when he told me that Larry had done a press conference his junior year and they're walking across the court and Larry said to him, "Did I sound stupid?"
I think he was first of all obviously very shy naturally but he was concerned that he would come off sounding like a backwoods kid that wasn't smart. He obviously had some things in his past that he didn't want people probing into: his father's suicide, the situation with his first wife and his daughter. For him it just happened a lot later.
For Magic it happened when he was in high school because of the bussing thing [ed. note: Magic's school district had a forced bussing program to help integate the city's schools]. For him to get bussed to an all-white high school, that's what I mean by him getting out of his comfort zone.
I'm not surprised that Larry got [to where he is] eventually but it took him a long time to realize that he's really, really smart. Everybody today know that one thing you say about Larry Bird is that he's very, very smart. I think now that he knows that, he's a little bit more comfortable in his own skin and he's willing to take a job like being a General Manager of an NBA team.
Blazersedge: One of the points that your book addresses is that basketball at all levels has enjoyed explosive growth over the last 30 years. If Larry and Magic were high schoolers today, would their paths have been any different than they were back then? I can imagine Magic as a LeBron type phenom.
It wouldn't have mattered whether they came out when James Naismith nailed the peach basket or if they came along this year. I think they would have thrived in any environment and in any situation that they were in.
I just think everything today happens sooner. Quicker than it did back in the late 1970s. Larry would never have ended up at Indiana State. He never would have left Indiana. He would have been more physically and psychologically and emotionally prepared for that environment.
The thing that strikes me about today, and I cover a lot of recruiting, is if they were coming of age today, Larry and Magic would be on television, national television, more times as high school players than in their entire college careers. You'd never have a situation where the national player of the year during his senior year gets to the national championship game and, during the pregame, the announcer says to the audience, "if you've never seen this kid play before, you are in for a treat." That's what Bryant Gumbel said about Larry Bird [before the 1979 game]. So what's changed more is on the outside than what those two guys would have done on the court.
Blazersedge: The book builds to a nearly play-by-play account of the 1979 final game in which Michigan State ultimately triumphs. How many times have you watched the final game now?
I would say probably... that's a great question... I would say probably 8. All the way through. Because I watched it several times with other people. I watched it with [Michigan State player] Mike Brkovich. I watched it with [Michigan State coach] Jud Heathcote. I watched it with [Indiana State coach] Bill Hodges. I watched it a couple of times in the course of my research as well. At one point, i pretty much had every dribble memorized.
Blazersedge: You note in the book that the quality of the play and the refereeing was kind of a disappointment given all the hype and buildup prior to the game. When re-watching the game, did you find that it improved with every viewing or not?
[When all is said and done] I think it was a good game. It wasn't like the 1983 final that ended on an alley oop dunk. That would have been great.
And actually one thing that I considered [after re-watching the tape] is if [Michigan State star] Greg Kelser doesn't pick up his 4th foul when he does, Michigan State might have won by 25. They had it going at that point. I watched all their games. Once they got going, boy, it was like a freight train there was nothing you could do about it. It could have very easily reached a tipping point where Indiana State would have realized that there was no way that they were going to win so Michigan State could really have pushed it out to the 20-25 point range where it really could have hurt college basketball. Because you had all this hype and then the game ended up being a joke.
At least this game was competitive. Kelser gets his fourth foul and Indiana State comes back and actually cut it to a 6 point game with 6 or 7 minutes to play and Indiana State is making a comeback and it's pretty exciting.
If Larry Bird had been just average that night, I think they would have had a really good chance to win the game. He just picked the worst possible moment to play his worst game of the season.
Blazersedge: In the book, you take Bird to task a little bit for not performing in the moment but you also give Heathcote's zone defense a lot of credit for helping shut him down. What was your read on Bird's performance: did he shrink under the lights or was it something else?
I think the accumulation of the whole season, the whole tournament, the whole weekend, everything [got to Bird]. Of course, [Indiana State] played in the second game on Saturday night and they had a very, very hard game, they very fortunate to get by DePaul. Michigan State played first and they blew out Penn by 30 some odd points.
I think it's both. Michigan State was the better team. If it was a seven game series I probably pick Michigan State in 5. But I watched Bird play on video 12 to 15 games and that was the worst game that I saw him play. If you don't count the Dick Versace game where he put a triangle and 2 on him. He played great that game just didn't score any points.
[In the final], Larry was off. He missed shots that he was making with ease during the course of the year. If Larry had been at his best, I don't know, there's no defense that would have been able to stop him. I think that's a really big part of why the loss really gnaws at Larry because not only did he lose but he played real poorly.
Blazersedge: Which teams from, say, the last 10 years come closest to repeating the kind of run that Indiana State had -- where they were an unheralded program with a big name player? Steph Curry kind of comes to mind. George Mason doesn't really seem like a perfect fit.
I think George Mason is probably a good comparison because they got to the Final Four but they didn't have the singular superstar that Larry Bird was.
Davidson obviously, Stephen Curry is a direct descendant. Now, Stephen Curry is nowhere near as good as Larry Bird. Just imagine how huge it would have been had Davidson been playing for the championship.
That's the amazing thing about what happened in 1979, you had, on the one hand, you had the two best players in the country, these unbelievably dynamic passing big men. But you also had David versus Goliath. People might say the modern day equivalent would be if North Carolina and Oklahoma played each other and you have Tyler Hansbrough and Blake Griffin -- but that's Goliath versus Goliath. In 1979, you had the superstar and the small school mentality and it was just a very, very potent combination.
Blazersedge: Here's one from left field: let's say Magic doesn't turn pro after the 1979 title win and instead comes back for his junior year at Michigan State. Do you think Michigan State loses a game or do they go undefeated?
If he comes back to Michigan State they probably lose. Teams lose games. Talking about over the course of the year there are various ups and downs. Yeah, they would have lost. He would have had a bad game or somebody else would have had a bad game. Of course, [MSU star Greg] Kelser was gone too.
He was a senior in 1979 so Magic obviously made the right decision to turn pro. I think he had a fairly decent pro career if I recall.
Blazersedge: Alright's let's turn to some quick-hitting Oregon questions for you. It's almost two years after the 2007 draft: who do you pick, Durant or Oden?
Well it's easy to say Durant now because Oden has been hurt but I still think [Oden] was the right pick.
If he ever got healthy, he's got a lot of ways to improve . I don't know if he'll ever be a great offensive player but I still think he has more ways to impact the game. His injuries have not only prevented him from having minutes on the court, but it's also really hurt his development. That's a great concern with him right now.
Blazersedge: People in Oregon like to think of Medford's (and Duke's) Kyle Singler as a Bird-like player. Thoughts?
Well let me just say this: I watched Bird and Magic play 12 to 15 games each. I resolve to never again compare a current player to either one of those guys.
It's literally, I mean... [Larry and Kyle] they're both white. Kyle's got size. He can pass, he can shoot a little bit. Let me just put it to you this way: Larry Bird transferred from Indiana, so he missed that whole year of playing basketball, then he transferred to Indiana State and didn't play the whole year. His first game back after two years of not playing he had 31 points and 15 rebounds. Go look at Kyle's stats from his first game at Duke and you tell me how they measure up.
Blazersedge: What do you remember about Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard as a college player on that 1988 Jayhawks national championship team?
I don't remember anything about Kevin Pritchard. I can't really say -- I happened to be a senior in high school that year. I'm not as old as you think! [laughs]
Blazersedge: Let's take an early look at the draft. The Blazers are probably looking at a draft pick something in the late teens or early 20s. Their needs right now are probably at point guard or at backup power forward. Any idea who might be available in that range and at those positions?
If you're looking at a point guard you're probably looking at a Johnny Flynn type of player late in the first round.
This is not going to be a strong draft, outside of the top 3 or 4 players. Griffin is going to be a stud. I think Jeff Teague's got a chance to be a great pro. Thabeet is going to be similar to Oden, maybe not quite as good as Oden but bigger and hopefully healthier. Just not a lot of franchise players in this draft. I think we've been a little spoiled the last two years with these rookie classes.
My advice is to go out and get some decent free agents.
That's a wrap. Hope you enjoyed it. Many thanks to Mr. Davis for taking the time to chat with Blazersedge. Here's another link to Seth's book at Amazon. I recommend you check it out.
-- Ben (firstname.lastname@example.org)