Johnson Vs. Bird And The Dawn Of March Madness

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Magic Johnson dunks the basketball against Bob Heaton of the Indiana State University Sycamores while Larry Bird (standing in front of #23) watches. Getty Images hide caption

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Johnson dunks

Magic Johnson dunks the basketball against Bob Heaton of the Indiana State University Sycamores while Larry Bird (standing in front of #23) watches.

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'When March Went Mad'
When March Went Mad
By Seth Davis
Hardcover, 336 pages
Times Books
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt.

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Seth Davis is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated. Getty Images hide caption

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Seth Davis

Seth Davis is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated.

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March hasn't always meant madness for basketball fans; the obsession might have started 30 years ago, when millions of viewers tuned in to NBC to watch Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans take on Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores for the national college basketball championship title.

It was a classic matchup — the first time two future superstars would meet on the same court — and no basketball game has attracted more viewers since. In his new book, When March Went Mad, Sports Illustrated columnist Seth Davis writes about the March 26, 1979, game — and the way it changed basketball forever.

"You couldn't have asked for a better dynamic between these two central characters," Davis tells Steve Inskeep, referring to Johnson and Bird. "On the one hand, they were extremely similar — they were ultimate winners; they were great team players — and yet by the same token, you couldn't find two guys who were so different on so many fundamental levels."

Perhaps the most obvious difference was one of race: Johnson was black, and Bird was white. But the two players also differed in temperament. Introverted and shy, Bird had trouble making eye contact and went the entire college season without talking to the media, while Johnson couldn't seem to get enough of the public adulation.

"[Johnson] loved to sign autographs. He would talk to sports writers until they were out of questions," says Davis.

Though they were both great shooters and scorers, Davis says their power went beyond athleticism: "We're not talking about Michael Jordan and LeBron James," says Davis. "[Johnson and Bird] were not great athletes in the sense that we think of athletes. They were just unbelievable basketball players because of the way they could think the game."

Davis describes the game between the Spartans and the Sycamores as a "catalytic event" — one that occurred when the typical American household only received four television channels and when even the NBA finals weren't carried live on television. By attracting so many viewers, the matchup between Johnson and Bird paved the way for America's enduring fascination with college hoops and the "March Madness" events of today.

In the decades that followed, the sports world would expand exponentially via cable television, becoming a much bigger business and commanding a new level of media attention. As a measure of the changes, says Davis, consider this: If Larry Byrd and Magic Johnson came along today, they would play more often on national TV as high school players than they did in their entire college careers.

As for their first meeting, Bird did not play well, and Johnson led the Spartans to a 75-64 victory over the Sycamores. It was a loss that Bird did not take well, says Davis.

"It still bothers [Bird]. ... It took a little while for Magic and Larry to develop a friendship when they got into the NBA. At first they wouldn't even shake hands before tip-off. ... But Larry could never get that night back. He had one shot at winning the championship, and it still bothers him greatly to this day."

Excerpt: 'When March Went Mad'

When March Went Mad
By Seth Davis
Hardcover, 336 pages
Times Books
List price: $26

They had a hand signal. Whenever Earvin Johnson was somewhere he didn't want to be, when he was surrounded by autograph seekers he couldn't turn down or glad-handers he didn't have the heart to shoo away, he would turn to Charles Tucker, his friend and mentor since childhood, and touch his hand to the brim of his cap. That meant it was time to go. And that was what Tucker was waiting for on April 22, 1978, as he and Earvin sat in a conference room in Kansas City and discussed a potential contract agreement between Johnson and the NBA's Kansas City Kings.

Earvin was fresh off a brilliant freshman season at Michigan State University. He had led the Spartans to their first outright Big Ten title in nineteen years. He had helped them reach the NCAA tournament's Mideast Regional final, where they lost 52-49 to the University of Kentucky, the eventual champion. Johnson, however, had been uncharacteristically sloppy in that game, scoring just 6 points on 2 for-10 shooting and making several costly mistakes down the stretch. Yet that did not dissuade him from considering the possibility of turning professional. At the Spartans' annual spring banquet a few weeks before, Johnson gave his strongest indication yet that he was leaning toward leaving college. "If the money's right and a few other things are right, I'd probably have to go," he said. One unnamed associate was quoted in the local newspaper, the State Journal, as saying that Johnson was "almost 70 percent sure he wants to turn pro, but he's thinking big money right now. He's not going for peanuts."

Johnson was undeniably a huge talent. Yet his uneven performance in the NCAA tournament solidified some nagging doubts about just how well his unique blend of skills would translate to the NBA. "The kid's got a long way to go," said Bob Kauffman, the general manager of the Detroit Pistons. "I hope he doesn't take a chance and ruin himself." Larry Donald, the revered columnist for Basketball Weekly, wrote that "knowledgeable scouts will tell you they worry about his shooting ability. They see Earvin as the kind of player who might someday make a winner into a champion, but he's never going to make a loser into a winner. No guard can."

Perhaps it was those misgivings or just the financial realities of operating a franchise in a league that was struggling to remain afloat that kept Kansas City's general manager, Joe Axelson, whose team owned the second overall pick in the draft, from offering the big money that young Earvin was hoping for. The meeting was already delicate since Axelson was violating the NBA's rule forbidding its teams from trying to lure college players into the draft. (Though Axelson told NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien that no financial terms were discussed, Johnson later revealed to the State Journal that Axel-son had offered him a five-year contract worth $225,000 per year.) Finally, after much haggling, Johnson ran out of patience. He looked over at Tucker and touched the brim of his cap. The two of them immediately stood up to leave. "He's a funny dude," Tucker says. "He takes a long time to think about things, but once he makes up his mind, he's ready to go."

Axelson said he would call Tucker the next day to let him know whether he could meet their price. When Axelson called well past the designated hour, Tucker informed him that Johnson had decided to remain in school. Naturally, Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote was elated to hear the news, but the episode reinforced Heathcote's understanding that the temptation of the pros would be even harder for Johnson to turn down a year later. That was the reality he faced heading into the 1978-79 season: the Magic Act was not going to be playing in East Lansing much longer.

Larry Bird was not as inclined as Johnson to test the NBA waters during the summer of 1978, but that didn't matter. His name was among the list of draftable players, thanks to the NBA's "junior eligible" rule, which stated that a player could be selected at the end of his junior season as long as his original high school graduating class had been through four years of college. If the player stayed in school, the team that picked him would have until the day before the next year's draft to sign him to a contract. If no deal could be reached, the player's name would simply go back into the pool. Bird fell under the auspices of the junior eligible rule because he had taken a full year off following his senior year at Springs Valley High School in French Lick, Indiana, before enrolling at Indiana State University.

Like Johnson, Bird was also coming off of a brilliant 1977-78 season. He was ranked second nationally in scoring (30.0 average) and was a consensus first team All-American. For the second straight year, though, he had failed to lead the Sycamores to the NCAA tournament-they lost in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT)-but that wasn't the reason he wanted to come back to school. He wanted to be the first person in his family to earn a college degree. And when Larry Bird wanted to do something, it was awfully hard to talk him out of it.

Even so, the folks in Terre Haute were plenty nervous. After all, Bird had grown up in one of the poorest families in the poorest county in the state. What's more, the hometown Indiana Pacers owned the third pick in the 1978 draft. Bird had met personally in Indianapolis with the team's coach, Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who was hopeful that Bird would enter the draft so the Pacers could pick him. (Word trickled back to Terre Haute that a case of beer had been consumed during said meeting.) Indiana State president Richard Landini dispatched a member of his staff to Bird's house to encourage him to stay in school. "I'm not going anywhere," Bird told him. "I promised my mom." Sycamores coach Bob King also encouraged Bird to keep a low profile. "They tried to hide Larry a little bit from agents who were coming around and trying to sweet-talk him into going into the draft," recalls Sharel King, the coach's wife. "I don't know where they took him, but he played a lot of golf that summer."

Indeed, Bird was playing golf in, of all places, Santa Claus, Indiana, on June 8, when he received word of his early Christmas present: the Boston Celtics had selected him with the sixth pick in the draft. Celtics general manager Red Auerbach, who called Bird the best-passing big man he had seen since Bill Bradley, assured King that he was not expecting to have Bird's services until the following year. The fact that the Celtics had two first-round draft picks in 1978 gave them the luxury of waiting. Larry, meanwhile, knew nothing of the Celtics' storied tradition. He had heard of Bill Russell, but only because when he was a kid, he and a cousin used to play one-on-one pretending they were Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

Larry had tried to avoid the media spotlight during his first two seasons at Indiana State, and, even though he knew he'd probably be drafted, he had no desire to talk to reporters about it. Indiana State's sports information office prepared a statement on Bird's behalf for that day. The only thing that needed to be filled in was the name of the team. "I'm very happy that the Boston Celtics have shown enough interest in me to draft me, even though I'm not going to sign until next season," the statement read. "I'll be interested in sitting down to talk things over after Indiana State's '78-79 season has been completed."

Bird was intent on playing out his career at Indiana State, but he also understood the unique leverage his situation presented. He could now leave for the NBA at any moment. So he told King he would come back for his senior year, but on one condition: he did not want to be required to talk to the press. King mulled it over for a good half second before saying yes.

As it turned out, King would not be in a position to deliver on that promise. A few weeks after the NBA draft, King suffered a heart attack in Algona, Iowa, while en route to a coaching clinic. He was hospitalized for three weeks, but he appeared to be on the mend until September, when he started suffering from lingering headaches. His wife asked Bob Behnke, the team's trainer, to come to their house to massage King's neck, but Behnke told her he believed something more serious might be going on.

After several weeks of tests, the fifty-five-year-old King was diagnosed with a bulging aneurysm in his brain. He was told he would need to have surgery as soon as possible, which would leave him incapacitated for the foreseeable future. Since King was also Indiana State's athletic director, he was responsible for deciding who should replace him as acting head coach until he was well enough to return.

King had two assistant coaches, Stan Evans and Bill Hodges, both in their midthirties and both eager to step in. On the surface, Evans was the obvious choice. Unlike Hodges, he had been a college head coach, most recently at Miami Dade (South) Community College, where he coached for two years before King brought him to Indiana State in the spring of 1975. Evans was far more involved in practices and putting together game plans than Hodges was. In fact, as the program's primary recruiter and advance scout, Hodges wasn't even on the bench for many of the Sycamores' games.

Moreover, Evans had a promise from King that he would ascend to head coach whenever King retired, which was presumably going to be at the end of the 1978-79 season. Evans says that King (who died in 2004) gave him that assurance when he hired him from Miami Dade on the condition that Evans bring his star center, DeCarsta Webster, to Indiana State with him. Evans was also the one who recommended to King that he hire Hodges, an Indiana native whose ties around the state would be valuable for recruiting.

Stan Evans might have had all those things going for him, but Bill Hodges had one thing Evans didn't. He had Larry Bird in his corner.

Hodges was the one who made all those recruiting trips to French Lick in the spring of 1975, eventually cajoling Bird, who had dropped out of Indiana University the previous fall, to give college one more try. Hodges was the one who found Bird a job in Terre Haute, who let Bird live in his house until he could move into a dorm room and set him up with a local dentist who performed more than half a dozen root canals on him. Like Bird, Hodges was an Indiana farm boy who chewed tobacco and wasn't above getting into the occasional bar scrape. Where Evans could be aloof and blunt, Hodges was easygoing and conversational. "Larry and Stan really had a strange relationship," says Jimmy Smith, Indiana State's starting point guard during Bird's sophomore and junior seasons. "I don't know that Larry cared for Stan a lot. Stan was a very intelligent business person, but he and Larry didn't get along very well."

Bird wasn't just a returning All-American. He had a one-way ticket to Boston in his pocket, ready to be cashed in at any moment. Nor was he shy about making his preferences known. "Larry wouldn't play if Stan was going to be head coach," Sharel King says. Bird confirmed as much in his 1989 autobiography Drive, in which he wrote, "Believe me, I definitely would have left if Bill Hodges hadn't gotten the job."

In the end, Bird's strong preference made the decision easy for King and for Richard Landini, Indiana State's president and its number-one basketball fan. Landini announced Hodges's promotion to interim head coach on October 11, just four days before the start of practice. Two days later, King underwent successful brain surgery, but it was not at all clear when-or if-he would return to work.

Evans, meanwhile, tried to put on his best public face. He was officially "reassigned" to a job as personnel director at the university, claiming all the while that it was his choice. "After thirteen years in basketball, I had acquired sort of tunnel vision. I wanted to pursue some new avenues," he said. Hodges told reporters that he and Evans "had a nice chat last week and he feels like it's better for him. There is no bitterness and no problems internally."

The private reality was much different. On the afternoon of the decision, Evans went to clean out his desk. Since he and Hodges shared adjacent offices, Evans had to walk through Hodges's office to get to his own. "He walked through my office, walked in front of my desk, walked into his office, and he shut the door. I never saw him after that, and I've never seen him since," Hodges says. "We were really close, but he never said one word."

"He stabbed me in the back. I got him the job," Evans says of Hodges. "I wasn't going to work for Hodges. I knew more than him. It was an arrogant move on my part, but I was hurt, disappointed, and shocked."

Thus was Bill Hodges, who was all of thirty-five years old and whose only previous head coaching experience was two years as the freshman coach at Tennessee Tech, handed the keys to a program that included arguably the best player in America. "I don't have any head coaching experience, but I'm not the type of guy to lose sleep at night," he said. "I'm still Coach King's assistant. When he gets well, he'll be the head coach again." Hodges said that his team's goal was "winning the conference, which means an NCAA bid," adding that he was "very close" with Bird. "We have a big brother relationship, but I'll treat him like the rest of the players," he said.

Though Hodges was aware of King's promise to Bird that he would not have to deal with reporters, he asked Bird to accompany him to the Missouri Valley Conference's preseason media day in Des Moines, Iowa. Bird grudgingly agreed, and despite his misgivings he was funny and engaging with the writers. Naturally, many of the questions centered on the coaching change that had taken place three weeks before. "It's not really a problem," Bird said. "They're basically the same type of coach. Coach Hodges's role changed overnight. Used to be he was the guy you'd see if you had problems, like if you wanted to get out of a test or something, but now he is the man."

Bird was joking, but one of the local writers, who was a young part-timer, published it straight-up in the next day's Terre Haute Tribune. One of Bird's teachers humiliated him by warning him in front of the whole class that he wouldn't be able to use his status as a basketball player to get out of taking any tests. Bird was irate. When Hodges came into the locker room before practice that afternoon, Bird exploded. This was why he didn't want to deal with the press in the first place, he said. King had promised him he didn't have to do any interviews, and he didn't want to do any more.

Hodges acquiesced. "Coach King gave you his word and I'll stick with it," he said. "But remember, if you're not going to talk to the press, that means any press-including our press. Our friends." That was fine with Larry. Hodges called the local beat writers and informed them that while he would do the occasional interview with radio and television (where he couldn't be misquoted), Bird would not be talking to any more print reporters the rest of the season.

The Sycamores had yet to play their first game, but the season's dynamic was firmly in place. Bill Hodges may have been the head coach, but this was going to be Larry Bird's show.

It was highly unusual for Jenison Fieldhouse at Michigan State to be nearly empty when Earvin Johnson was performing on the court, but that was the case in early October when Lane Stewart, a photographer for Sports Illustrated, flew into town to conduct a photo shoot. Johnson was clad in formal wear for the session-a jacket with tails, top hat, white tie and vest, shiny patent leather shoes-as he held a basketball and struck pose after pose. The session was for the cover of the magazine's college basketball preview issue, which was going to be published in late November. A few of Johnson's teammates milled about the gym. "One thing I was struck by as I watched him is that he didn't seem to be shy about it at all," says Mike Longaker, a walk-on junior guard that season. "He could eat it up all day long and still have a big ol' smile on his face. It wasn't an act, either. It's just who he was."

And who he had always been-the center of attention, the life of the party, and the toast of the town of Lansing, Michigan. Johnson first gained notice as a grade-schooler, when he excelled on the playground court down the street from the yellow frame house where he grew up along with his eight brothers and sisters. As an eighth grader at Dwight Rich Middle School, Johnson set a city scoring record with 48 points in a game, even though he sat for most of the fourth quarter. Though Earvin was always big for his age, he developed guard skills during games of full-court one-on-one against his older brother Larry. As a little boy, he relished the idea of attending J.W. Sexton High School, the city basketball power whose building he could see from his bedroom window, and leading its team to a state championship.

That dream was derailed by a school integration program that required Earvin to be bused across town to Everett High School. The busing program was mostly targeted toward the city's eight elementary schools, but since Everett was 92 percent white (and thus in violation of federal guidelines), it was folded into the program. Lansing's busing initiative was not popular in many quarters-five of its supporters on the Board of Education were recalled in a special election- and Earvin was desolate at the idea of playing for Everett, not least because the school had barely made a ripple in basketball. Moreover, his two older brothers, Quincy and Larry, had had bad experiences there. Quincy witnessed protests and a few brick-throwing incidents, and when Larry was cut from the varsity basketball team, he was convinced the decision was racially motivated. (Larry told the coach, George Fox, that his little brother would never play for him.) Johnson's parents, Earvin Sr. and Christine, were concerned enough that they wrote a letter to the school board asking them to grant Earvin a waiver so he could go to Sexton. The request was denied. They considered having Earvin bunk up with friends who lived within Sexton's jurisdiction before deciding that he was better off living at home and going to Everett.

"I was upset," Earvin said in 1977. "I wanted to go to Sexton. All the dudes I played with went to Sexton. I went to every Sexton game. I was a Sexton man, and then they came up with this busing thing."

Fox recalls, "It was very controversial. Racial tension ran high. The white kids didn't want them there, and the black kids didn't want to be there."

Such was the breach that Earvin stepped into when he began his sophomore year at Everett in the fall of 1974. (Like all of the city's high schools, Everett included grades ten through twelve.) During an early basketball practice, Johnson grew livid when an older white teammate appeared to be refusing to pass him the ball. Fox had to restrain Earvin from going after the player. Johnson also recalled an instance when some black female students were, in his view, unfairly cut from the cheerleading squad. He and the other black basketball players threatened to boycott practice until the girls were admitted.

Earvin also struggled academically at first. His feelings of inadequacy were agitated by a school security guard whom the students referred to as John the Narc. According to Earvin, John made a habit of disparaging him, telling him he would never amount to anything. As Johnson wrote in his autobiography, My Life, "John the Narc would be shocked to hear it, but I turned him from my enemy into my biggest motivator. Starting in eleventh grade, I worked harder at school than at basketball."

A tipping point in his relationship with Coach Fox came early during Johnson's sophomore season. The junior varsity coach had discovered after a practice that his keys were missing. When he told the players he thought one of them had stolen the keys, it led to a contentious meeting between parents and the school's administration. The meeting ended with plenty of bad feelings but no resolution. Afterward, Fox discreetly approached Johnson and asked him to intervene. "Earvin, you know who's got those keys," he said. "Just get 'em back for us." The next day, Earvin brought Fox the keys. The coach never spoke another word about it.

"We were worried because those kids were going to boycott practice, Earvin included," Fox says. "That helped my relations with Earvin. We accused the right kid, but we never told who it was. We just dropped it, and Earvin respected us for not talking about it."

When Fox first saw Johnson play in junior high school, he wondered why such a big player spent all his time roaming the perimeter. The answer dawned on him the summer before Earvin came to Everett, when Fox organized exhibitions against high school teams from around the state. He thought his young players would take a few lumps, but with Johnson in the fold, Everett dominated by huge margins. Fox realized that his oversized new arrival was by far his team's best ball handler and passer. As unconventional as it seemed, he decided to let Johnson continue to roam the perimeter as well as lead the fast break. "Coach Fox is the one who told him to dribble that basketball," says Jay Vincent, Johnson's rival at Lansing's Eastern High School and later his teammate at Michigan State. "I don't know if there were too many coaches who would let a six-foot-eight guy do that at the time. If he had said get inside and stop dribbling, it would have been a totally different Magic Johnson."

The basketball court also provided a forum to sort out conflicts. For example, Fox had a routine of ending practice with a conditioning drill called a rundown. The players had to trot at a respectable pace, with each player lasting as long as he could until there was only one player left. Johnson was usually the last man standing, but one day a white senior named Randy Shumway told Fox he intended to win. "There's no way," Fox said. "You can't stay with him."

Sure enough, after the other players dropped out, Johnson and Shumway were the only two still running. As they exhausted themselves, the two eventually agreed to call it a tie and walked over to Fox with their arms around each other's shoulders. "I almost cried," Fox says.

Once the high school season began, Johnson made his mark. During a game against conference favorite Parkside High in early January, he poured in 36 points and had 18 rebounds and 16 assists in a 19-point win. That was the second time that Fred Stabley Jr., a young reporter from the State Journal, had seen Johnson play. When Stabley interviewed Earvin afterward, he suggested that the youngster needed a flashy nickname to match his dynamic skills. "The Big E is taken by Elvin Hayes, and Julius Erving is Dr. J," Stabley said. "How about if I call you 'Magic'?"

Surrounded by his friends, Johnson was a little embarrassed at the question. "That's fine with me, Mr. Stabley," he said. When Stabley's story appeared in the next day's paper under the headline "Everett Crushes Parkside. Johnson Powers 80-61 Romp," the lead sentence read: "Earvin 'Magic' Johnson sauntered over to the bench, a smile covering his youthful face, and slapped the hands of each one of his teammates."

Stabley continued to use the nickname during his game accounts, and after a few months it took hold. If it added to Earvin's burgeoning celebrity, that was also fine with him. He actually enjoyed standing around after games and signing autographs. He would even sign while sitting in the bleachers before his games started. "I remember one night we were at Grand Ridge, which is pretty much an all-white school. It was the end of the third quarter of the jayvee game, and he's still up there signing autographs," Fox says. "Parents, too. They all took a liking to him. I just went up and I said, 'Folks, I'm sorry, we gotta get him down to the locker room.' And he apologized to them. That's the way he was."

Though Johnson mostly socialized with his black friends who went to Sexton, he also attended quite a few parties thrown by his classmates at Everett-sometimes on the same night. Wherever he was, he often took control of the music using the same authority with which he orchestrated a fast break. "He'd go, 'All right, this is E. J. the Deejay, bringing it to you live from Lansing,' " says Jamie Huffman, Johnson's teammate at Everett. "He liked the spotlight and he liked the ladies. To me, he just always seemed older than he was."

"Going to Everett over Sexton helped Earvin down the road. I'm convinced of that," Fox says. "He learned how to deal with racial problems. He mingled with white kids; he dated white girls if the truth be known, and nobody seemed to mind. He'd have been a different person at Sexton."

Not surprisingly, Earvin was also a big a hit with the local basketball establishment. He was in seventh grade when he was first befriended by Charles Tucker, a psychiatrist and counselor in the Lansing school system. Tucker was a gym rat who played a year and a half in the American Basketball Association and knew all the good ballplayers in town, including the guys at Michigan State. As Earvin got older, Tucker introduced him to some of his professional friends, such as Darryl Dawkins and George Gervin. Tucker soon became a close confidant of Johnson's parents and was the family's conduit to the outside world during Magic's recruitment.

Earvin also had an open invitation to play pickup games with the Michigan State players. Even though he was much younger than the college guys, he shined in those workouts. He sent tongues wagging one day during the summer between his sophomore and junior years when he dunked over Lindsay Hairston, who at the time was one of the best shot-blockers in the Big Ten. On another occasion, during his senior year, Earvin showed up with his right hand wrapped because of an injury. He still dominated play using mostly his left. He became especially close with Michigan State's best player, Terry Fur-low, who attended many of Earvin's high school games and took him to a few parties.

Johnson kept his hand in a variety of extracurricular activities at Everett, including the student newspaper. When a reporter from the Detroit News Sunday Magazine asked Johnson what he would write about himself, he replied, "I'd write that he likes to get to know people. He's a fun person to talk to. He loves to spend money. He's an outgoing person. He loves to sit down and talk, talk, talk. I guess it would be a long story. You'd probably have to put it in a book."

If anything, Johnson was too enamored of all the attention. His eagerness to please often led him to be overextended. His standard solution was to blow off his obligations without explanation or apology. "The problem with Earvin is he can't say no to anyone," Fox says.

"It was easier for him not to go somewhere than to say no. He stood up a lot of people that way. Then they'd call me up and say, 'Where's Earvin? He was supposed to be here tonight.' "

Johnson was not about to assume a lower profile after arriving at Michigan State in the fall of 1977. He could often be spotted driving around campus in his long brown Buick "deuce-and-a-quarter" convertible, blasting his music for all the world to hear. Just like he did at parties, he seized control of the music that was played in the Spartans' locker room. ("Magic Man" by Heart was a favorite selection.) Two nights a week, he brought his "E. J. the Deejay" act to an off-campus student disco called Bonnie & Clyde's. "People are stopping me to sign autographs for their little brothers or themselves," he marveled that November. "The first day girls just kept coming to my room to say hi and they're glad I came here. When I walk into a classroom I can hear 'em saying, 'That must be Earvin.' They're whispering about me. It's nice because they're behind us one hundred percent."

Michigan State's head basketball coach, Jud Heathcote, encountered similar problems to those George Fox had faced whenever Johnson would skip out on a promise he had made to appear somewhere. "I finally had to tell Earvin [that] you can't tell people you're gonna be there and then not be there," Heathcote says. "To say that he was sorry he didn't show up wouldn't be true. He was concerned he had to be there, but he didn't feel an obligation he had to. He got better at that, but never completely where you knew he'd be someplace he said he would be."

Under most circumstances, all this attention being directed at a freshman would cause jealousy in the locker room. By all accounts, however, that was rarely the case with the Spartans. There were several reasons for this. In the first place, before Johnson arrived, Michigan State had not won anything significant in a long, long time. The upperclassmen had gone 26-28 the previous two seasons, and they ached to play for a winner. "That superseded everything else," says Greg Kelser, a small forward who had been the team's leading scorer and rebounder the year before Johnson arrived. "I had proven that I could play at that level, but for us to get recognition we had to win. We knew with Earvin, the wins would come. He and I clicked right from the very beginning."

It also helped that the Spartans' locker room was filled with players who did not mind playing supporting roles. The player with the most reason to be jealous was Kelser, a lithe six-foot-seven athlete whom Indiana University coach Bob Knight had called the best forward in the Big Ten. Kelser, however, was a reserved, cerebral kid who, as the son of a military man, was not inclined to let his ego hurt the esprit de corps. Jay Vincent, Johnson's roommate and fellow freshman, had gotten used to playing in Magic's prodigious shadow throughout high school, and he was plenty happy to let Johnson take on the role of vocal leader. Terry Donnelly was a lightly recruited six foot-two guard from St. Louis who says he felt like he had "won the basketball" lottery when Johnson showed up. The sixth man, six-foot seven sophomore Ron Charles, was a native of the Virgin Islands who brought a laid-back Caribbean sensibility to the whole circus.

But the biggest reason why Johnson's teammates didn't resent his fame was that they genuinely liked him. He treated them with respect, regardless of who they were or how many minutes they played. He hung out with them socially and invited them home to feast on his mother's cooking. "He did not make you feel that he was the superstar and you were the sub," says Mike Brkovich, a six-foot-four guard from Windsor, Ontario. "He joked around with you; he had time for you; he was an ordinary guy in a lot of ways. All the guys on the floor of his dorm room became friends with him. For the two years I played with him, I never once thought Earvin was a prima donna."

Showing how sensitive he could be to his teammates' egos, midway through his freshman year Johnson approached Mick McCabe, a writer for the Detroit Free Press, and suggested he write a story about the team's senior captain, Bob Chapman. "I've been around a lot of arrogant players, and Magic was not one of them," Jay Vincent says. "His parents would have never let him get like that."

Nowhere was Magic more magnanimous than on the court. His entire approach to the game centered on the goal of getting other people to score; he looked for his own shot only when the team really needed him to. He was just as masterful at dishing out confidence. "He had this aura about him that he could get guys to do things they didn't think they were capable of doing," says Edgar Wilson, a former Spartan forward who was a graduate assistant during Magic's freshman year. "He'd set someone else up to score and then pat 'em on the back and say, 'That's what I'm talkin' about!' Those were his favorite words." Adds Brkovich, "There were times in practice where he could take four scrubs and beat the starting five. He just got you going and got you believing in yourself."

On one particularly hot day, Heathcote was putting the players through a full-court, four-on-four drill that was meant to improve their conditioning. Midway through the exercise, Mike Longaker, who was then a sophomore, staggered over to the sidelines and vomited. "As soon as I was done, he grabbed me by the shorts and said, 'Come on, come on, let's go,' " Longaker says. "I remember thinking, this guy is incredibly driven."

Heathcote noticed that, too. "I've always said, not only is Earvin the best player I've ever coached, he's the best player to coach I've ever coached," Heathcote says. "All he cared about was winning."

That extended to all manner of competition. When Johnson was sitting in the training room one day where he and Longaker were getting their ankles wrapped, Longaker balled up a wad of tape and tossed it left-handed into a garbage can across the room. "I can do that," Magic said, whereupon he fished the tape out of the garbage, returned to his own table, and attempted the shot until he made it.

Nor was he shy about wielding the sharper edges of leadership. Midway through Johnson's freshman year, Kelser attempted a careless hook shot toward the end of an 82-70 win at Illinois. "Greg, don't take that shot," Johnson barked. Afterward, Kelser confronted Magic in the locker room and asked, "What's your problem?"

"I was just trying to win the game," Johnson replied.

(Years later, during an NBA game between Kelser's Seattle SuperSonics and Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers, Kelser was whistled for a foul and slammed the ball down in anger. Johnson dashed over to a referee and yelled, "Tech! Tech!" When Kelser returned to the bench, one of his teammates leaned over and said, "I thought he was your boy.")

In September 1978, the Spartans took a twelve-day trip to Brazil, where they played in an international tournament, winning the gold medal over a Brazilian team that featured a dazzling sharpshooting guard named Oscar Schmidt. When the Spartans returned to campus, word quickly spread among the players that while they were gone, a hotshot freshman named Rob Gonzalez, a highly recruited six-foot seven forward from Detroit, was bragging during pickup games that he was going to be a big-time star right away. Heathcote had instructed his players to take a few days off after the tournament because he was worried they were worn out, but when Johnson heard of Gonzalez's exploits, he grabbed his sneakers and his teammates and headed over to Jenison Fieldhouse. In game after game, Johnson humiliated the freshman, repeatedly beating him one-on-one and talking trash all the while. Gonzalez was barely a factor in the Spartans' rotation that season, and Kelser, for one, believed it was because Johnson had so badly squashed his confidence.

Magic, however, was all smiles for Lane Stewart, the Sports Illustrated photographer who came to town a few days before the start of practice. Stewart prepared for the photo shoot by spending several hours that morning with his assistant hanging rolls of white paper behind a basket to serve as a backdrop. Then he went into the locker room, where Johnson was getting dressed in the formal clothes. He sat next to Johnson and explained what they wanted to accomplish during the session. "The expression on your face should be, 'Gee, Mom, isn't this the silliest thing I have ever done?' " Stewart told him. Johnson smiled and assured Stewart he understood.

When Johnson came onto the court, Stewart wanted to begin by taking a few pictures of him using Polaroid film. That would give Stewart a chance to see how the background and lighting worked against Johnson's face before switching to regular film. He asked Johnson to stand underneath the backboard, then jump up and place the ball in the basket. When Stewart looked at the Polaroid film, he was amazed. "It was perfect," Stewart says. "If we wanted to use that for the cover, we could have. He had great control over his body, but also over his expression. The whole concept could have been ruined with the wrong expression, but Magic's charisma really came through to the camera."

Johnson then spent well over an hour repeatedly jumping and dunking while Stewart snapped almost two hundred pictures. Not once did Stewart think Johnson was getting tired or growing impatient with the shoot. When it was over, Stewart said to his assistant, "If we could sign that kid to a personal contract, we'd be millionaires." The issue hit the newsstands in November, with the cover showing a leaping Johnson laying the ball into the hoop with his arms stretched, his legs splayed, and his megawatt smile beaming for all the world to see. The heading read, "The Super Sophs: Michigan State's Classy Earvin Johnson." He was so excited he went to a few stores in East Lansing just to see what the magazine looked like on the shelves.

Yet when it came to predicting the national champions, Sports Illustrated, like most everyone else, chose Duke, the previous year's runner-up. The magazine placed the Spartans fourth in its preseason rankings. The Associated Press had them seventh. Lofty praise, to be sure, but for the Spartans' photogenic superstar, it was not lofty enough. "One of the reasons I [came] to Michigan State was that I love to be the underdog and rise to the occasion," he said. With the occasion of a new season upon him, Earvin Johnson was ready to continue his ascent.

From When March Went Mad, by Seth Davis. Reprinted by arrangement of Henry Holt and Company.

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