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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The men's college basketball tournament that starts today has become big business in recent years, and a new book traces some of its popularity back to a single championship game 30 years ago.

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Unidentified Man (Announcer): NBC Monday Night at the Movies will not be presented this evening so that we may bring you the following NBC Sports exclusive.

INSKEEP: It was a spring night in 1979 when people missed the movie and two superstars played against each other for the first time.

Mr. BRYANT GUMBEL (Sports Announcer): …led by the magic or Earvin Johnson. Johnson's magical hand at the controls of a high powered offense against Larry Bird in a…

INSKEEP: Hear that voice? That was announcer Bryant Gumbel speaking to the millions who had tuned into watch Larry Bird play Magic Johnson, Michigan State against Indiana State. So many people tuned in that no basketball game has had more viewers since. It was, according to the author Seth Davis in the title of his new book, "When March Went Mad."

Mr. SETH DAVIS (Writer): You couldn't have asked for a better dynamic between these two central characters, because 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 more different on so many fundamental levels. The most obvious being race - Magic was black, Larry is white. Larry was extremely introverted and shy, especially at this point of his life. In fact, he went the entire season without even talking to the media.

INSKEEP: Um-hum.

Mr. DAVIS: Hard to imagine a college player pulling that off today or even wanting to, where as Magic…

INSKEEP: Well, you describe a guy who in personal conversation had trouble making eye contact with people.

Mr. DAVIS: Wouldn't look at you - wouldn't look at you, wouldn't talk to you.

INSKEEP: Magic Johnson didn't seem to have trouble making eye contact with anybody.

Mr. DAVIS: Magic Johnson could not get enough of the public adulation and the interaction, loved the sign autographs. He would talk to sports writers until they were out of questions.

INSKEEP: You highlight a striking detail about both of these great players. Obviously, they were both great shooters, they were both great scorers, but you write that maybe the most valuable skill they had was passing to somebody else.

Mr. DAVIS: And this was a time - you have remember this is 1979 where passing was not the thing to do. The dunk had just come back to college basketball a few years earlier and Magic at 6'9" could barely dunk, didn't shoot the ball much from the outside. I mean we're not talking about Michael Jordan and LeBron James and David Thompson who were just freaks of nature. These guys were not great athletes in the sense that we think of athletes. They were just unbelievable basketball players because of the way that they were able to think the game.

INSKEEP: Seth Davis, I want to ask about another part of your story here though. You mentioned these were two larger than life characters, and they certainly went on to become two of the greatest players in the history of basketball, and yet to what extent did television or sports writers - or if we want, the sport industrial complex, which was just then forming - make them larger than life?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, you know, this is still the highest rated game of all time and it will always be the highest rated game of all time. Why? Because in 1979 there were four channels. In 2009, there's 804 channels. So you just have that many more choices. And, you know, just to put into context, you know, this game was played March 26, 1979. ESPN was launched September 7th, 1979. The NBA was at this low ebb, to the point where the NBA finals were not even on live television, they were broadcast on a taped delay.

All these factors were kind of circling overhead. And just to punctuate it, for the NBC telecast, Bryant Gumbel was hosting it and he was standing on the floor and doing his pre-game segment, and he was calling off some Larry Bird highlights and he says to the audience - if you've never seen Larry Bird play, you're in for a treat.

Mr. GUMBEL: He's a big man with the touch of a small guy. He can come up and pass it, get it back, and put it in. Very deft.

Mr. DAVIS: Now if you watched this game, there's a good chance that that was the first time you ever saw either one, or both of these guys, play the game of basketball.

INSKEEP: Well is it just chance that so many institutions that would go on to dominate basketball, or at least make a lot of money off basketball, that they were coming together at this moment?

MR. DAVIS: It's the ultimate chance. I mean, you know, if this game had been played 10 or 15 years later, it still would have been a big deal. I mean, I don't want to overstate it, Steve. I mean we would have gotten here from there, eventually. But it was just a catalytic event, two guys coming together at the precise moment where they could have a maximum impact.

INSKEEP: And television helped them. And I'd like to play a bit of tape here, if I can. This is from a pre-game story before the game begins. There's taped interviews with both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, focusing on their relationship to one another at a previous time when they had played on the same court.

Unidentified Man (Interviewer): You know, a lot of people were surprised yesterday, Larry, when you mentioned that you played ball with Magic Johnson in the World Invitational Tournament.

Mr. LARRY BIRD (Professional Basketball Player): Well, you know, me and Magic played together in that game. And you know, it was funny 'cause Magic is such a great passer, but he wouldn't give me the ball. And you know, I need the ball.

Mr. EARVIN JOHNSON (Professional Basketball Player): I hope he don't think I'm going to pass it to him tonight either. But I thought I passed him the ball. Maybe he forgot it.

INSKEEP: That was a story, as you recount, in which the television executives went out, got the interviews with these two guys, and created the idea of the game as a contest between these two. How did the game itself turn out?

Mr. DAVIS: You know, it turned out okay. It wasn't a great game that ended with a last second shot or a dunk. So in that sense it was actually a bit of a letdown. But it's really gnawed at Larry Bird, that not only did they lose that game, but he did not play well that game, and it really bothers him.

INSKEEP: What tells you now that it still bothers him?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, you know, it's any interview that he's ever given - and it took a little while for Magic and Larry to develop a friendship once they got to the NBA - at first they wouldn't even shake hands before a tip off.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

Mr. DAVIS: But to this day, they're very close. But Magic's always going to have the last word. You know, 'cause whenever Magic won an NBA championship, Larry could always say, I'm going to go get one, next year. But Larry could never get that night back. He had one shot at winning a championship and it still bothers him greatly to this day.

INSKEEP: So you tell the story of this game and what came afterwards, the way the sports world changed, the way that it became a bigger business with a lot more TV channels, a lot more availability in the media - do you regret any way that the sports world has changed?

Mr. DAVIS: A little bit. I mean it pays my mortgage, so I guess I would be the last one to complain about that Steve, now, wouldn't I? So believe me, I'm in favor of it. There was definitely this sense in this game, that there was a little bit of mystery there. Especially with Larry Bird. I mean, you know, he didn't talk to the press and there was a mystique about him.

And 2009 there's no mystery at all, you know. I mean if Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came along today, this is - I mean it quite literally - they would play more often on national television as high school players than they did in their entire college careers. And that's just a fact. I mean high school games are on national TV - and you know what Steve? I love watching them. It's come at a price, but I think it's a price worth paying - and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird have an awful lot to do with that.

INSKEEP: Do you get spellbound by this, year after year?

Mr. DAVIS: I do. I mean it's a joke that this is how I feed my children by watching basketball games. I mean you can imagine - you can imagine, you know, what it's like to be married to me. You know, my wife will come downstairs and I'm sitting on the couch in my boxer shorts, I've got a bag of Doritos in one hand, and the remote control in the other hand, and I say, Honey, I'm working. I'm working, don't bother me. It beats working for a living, Steve, what can I tell you?

INSKEEP: Well, there you go. Seth Davis is the author of "When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball." Thanks very much.

Mr. DAVIS: Oh, it was my pleasure, Steve, thanks.

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INSKEEP: And you can read how the young Magic Johnson and Larry Bird dealt with their fans differently at npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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