Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Book Review: When March Went Mad

Since we have reached the month of March, we have a little bit of college basketball coverage coming up here on The Painted Area. As always, we'll try to focus on things which relate back to the pro game whenever possible.

The new book by Seth Davis (studio analyst on CBS' NCAA hoops coverage and college hoops writer for SI.com) called When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball (Times Books, released Tuesday) certainly relates to the League even though its subject is the 1979 NCAA Championship game. That Michigan State-Indiana State matchup, of course, showcased Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and catapulted them on to legendary NBA careers, which in turn helped catapult the NBA out of the gutter to previously unseen new heights.

We've noted in this space previously that we've thought the landscape was wide open for combo biographies of Magic and Larry spanning their inextricably linked careers from the 1979 NCAA finals to the 1992 Dream Team, and 2009 seems to be a good year for this can't-miss subject. Davis has produced a well-researched, well-organized narrative which should stand as an essential telling of a key portion of the Magic-Bird tale: their coming of age as players and young men over the course of their collegiate career, and especially in the 1978-79 season, which culminated with their celebrated meeting on a March evening in Salt Lake City - a game which garnered what are still the highest TV ratings in basketball history, pro or college.

(Also of note: Longtime Boston sportswriter Jackie MacMullan has a joint autobio of sorts with Magic and Larry called When The Game Was Ours scheduled to be released on October 7, according to Chapters.ca.)

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When March Went Mad mainly tracks the '78-79 seasons of the Michigan State Spartans and the Indiana State Sycamores with a parallel narrative. Davis provides character sketches for several figures involved with both teams, but the story revolves around four main characters - Magic and Bird, of course, but also coaches Jud Heathcote (MSU) and Bill Hodges (ISU).

The initial chapters which track the fortuitous circumstances which led Magic and Bird to their respective schools are arguably the most exhilarating read of the entire book, in some ways reminiscent of the feeling of David Remnick's magical book King of the World, which offered a portrait of the early years of Muhammad Ali's career, as he burst on the sporting scene.

As a schoolboy hero in Lansing, home of Michigan State, Magic was always likely to choose the Spartans over Michigan, but he was reticent to commit to Heathcote because he worried the coach was too volatile and controlling. It was Vern Payne - who was at the time head coach at Wayne State after leaving an assistant coaching position with Michigan State because of his uncomfortability with Heathcote - who ultimately assured young Earvin Johnson that Heathcote would make him a better player and that he simply belonged in Lansing.

Meanwhile, the details of Hodges' recruitment of Bird were nothing short of remarkable. Hodges scoured the town of French Lick to track down Bird, and persisted when other coaches wondered if it was worth spending the time trying to persuade an extraordinarily quiet kid who didn't seem to want to give his job picking up garbage around town to go back to college, after he had been scarred by a painful one-month stay at Indiana University.

Hodges ultimately connected with Bird thanks to the small-town Indiana roots they shared, but it all seems like Bird came remarkably close to never returning to college and never resuming his basketball career beyond the recreational level.

An extensive excerpt about Bird's upbringing and recruitment is up on SI.com - here's a taste:
    [Bird's high-school coach Gary] Holland suggested [ISU's assistant coaches Bill Hodges and Stan look for Bird at his grandmother's house. When they got there, however, nobody was home. Holland told them he would try to find Larry another time and promised to pass along the message. Evans suggested to Hodges that they leave. "Aw, hell, let's keep looking," Hodges said. "There can't be too many six-nine kids walking around this town."

    They checked out a local pool hall, but Larry wasn't there. They stopped by the Shell station where a lot of the young folks in town hung out. Larry wasn't there, either. They drove around for a while until Hodges suddenly stopped and said, "There he is." There he was indeed, walking out of a laundromat beside his grandmother. He was carrying a basket of clothes.

    Hodges quickly pulled the car up next to the laundromat, and he and Evans got out and introduced themselves. They told Larry they wanted to talk to him about coming to Indiana State. Larry demurred, saying he didn't have time to talk because he needed to install a fuel pump in his car. Larry spoke quietly and looked at the ground. Hodges thought Larry might have been a little embarrassed at how greasy his hands were.

    The conversation might well have ended then and there had Larry's grandmother, Lizzie Kerns, not stepped in. "These nice men have come all this way to talk to you," she said. "The least you could do is hear what they have to say. Why don't you all come back to my house and you can visit there." Now, if there's one thing Larry Bird wasn't going to do, it was go against the wishes of his Granny Kerns. So they drove back to her house with the coaches following behind. When they got there, Larry told his grandmother that she should go into the house without him. He'd drive away and come back when the coaches were gone. But she wasn't having it. "We raised you better than that," she said. "You already told these men you'd talk to them."

    Hodges and Evans followed them inside and took a seat in the living room while Granny Kerns milled about in the kitchen. Hodges did most of the talking. Having grown up in the small farming community of Zionsville in northern Indiana, he had a lot in common with Larry. They started by talking about Indiana basketball. Hodges told Bird he had played in high school against Rick Mount, a legendary Indiana ballplayer who went on to become an All-American at Purdue. Bird had played against Mount in an AAU game recently, so he knew all about him. They talked about other players around the state. Larry still wouldn't look at Hodges, but he started to relax and open up a bit. Hodges asked Larry what he had been doing. Larry told him about his work for the French Lick street department, including the garbage duty.

    "Do you drive the truck?" Hodges asked.

    "Nah, I just ride on the back," Larry replied with a smile.

    Hodges was trying to figure out a way to steer the conversation back to Larry's recruitment without scaring him off. So he talked about his new job as an assistant coach at Indiana State and his need to find good players. Bird told Hodges he should recruit a kid in town named Kevin Carnes, the older brother of Larry's good buddy Beezer Carnes. Kevin had been the starting point guard on a team at Springs Valley that had won a sectional championship three years before. He was married and had a child, but he was still living in French Lick. "He would have been a really good player if he had gone to college," Larry said. Hodges sensed an opening.

    "You know, Larry," he said, "someday they're gonna say the same thing about you if you don't go to school."

    For the first time all day, Bird looked Hodges straight in the eye. He said nothing.
I highly recommend checking out the rest of this excerpt on SI.com - it's a great read.

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Even though Magic and Michigan State were the victors in the end, Bird and Hodges were the most compelling characters in Davis' story. That's because, while Magic in 1979 was essentially the same gregarious Magic that we've known throughout his Laker career up to today (though perhaps a little immature), Larry Bird in 1979 was in many ways a much different guy than the Bird he became as a professional.

While Bird has certainly always remained true to the core of his Indiana roots, he was just much less refined in 1979, truly the "Hick from French Lick". One of my favorite vignettes was how, as a recruit, Bird and a couple AAU buddies ran the Indiana State varsity off the floor while wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes on a campus visit, even though Hodges offered to find some proper hoop gear.

The entire Magic-Bird narrative as a whole was propelled to a large degree by the fascinating contrasts (and many similarities) between the two players, most obviously in terms of race. One contrast which When March Went Mad focuses on is how Magic was so supremely comfortable with the media attention, while Bird had absolutely zero desire to be in the public eye.

Bird did not speak to the media for much of the season, which became an increasingly big story in itself over the course of the season. Bird's silence created an air of mystery in a much less media-saturated age, and also created a fair amount of backlash from media members who were frustrated by his unaccommodating stance.

The story of Indiana State head coach Bill Hodges, meanwhile, is barely believable, as he was elevated to head coach just days before the start of the season due to a brain aneurysm suffered by his predecessor, Bob King. As a 34-year-old rookie, he led the Sycamores to a 33-1 record and was the consensus national coach of the year... and the reason you've never heard of him is that his coaching career was then largely crushed under the unrealistic expectations that the Bird era had established in Terre Haute.

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When March Went Mad of course includes a thorough re-telling of the championship game itself, punctuated by tales of how Bird's self-confidence shockingly seemed to falter on championship night, while Magic's confidence reigned supreme just a day after he had torched his own team's vaunted zone defense while playing the role of Bird on the scout team in practice. Davis also makes it clear that, to this day, the loss still bugs Bird like no other.

Our main complaint with When March Went Mad is that the nearly 100 interviews that Davis conducted did not include the two main protagonists, Magic and Bird (coaches Heathcote and Hodges were actually the two figures on whom Davis most seemed to rely, though there are certainly a rich variety of voices).

We understand that it was necessary for Davis to avoid over-reliance on the two superstars, whose reflections possibly would have been a bit banal and vanilla as they protected the joint mythology which has been built around them, but still, we would have liked to have gotten a sense of how aware each player was of the other over the course of the season, as well as more of a first-hand taste of their memories of key moments for their own teams over the course of the '78-79 season.

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A couple other things we enjoyed from When March Went Mad:
- An entertaining subplot was how Billy Packer was wreaking havoc even back in 1979. He became persona non grata in Terre Haute after proclaiming on a national NBC telecast early in the season that Indiana State was not worthy of the no. 1 ranking, and believe me, the Sycamore fan base did not let him forget about it.

- Another recurring theme was how different the media landscape was in 1979, months before ESPN was founded. Bird and Magic had only been featured on national TV a combined total of seven times prior to the final, creating a curiosity level which helped drive up the TV ratings. NBC picked up ISU's final '78-79 home game at the last minute for a broadcast to most of the country, which became a bit of an event in itself because Bird had largely not been seen in action, period, by much of the nation.

Here's a highlight reel from that game, in which Bird announced his presence with authority with 49 points and 18 rebounds. Go to the 2:13 mark to watch him a turn a defender completely around with a pass fake:


Related to this, I found it downright amazing how limited the advance scouting was, even in the NCAA Tournament, because of the limited availability of game footage. Penn coach Bob Weinhauer, whose team was devoured by MSU in the national semis after a miracle run, had to rely on just a game tape from a Michigan State-North Carolina game in December for his scouting. Other teams had to rely strictly on word-of-mouth, as they had no first-hand scouting knowledge, either in person or through game film.

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All in all, we fully recommend When March Went Mad, and we hope that there are more Magic and Bird bios ahead. The time is right.

Amazingly, there has not been a bio devoted solely to Magic other than his autobiographical works Magic(1983), Magic's Touch(1989), and My Life(1992), though Gary Smith's 1996 profile in Sports Illustrated, which was also included in Beyond the Game- a collection of Smith's extraordinary work - is outstanding.

Davis did an exceptionally thorough job of documenting the sources he used in his book, and it's clear that Lee David Levine's 1988 biography Bird: The Making of an American Sports Legendwas a valuable source. In flipping through the Indiana State section of that book, it's interesting that Levine depicted Bird as even more coarse and demanding than Davis did, as a guy who would overrule Hodges' strategy suggestions in time-out huddles, for instance.

Other Bird bios include Mark Shaw's Larry Legend and an interesting book from Bird's aunt, Virginia Smith, called Larry Bird: From Valley Hick to Boston Celtic, a memoir of Bird's upbringing which Davis unearthed.

Certainly, both players are included in Celtic- and Laker-wide books such as Jack McCallum's Unfinished Business, Peter May's The Last Banner and The Big Three, Roland Lazenby's The Show and Scott Ostler and Steve Springer's Winnin' Times, among many others, as well. But the time is right for more on the basketball giants alone.

Finally, let's go to the videotape, with a look at the beginning of the national championship game...:


...and the ending, after Indiana State had cut the lead to 7 late:


Here, somewhat randomly, is a 2008 campaign commercial from Bob Heaton, an Indiana State player who ran for state representative (and narrowly lost). Heaton was known as the "Miracle Man" and the commercial includes his two famous clutch shots which helped keep the Sycamores' perfect record intact during the '78-79 season, and earned him his nickname:

Enjoy.

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