Friday, March 13, 2009

Basketball Book Notes

It's a big month for basketball book coverage on The Painted Area, as we've already previewed David Falk's new book The Bald Truth and reviewed Seth Davis's new book When March Went Mad, on the Bird-Magic 1979 NCAA Championship game.

Last fall, we offered a preview of basketball books for '08-09 in general, and we've picked up a few odds & ends that we wanted to add to that list. Here we go:

New Ric Bucher Book
On a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, ESPN's Ric Bucher noted that he was working on a book that offered "an inside look at various jobs around the league," and said that he had spent time with a GM right at the trade deadline.

I think this book has the promise to be pretty good, as it sounds like Bucher might have gotten the access to really see the details of how the sausage is made in terms of how trades are made, or how they fall apart, among other things. I would also say that I think this type of longform reporting/storytelling is a strength of Bucher's, as I also thought he did a nice job of building the narrative of Yao Ming's life as the center's ghostwriter in Yao: A Life in Two Worlds. Bucher said his new book should be out in late 2009.

Red and Me, Bill Russell
I'm not sure how we missed this one last fall, but Bill Russell is writing a book about his friendship with his longtime Celtics coach, the late Red Auerbach, which is due out in May.

In a statement, Russell said:
    "Arnold Jacob Auerbach passed on Oct. 28, 2006 - almost 50 years from when I joined his Boston Celtics. I felt a tremendous sense of loss, a huge void in my life. There was an empty space in my psyche where a special person had been. I thought about that at Red's funeral. And the fact that there was no logical reason why we ever should've become friends, because we came from such diverse places. I thought about how much I missed his friendship."
It will be interesting to see if Russell has more to add to the Auerbach discourse at this point, after Let Me Tell You a Story, the fine book that John Feinstein wrote with Red, plus a few bios and autobios which have been written about the Celtics patriarch.

We're going to give Russ the benefit of the doubt for now, since he penned two of the most interesting basketball autobiographies ever in Go Up For Glory and Second Wind, and also, 20 Second Timeout really liked the TV show of the same name which airs on NBA TV from time to time.

Logo: The Life and Legend of Jerry West, Roland Lazenby
The prolific Mr. Lazenby, he of The Show, the Lakers oral history, and Blood on the Horns, about the "Last Dance" Bulls of 1997-98, among many others, is now working on a biography of Jerry West which is scheduled to be released in late '09.

I found Lazenby's Twitter feed somehow, and this was the most notable entry related to the book:
    # Still writing furiously on the Jerry West book. Writing about cutting the heads off chickens with an ax and eating Sunday dinner.12:28 PM Jan 14th from web
I'm going to assume that this is an anecdote from the book, and not how Roland prepares his own Sunday feast.

Lazenby will be in competition with West himself, who is writing an autobiography which is scheduled to be published in 2010.

Ball Don't Lie, Matt de la Pena
Back in 2007, we posted an entry suggesting that we may be in a new golden age of basketball books, and listed about 30 intriguing basketball books released in the 2004-07 timeframe.

The reader comments made it clear to me that the key books on which I screwed up in omitting were Rus Bradburd's Paddy on the Hardwood and Matt de la Pena's Ball Don't Lie - both of which enjoyed fairly rhapsodic reader reviews on their respective Amazon pages.

Well, I just finished with Ball Don't Lie, and it really was outstanding. It's a novel about a foster kid in L.A. named Sticky with an intense love of the game. Sticky is trying to make his way in the world, and even though he's white, the main place he finds family is among the African-American ballers with whom he plays pick-up hoops. Those pick-up scenes are a core element in the book, and the dialogue and action really couldn't be more pitch-perfect. As Antawn Jamison was quoted in a book blurb, "I have never before seen blacktop ball depicted so well. In this novel, you will find its flash, its power, and its elegance without chains. This is powerful stuff."

Reader Spencer commented on our original post that "BDL is quite possibly one of the more authentic basketball reads of the millennium. The story goes much deeper than hoops. It focuses on ascribed status and the challenge of constructing meaning out of a difficult life." After reading ourselves, we can say that all that is accurate. Ball Don't Lie is technically classified as a "Young Adult" novel, but it really is readable for adults as well.

The story has some grounding in the life of de la Pena, who played point guard for Pacific and did a lot of pick-up balling at a gym in Balboa Park in San Diego. Dime had a nice interview with de la Pena back in 2005 which can be found here.

There is a movie version of Ball Don't Lie, starring Grayson "The Professor" Boucher of And 1 fame in the lead role, plus Ludacris, Nick Cannon and Rosanna Arquette and, according to IMDb, appearances by Al Jefferson and Delonte West.

De la Pena's own web site says that, "Ball Don't Lie the movie set to be released in limited theaters June 5th. The film has also teamed with Amazon and IMDB as first VOD release."

An early review of the movie from the film-festival circuit is lukewarm. I'd definitely recommend reading the book first.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I Got Your Madness Right Here

If you see a better buzzer-beater this March than this, please let us know:

And this is after D-Wade hit a 35-footer to close the first half, and another three-pointer with :11 left in the 4th quarter to send things to overtime, mind you. On a 48-6-12 night, to boot. We're just saying.

It's about that time of year when the average American Joe Sports Fan will rhapsodize ad nauseam about how superior the college game is to the pros because the kids are just so scrappy and, you know, they cry on the court before the game is over and generally just play so much harder than those NBA players who don't give a damn.

Meanwhile, the best basketball in the world during March Madness will continue to be played in the NBA even in lil ol' regular-season games - after the players have long since stopped caring, right? - as it was in 2006 when the LeBron (47-12-10) v. D-Wade (44-8-9) game for the ages was far, far better than the Final Four games played later that day, and in 2007, when the 129-127 2OT Suns-Mavs classic (when they had the top two records in the league) on the eve of the tournament was easily the best basketball game that month.

Even the NBA buzzer-beaters have been comparable in March! I'd argue that this J-Rich coast-to-coast spinner in March, 2006 was the finest of that month:

And Rasheed sending a game to OT from 60 feet away has to qualify as one of the best of March, 2007:

We try to celebrate basketball in all its forms here at TPA, we'll be happy to watch plenty of tournament action this March as usual, and we might even make it down to Portland for what would be about the 10th time we've attended the Tournament in person in our lifetime.

But, in this era when the talent level - and by extension, the quality of play - in the college game is at an all-time low, March is increasingly the month when the college game is overrated and the pro game is underrated more than any other, in the eyes of fans and media.


It's with that preamble that we segue into the head-scratcher of an article, titled "The Year NBA Teams Quit Early: Why Revenue Concerns, Bloated Contracts and Dreams of LeBron Are Quashing Competition," which launched expanded sports coverage in the Wall Street Journal last week.

On balance, we're thrilled to hear that the WSJ is digging deeper into sports. They are long-established as a gold standard of American journalism, and offer the prospect of more smart sports coverage on the horizon, which is of course always welcome. But this first lead NBA piece, by Matthew Futterman, frankly just doesn't make much logical sense.

The main premise of the story is that five teams have a chance to win this year's championship, and the other 25 have basically given up, in some degree due to the economy, and that's the story of the NBA this season. It just seemed like an odd way to headline an NBA season which, to us, looks increasingly extraordinary.

- We have four teams - L.A. Lakers, Cleveland, Boston, Orlando - on pace for 60+ wins (which hasn't happened since the last Jordan Bulls year of 1997-98), with the wily Spurs hanging around, and the Jazz and Rockets charging up the standings.

- We have the likely prospect of either another installment in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry or Kobe v LeBron - each possibly bringing in 65-win teams - in the Finals. We may get a LeBron v D-Wade series. We might get conference finals of Celtics-Cavs and Lakers-Spurs. The 2009 NBA Playoffs have the potential to be mind-blowingly compelling and competitive.

- On top of that, we have four players who are playing at an extraordinarily high level in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, with Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan not too far behind.

There are three players with PERs of 29.0 or higher for the first time since steals and TOs were first tracked in 1973-74. It has arguably been the greatest combined performance by multiple players since Jordan, Barkley, Olajuwon, Ewing and Robinson were all at near-peak performance in 1992-93, which just happened to be the season which had the greatest playoffs ever, in our opinion.

- Let's take a quick look at the Big 6, including some of the ridiculous numbers they've put recently:

- 31.1 PER (challenging MJ's 31.7 in '87-88 as the best PER ever)
- Averaging 28.1 pts, 7.4 reb., 7.0 ast, which translates to 40.1 pts, 10.3 reb, 10.0 ast at the pace of the 1961-62 season, when the Big O averaged his triple-double.
- Had a 34-7-14 on Jan. 21, a 52-9-11 on Feb. 4, and a 55-5-9 on Feb. 20.

- 30.4 PER
- Averaging 29.7 pts, 5.1 reb., 7.7 ast.
- Averaging 36.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 10.8 assists since the All-Star Break!!! That is out-of-your-mind basketball.
- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after last night's game, "Mr. Dwyane Tyrone Wade Jr., if he's not legitimately considered for an MVP candidate, I don't know what he needs to do." And the crazy thing is that, as right as E-Spoel is, and as ridiculous as D-Wade is playing, he really has a very slim shot at the MVP given what LeBron is doing.
- Had a 50-5-5 on Feb. 22, a 31-7-16 on Feb. 24, a 46-8-10 on Feb. 28, a 35-6-16 on Mar. 4, a 48-6-12 last night.

- 29.0 PER
- Averaging 21.4 pts, 5.3 reb., 11.1 ast., 2.8 stl.
- Had a 32-3-15 vs. LAL on Jan. 6, a 33-10-11-7 stl on Jan. 14, a 27-10-15-7 stl on Jan. 26, a 36-6-10 on Feb. 18.

- 25.2 PER
- Averaging 28.0 pts, 5.4 reb., 4.9 ast. with career-highs at .472 FG and .870 FT.
- Had a 36-7-13 on Jan. 9, a 28-13-11 on Jan. 16, 61 pts on Feb. 2, and 49 pts/11 reb on Mar. 1.

- 25.7 PER
- Averaging 21.0 pts, 14.0 reb., 2.9 blk. with .568 FG.
- Had a 25-20 on Jan. 16 vs. LAL, a 30-16 on Feb. 8, a 45-19-8 blk on Feb. 17, a 32-17 on Feb. 22, and 24-21-4 blk on Feb. 25.

- 24.9 PER
- Averaging 21.0 pts, 11.1 reb., and a career-high 3.9 ast.
- Had a 30-15-5-4 blk on Jan. 23, a 32-15-5 on Feb. 2.

Note that all of the game lines I cited have occurred since Jan. 1. That's what's knocking me out - it's getting to the point where it takes an ungodly stat line to get my attention each morning, with guys having 30+ pt/10+ ast games and beyond so commonly. What these guys are doing on a regular basis is nothing short of staggering.

All of this is to say that the idea that this is "The Year The NBA Quit Early" is ridiculous. It's "The Year That An Abnormal Number of NBA Teams and Players Performed at a Abnormally High Level." Not too much of a ring to it, I know, but the bottom line is that we are in an NBA golden age, folks. Savor it.


We have a few more nits to pick with Futterman:
1. Having 5 teams with a legitimate shot at the title by this time of year is actually pretty good. You can argue with Bill James about whether that's a good thing, but we have no problem with it. But the biggest point is that 5 teams in title contention at this point is reasonably consistent with past years. There's nothing special about 2008-09 in that regard.

This doesn't mean that the rest of the league has given up. You've got a huge logjam between 3 and 7 in the West. The Jazz and Rockets are making moves and seem poised to try to take the next step in the playoffs, the Blazers are trying to make a name for themselves, nobody is going to want a piece of D-Wade and the Heat in the playoffs, the Bobcats are making a move in what promises to be a wild scramble for the 8 spot in the East (did the Heat and Bulls look like they were trying last night?), the young Thunder have been working to improve as the season rolls on, yada yada yada.

All of this is to say that there are lots of reasons why teams keep competing even if they are not in championship contention in a given season, most notably to take a step in the direction of contention in future years. Will there be some tanking this year? Sure, just like any other year (probably less so, though, since this year's Draft class looks weak). But again, it's mostly like any other year from a competitive standpoint, across the entirety of the league.

2. Futterman goes on to write:
    For the first time in NBA history, team owners, executives, and fans in numerous markets say they have resigned themselves to the idea that their teams are not going to be competitive this season and that, given the state of the economy, they could not make the sorts of expensive moves that would help them improve. "We all want to win, but we have to be aware of the uncertainty of our future revenue," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

    Beyond the obvious disappointment for fans, what's most troubling about this situation is that for the first time in the long history of North American professional sports, the majority of the teams in one league have no financial incentive to improve. Most will be better off financially if they do nothing, and in many cases, will fare even better if they make personnel moves that are certain to make them worse.
It's comically shortsighted to think that finances have not affected personnel decisions in pro sports before now. In fact, it actually *has* been the case that finances have affected personnel for most of the "long history of North American professional sports."

Go back and research how the old Kansas City A's basically served as a farm system for the New York Yankees back in the day. Want an NBA example? How about the fact that Celtics owner Walter Brown convinced the Rochester Royals not to draft Bill Russell in 1956 by promising to bring the Ice Capades cash cow to fill the arena in Rochester, clearing the way for Boston to draft him at no. 2.

The examples of economics affecting competitive balance in pro sports history go on and on and on. Even with the current economic crisis causing teams to manage costs cautiously, the competitive balance across the NBA is still at a relatively historic high, overall.

3. Now, I'm not in denial - I understand that the economy *is* having an impact on NBA transactions, and I would have understood if Futterman had used the example of how New Orleans nearly traded away its championship aspirations due to economics with the rescinded Tyson Chandler trade. Valid point, valid story.

However, Futterman used three curious examples to explain how economics were affecting personnel decisions:

  • He claimed no one wanted to take on Vince Carter's hefty contract.
  • He noted how the Pistons suffered on the court after trading Billups for Iverson, though they were saving money because AI's deal expires this summer while Chauncey's still has years to run.
  • He also noted how the Knicks are clearing payroll with their eyes on the 2010 free-agent class headlined by LeBron.

I really don't want to spend too much time on these because anyone who follows the league at all can see how flawed these examples are, and we're 90,000 words in as it is, but for the record:

Vince. No one wanted Vince primarily because he's already 32 with an expensive contract that runs until he's 34, when he'll be in decline. This is a bad contract in any economy. The Portland Trail Blazers were rumored to have plenty of chances to grab Vince, and they are not a team that's hamstrung by the economy. They (presumably) didn't want a declining player (with a reputation for being soft, at that) as they start to enter championship contention.

Pistons. Again, this is basic sound team-building in any economy. You have a promising young point guard, so trade the older point guard with a long contract for an expiring contract, and start rebuilding the team sooner rather than later. A classic unsentimental, smart Joe Dumars move, and I think that ripping off the band-aid like this, so to speak, will get the Pistons back into contention more quickly than the slow-bleeding declines of the Mavericks and Suns.

Knicks. After spending ridiculously in perpetual pursuit of a quick fix for the last decade, the Knicks are long overdue to rebuild in a sensible manner. Futterman quoted Donnie Walsh as saying, "It's what you have to do if you want to be a contending team." It's true - and it has nothing to do with the current economy. New York remains one of the league's richest teams. They are rebuilding this way by choice, not because of the world's very legitimate and increasingly scary economic woes.

Alright, enough words for tonight. Good night.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Obligatory D3 Tourney Post

It's once again time for the college basketball tournament for true student-athletes, as the Division III tourney gets under way Thursday and Friday on small-college campuses around the country. is the definitive source for information, as always.

Longtime Painted Area readers know that we have a soft spot for the D3 game, with the 2007 national championship won by the alma mater being a particular highlight.

Here's this year's bracket (pdf). The midwestern section of the bracket is brutal as usual, as it includes the top 5 teams in the country (no kidding) - no. 1 (and 27-0) St. Thomas (MN), defending-champion no. 2 Washington U. (MO), no. 3 Wheaton (IL), no. 4 WI-Stevens Point and no. 5 WI-Platteville.

The national championship will be held once again in Salem, Va., at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 21. Last year's championship game was carried live on CSTV (now CBS College Sports).

In the Pick 'Em bracket game, our overall philosophy remains similar:
1. Consult the computerized Massey Ratings religiously.
2. Pick alma mater to win all games which are reasonable and even some which are unreasonable (I think our string of three straight Final Fours is coming to an end, but that's not going to stop me from predicting it...).
3. When in doubt, pick the team from Wisconsin (Wisc. teams have won seven of the last 20 titles [past champions], and play in the toughest conferences in the country).

For my Final Four, I've got Amherst (alma mater of Ken "The White Shadow" Howard), Ithaca, John Carroll (alma mater of the late Tim Russert and new Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels) and UW-Stevens Point (alma mater of Terry Porter).

I'm taking Amherst over Ithaca, and UW-Stevens Point over John Carroll, and then I'm going with the Pointers to win their third title of the decade (they also won in 2004 and 2005). Who knows, maybe we'd see TP in Salem to support his Pointers - he's got some free time currently! Alright, enough. Let's get back to the League.


Also see: Review of Seth Davis' new book When March Went Mad, about the Magic-Bird '79 NCAA Championship

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 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


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 - 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 - it's a great read.


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.


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.


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.


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: