RTC Book Club: “When March Went Mad”

Posted by nvr1983 on March 26th, 2009

With today being the 30th anniversary of the 1979 national championship game, I figured I would finally release my long-awaited review of “When March Went Mad” by Seth Davis. Seth and his publisher were also nice enough to grant us an interview which is right after the review.

If you are a regular reader of our site, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the 1979 NCAA championship game, which featured Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and is widely cited as the seminal moment out of which modern basketball was born. Although I don’t profess to be a scholar of that game, I always thought my knowledge of the major moments in modern college basketball history (since the 1960s) was pretty respectable so when I received an e-mail for an advance copy of a book about the topic I wasn’t particularly excited (outside of the fact that I had never received an e-mail like that before). When I read through the e-mail and saw that Seth Davis, one of my favorite college basketball writers and a regular reader of Rush the Court (about 2/3 the way down), had written the book I became a little more intrigued so I decided to give it a shot.


One of the first things I realized when I started reading the book was that despite the significance of the game there has not been a lot written about it. The game and the events leading up to it lack the literary canon of some of the other important events in college basketball history such as the John Wooden era and the Texas WesternKentucky game. In fact, most of my knowledge from the game comes from watching documentaries about Bird and Magic that make the actual championship game seem more like it was simply foreshadowing their great NBA careers rather than the spectacle that it was at the time. In the book Seth Davis goes into detail discussing the lives of both legendary players and provides the reader with background information that helps explain a lot about their personalities and the way they approached the game. Davis traces Magic’s life story including details about how he ended up at Everett High School instead of his original school (and preferred choice) J.W. Sexton High School as a result of busing mandates in East Lansing, MI. He also examines details of Bird’s life that the casual fan (or one outside of Boston–hard to say since I live here) might not be aware of such as his distrust of outsiders and almost pathological shyness early in his career.

Even with all the insight into these two legends, what Davis does that may be of more benefit to the serious basketball fan is illuminate the context of the game and tell us more about some of the figures central to the game. One of the most interesting (and perhaps least known figure) is Bill Hodges, who was actually the coach of Bird’s Sycamore team. He goes into detail about how Hodges had to adjust to taking over the keys to a Ferarri (or a Pontiac GTO if Bird had his choice–buy American!) as a rookie coach following Bob King‘s departure for medical reasons. His counterpart (Jud Heathcote) on the Spartans bench was equally fascinating even if his story is well-known.  In addition, Davis (and his assistants) pored through hundreds of hours of tapes watching footage of Michigan State and Indiana State from the 1979 season and detailing the struggles that each team went through during the season. It’s a fascinating read that would certainly be worth your time either during the off-season or during the interminable wait between the Elite 8 games and the Final 4.

I tried to avoid asking Seth the same questions that had been asked in every other interview he had done. You can find those by just doing a simple Google search if you want to read the same thing over and over again.

RTC: At what point in the season did it become Magic vs. Larry sort of like the media was hyping up J.J. Redick vs. Adam Morrison a few years ago? We read in your book that it was actually Orlando Woolridge, not Magic, who finished 2nd in the Player of the Year voting to Larry that year.

SD: Well, it’s an interesting question. It shows that you are kind of looking at it through a 21st century prism and I have often thought that the closest modern day equivalent to this would have been if Morrison and Redick had played for the championship, but you have to remember that in 1979 there was not that kind of media coverage. It wasn’t until you got pretty close to the championship game that people really woke up to what was happening. As I wrote in the book, the story going into the Final 4 was Ray Meyer. That was as big of a story as Magic versus Bird. Only the hardcore basketball aficionados like Dave Kindred of The Washington Post understood how amazing it would be if Magic and Bird actually played against each other. So that to me is really what you take away from it. Things were just so different back then and this game kind of laid the groundwork for everything that came afterwards especially for guys like you and me.

RTC: What were some of the challenges in writing about something that happened 30 years ago? With some quick calculations, I’m guessing you were about 9 or 10 at that time. . .

SD: [Laughter] Three weeks before my 9th birthday. [Ed. Note:  Happy birthday in 3 weeks, Seth.]

RTC: What are your memories of the game? Did you watch it when it happened?

SD: No recollection of watching it. I’m sure it was past my bedtime, but I definitely remember knowing about it and knowing that it was coming. In a way, it’s almost more appropriate that I remember it like that. It really was the hype and excitement and anticipation of it all that really in essence was the story. The game itself was ok, but it wasn’t a classic unbelieveable game. It was the fact that was occuring that actually had everybody spellbound, but no I did not watch the game.

RTC: In the past Bobby Knight has said that he regrets not having warmer to Bird during his brief stay at Indiana. Do you think Larry Bird could have become “Larry Bird” if he had gone to a big-time program right off the bat even if he had that nurturing figure?

SD: I think it would have been very hard for Larry Bird to survive at a big school with a big spotlight. Now from a basketball standpoint and a competitive standpoint I think he would have done well. All of the other parts–the social piece and the academic piece–would have been a challenge for him. Indiana State was perfect for him because the level of competition basketball-wise was very high, but it was a community feeling and that was really what he needed at that time. It’s easy to say that Bird would have done great under Bobby Knight because he would have loved Bird’s competitive toughness and it’s definitely true, but not the Larry Bird of 1976. That Larry Bird needed to be nurtured and needed a father figure. He needed a smaller campus and a smaller community. That’s what Indiana State provided for him.

RTC: I had a question on a “then and now”. One of the things that struck me while I was reading the book was the influence of Charles Tucker during the recruitment on Magic Johnson. How do you think that would have played today with the AAU system and all the corruption that people talk about?

SD: It’s a great question. In a lot of ways, he [Tucker] is kind of a forefather. Charles Tucker was a saint compared to what goes on now. He actually did represent Magic as an agent. There’s no question that he was if not overtly helping out Michigan State then he was definitely an asset for Michigan State. He wasn’t an AAU coach, an agent, or working for agent or sneaker company. Now today maybe that would have happened. Maybe being a basketball guy that he was he might have been savvy enough to use Magic and build an AAU program around him. That wouldn’t have been hard to do at all. One call to George Raveling and he would have had $50,000 in his mailbox. He was that kind of figure, but again that world didn’t exist 30 years ago so that’s not the way it all went down.

RTC: The Magic versus Bird final is kind of viewed as the zenith of college basketball even though it was a relatively rapid progression to the peak which was followed by years of a relatively high plateau. How do you view its trajectory now?

SD: I think college basketball is always on the rise. It’s not necessarily undergoing an explosion, but it’s definitely growing. The NCAA tournament is still growing as a property. This is a very difficult economic environment right now, but the March Madness on Demand component of CBS Sports.com is growing like gangbusters. It is literally defying gravity. You still have schools trying to get into Division 1 to get a piece of that pie. I’m not saying that it’s without its problems, but as a sport as a commercial property it is doing well.

RTC: Two questions about Duke. You were there during the Golden Age of Duke basketball where they got over the hump of being the Buffalo Bills before they were the “Buffalo Bills” to the team that everybody hates. What’s your favorite March memory of that period?

SD: I graduated in 1992 so we called that the Laettner years. In fact, Christian Laettner was from my dorm. I don’t know why, but they have that one dorm on West Campus and most of the athletes in that dorm and Christian Laettner was in that dorm. In fact, Laettner used to come downstairs and kick everyone’s behind on the ping pong table [Ed. Note: What is it with star forwards on Tobacco Road and ping pong?]. Try playing a 6’10” guy at ping pong. It’s impossible. As both a Duke alum and a journalist, I think it’s pretty fair to say watching the 1992 East Regional final against Kentucky is always going to stand out. People will say “were you there?” and no I wasn’t. It certainly would have been cool to be there and it certainly would be cool to tell people now that I was there, but I got to tell you it was pretty cool to be on campus too. We had a good time that night and celebrate it with friends. We went to the two Final 4s as juniors and seniors. I was at the UNLV game. I wasn’t covering it for the student paper. I was in the stands with my friends and it was a lot more fun that way. I got to say those two pretty much stand out. We all went my junior year. You know the Final 4 was in Indianapolis that year and we had a fraternity brother of mine was from Indianapolis. His parents, you know salt-of-the-earth wonderful people, opened up for us and there were literally 30 of us crashing at their house. They couldn’t have been nicer. Just being there with all my friend and the fact they won it was just the cherry on top.

RTC: The next question about Duke is that since that time there has been a backlash against Duke and it has sort of become a point of paranoia for the Duke fans where they think that everybody hates them. Why do think that has happened?

SD: Because they win. It’s the same reason I hate the Yankees. It’s interesting that you pick up the insight of them being the Buffalo Bills. That’s kind of been an interesting transformation for me to witness because I do remember at that point Mike Krzyzewski was this class guy who ran a program the right way. He never cheated. Kids graduated. A great academic school. Nice manners. Great basketball players. Great coach. They had gotten to I think five Final 4s, which is a tremendous achievement and couldn’t win the big one. He was this great sympathetic character like everybody was rooting for him to win one. Then he won one and won another one. And they kept going back and they kept winning. Pretty soon it all kind of turned. To me, I was just getting my hair cut today and the guy who cuts my hair had seen the Duke vs. North Carolina HBO documentary. I was interviewed for that and they showed it. He said “I didn’t realize you went to Duke”. I said “Yeah”. He said “I hate them”. I thought that was the ultimate compliment. It all comes down to winning.

RTC: The last question we have is about the media and blogs. I read in an earlier interview that you mentioned that you read Rush the Court along with a couple other sites. You said that the value added by blogs was digging up the stories, links, and facts that you hadn’t noticed otherwise. What do you think the position is for blogs especially with all these newspapers closing in recent weeks?

SD: Like I said, I think that the value of blogs is the same value that I hope that I would bring or a newspaper writer would bring like a Rick Bozich, Jerry Tipton, or a Lenn Robbins. To me I’m less interested in what somebody thinks about a game that they watch. Now in your situation you guys do some pretty nice round-up stuff where you guys give your opinion, but I always skim through it because I feel like if I missed something then you didn’t. That to me is the value. Now some of these blogs they have to show so much attitude. To me that’s fine. I have nothing against it, but as a consumer and for me to do my job it doesn’t have a lot of value. I’m always looking for information. That’s why I made the comment that to me the best blogs have links to other places. I’m a political junkie and I go to Politco.com where Brad Smith has a blog. Everyday he’ll have a link to 15 things. I may not go to every one, but that to me is the great value. It’s a road map to the web. Like I said, the more the merrier. I think it’s great and the fact that someone like yourself who is going to med school can even have time to do it is mind-boggling to me so more power to you.

nvr1983 (1398 Posts)

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