Johnson and Bird Went from National Championship to NBA Magic

The Larry Bird-Magic Johnson feud continued when the college stars entered the NBA, with Bird playing for the Boston Celtics and Johnson joining the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We got a team that can kill you from the outside, and we got a team that can kill you from the inside. If we’re on top of our game, ain’t nobody in the world can beat Michigan State.” — Sophomore sensation Magic Johnson, Sports Illustrated interview regarding the 1979 NCAA championship

By Jim O’Neal

Not everyone shared MJ’s optimism. The Michigan State Spartans were highly respected, but they had lost six of their 27 games in the regular season and had to settle for a three-way tie in the Big Ten.

Then there was the little issue of Indiana State and their star, first-team All-American Larry Bird. The Sycamores from Terre Haute – in their first NCAA tournament – were undefeated in 1978-79 and ended the regular season ranked No. 1.

Later, Larry Joe Bird would have an outstanding 13-year career in the NBA with the Boston Celtics, where he was a 12-time NBA All-Star and a member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Star team. He is the only person in NBA history to be named MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year.

Both Michigan State and Indiana State made it to the Final Four and ended up playing for the championship. The early chatter about a championship clash between Bird and Johnson was finally about to become a reality.

Earvin Johnson had picked up his nickname “Magic” when he was a 15-year-old sophomore at Everett High School when he scored 36 points, had 16 rebounds and 16 assists in a game. A local sportswriter said, “Man, that was just magic!”

The Michigan State team – regrouping after an unimpressive regular season – was now in full bloom and prevailed 75-64. The surprising lopsided victory closed out Indiana State’s win streak at 33 games and gave the mighty Spartans their first national championship.

Magic Johnson had been right about his team assessment and he also ended up being the tournament MVP. The Bird versus Magic competition would continue for many years and produce many exciting NBA games.

Man, they were just magic!

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].