A few weeks ago, I received an advanced copy of When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball (affiliate link) by SI’s Seth Davis. I had read about the book a while back and, frankly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I’ve read a fair amount about the topic of 1979 national championship game (magazine articles, biographies of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, etc.), so I didn’t think there was a lot of new material to be unearthed about the two star players or the game itself. And the title of the book seemed to point more toward a book centered around the explosion of college basketball in the 1980s than toward a book that would be of specific interest to MSU fans. Further, I wondered whether Davis–one of Sports Illustrated’s top college basketball writers and a CBS studio commentator to boot–would have had the time to write a truly top-notch sports book.
I was wrong. The book is actually fairly light on the “transformational” aspects of the game (although Davis makes a solid case for the magnitude of the impact the game had on both NCAA basketball the NBA.) Rather, 90% of the book is a thoroughly-researched and extremely engaging account of the build-up to the 1979 championship game, the game itself, and the aftermath of the game that has extended over the subsequent three decades.
Of particular interest to us Spartan types is the coverage of Magic Johnson’s recruitment. According to Davis’ account, it was actually a former MSU assistant named Vern Payne (who had been retained after Gus Ganakas was replaced by Jud Heathcote but left after a year to become the head coach at Wayne State) who was the difference maker in convincing Magic to go play for Heathcote, with whom Magic didn’t connect very well initially.
On the Indiana State side, the tracing of the path Bill Hodges’ career took after coaching ISU to the National Championship game–and the way ISU has basically disowned its 1979 team–is both fascinating and heart breaking.
Those are just two of the book’s segments that stick in my mind. But, again, the book is as thorough a treatment as you could expect of the events leading up to, during, and following the 1979 game. There’s plenty there to keep both the casual basketball fan and the die-hard MSU fan turning the pages.
Michigan State doesn’t have the same breadth of basketball tradition that programs like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas do. But we do have a national championship that was won in perhaps the most celebrated college basketball game of all time–a game that, indirectly at least, led to our current run of success on the hardwood. I’m pleased that there’s now a book out there that does justice to that game and everything it set in motion.
P.S. I was offered the chance to interview Davis about the book, but–given my limited journalistic abilities–I’m going to refer you instead to a very informative interview The Dagger conducted with him (in two parts):
(There’s even a bit on tempo-free stats in the second part. Davis is supportive in a lukewarmish sort of way.)