You know who’s been showing up on a lot of blogs these days? Seth DavisÂ from SI and CBS. He’s obviously in quite a bit of demand, being one of the most respected college basketball voices in the country, in both print and on TV. He also has a new book out, “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball” which focuses on the ’79 championship game between Magic and Bird.
Well, who are we to buck the trend?Â We proudly present the second in what we hope to be a long line ofÂ “The Crackle Wonders” interviews (This being the first one featuring an outside subject.)
SPC: What if Indiana State had lost to Marquette? Would we be talking about Magic Johnson and Mark Aguirre saving basketball? To put it another way, did it have to be these two specific players? Could either Magic or Bird have had as big an impact by them self?
SD: Thatâ€™s a great question. I have to believe there would not have been the same appeal and excitement if DePaul had beaten Indiana State in the semifinals. At that point, Ray Meyer would have been a much bigger story than Mark Aguirre. In fact, going into the Final Four, many people thought Meyer was the biggest story of all. I guess my answer speaks to the huge appeal and allure that Larry Bird brought to this game. He was white, he played for a little school from the Missouri Valley Conference, and like Magic Johnson he was a big man who was an exquisite passer.
SCP: If the ’79 game never happened, could Michael Jordan still have become Michael Jordan? Would LeBron be an above average linebacker on some random team in the AFC central right now?
SD: The â€™79 championship game was important, but I donâ€™t want to overstate its significance. We still would have gotten here from there, but this game happened to come along at the precise moment where it could have maximum impact. Think about it: the game was played on March 26, 1979. ESPN was launched on September 7, 1979. Maybe the better question is, what if this game were played in 1989 instead of 1979? My answer is, it still would have been a big deal, but it would not have had the transformative effect that it had in â€™79.
SCP: ESPN rode college basketball and professional football to its current level of sports media dominance. How much do they owe to a single basketball game which aired on another network?
SD: Actually, in it’s early days, ESPN was built completely around college basketball. There were legal entanglements that prevented ESPN from broadcasting live college football games, but a few weeks before the 1979 Final Four, ESPNâ€™s founder, Bill Rasmussen, had made a deal with the NCAA that included winning the rights to simulcast NBCâ€™s feeds of the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. That deal was enormously helpful to Rasmussen as he looked to get ESPN into as many homes as possible. It wasnâ€™t until many, many, many years later that ESPN was able to show live NFL games. So Iâ€™d say ESPN owes a lot to that â€™79 championship game, even if it was produced by NBC. That matchup intrigued the public so much that it wanted more, and ESPN was right there to give it to them.
SCP: Can you detail the Indiana State/Billy Packer feud from 1979?
SD: The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Billy had actually seen Bird play the summer before when he played for a USA Basketball team in the World Invitational Tournament. That team was coached by then-Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, and he gave preferential treatment to his own players, which meant that Bird (along with Magic, who was also on that team) came off the bench. Billy came away from that experience thinking Bird was good, but not great. So when Indiana State kept winning and climbing in the polls, he was calling a game for NBC along with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire (best three-man team in TV history, by the way) and Enberg asked his partners who deserved to be the No. 1 team in the polls. When McGuire said Indiana State, Packer said he disagreed because ISU hadnâ€™t played good enough competition. As you can imagine, the folks back in Terre Haute didnâ€™t appreciate that, and Billy became public enemy number one in town. The reaction was so vitriolic that Billy received some death threats, and when NBC added an Indiana State game at the end of that season, they didnâ€™t send Billy because they were worried the environment would be too hostile.
SCP: Would you have a job without the Magic/Bird game?
SD: I sure hope so! Look, we would have gotten here from there, eventually. It just so happened that this game came along at the precise moment where it could have maximum impact.
SCP:Â What’s up with all the number ones losing this season? Is parity like that good for the college game, or is it an indication that the teams simply aren’t very good?
SD: It has been a pretty topsy turvy year in terms of the number one ranking, but the rankings have still been pretty top heavy. The top four teams â€“ UConn, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma and North Carolina â€“ have formed a pretty solid first tier. I still think the national champ is most likely to come out of that group. Keep in mind that over the last 28 years, the championship has been won by a 1 or 2 seed 20 times. So the field is not as wide open as you might think.
SCP:Â Who won the SI office pool last year? What about CBS?
SD: I am shocked â€“ shocked! â€“ to find that there is gambling going on here.