1979 NCAA Title game still the highest rated of all time
Even now, 30 years later, he still hears it every time he walks into a room.
â€œThis is Terry Donnelly, everyone: The guy who played with Earvin (Magic) Johnson.â€
Won an NCAA championship. Beat Larry Bird. Played in the highest-rated title game in history.
It is how Terry Donnelly has come to be known. It followed him after he left Michigan State , first to Houston, then to Dallas , as a stockbroker and a co-owner of his fatherâ€™s paper processing company.
â€œItâ€™s opened a lot of doors for me,â€ said Donnelly, who lives in a suburb north of Dallas. â€œIn business relationships. In social relationships. All because of him.â€
He, of course, turned out to be one of the best basketball players ever, a 6-foot-9-inch point guard with a smile the size of Saturn and eyes in the back of his head. Johnson won an NBA championship as a rookie, teamed with Bird to save pro basketball, made unselfishness cool.
But before all that, Magic Johnson was one of the guys in East Lansing, cutting up on the back of the bus, playing chess, using his unique talents to blend in with Donnelly and Greg Kelser and Mike Brkovich and Jay Vincent and all the rest of the team that won the schoolâ€™s first, and most celebrated, basketball championship three decades ago.
The title game, pitting the 25-6 Spartans against Larry Birdâ€™s No. 1-ranked Indiana State Sycamores, has grown in stature since the two legends went at each other in Salt Lake City. The more fame each achieved after college, the more titanic their clash came to be remembered.
Of course, Donnelly had no idea he was taking part in such an outsized cultural event. No one did. Not even Johnson. Not even his coach.
â€œDid we realize the importance of the gameâ€ at the time? asks Jud Heathcote, who coached the Spartans then. â€œOf course we didnâ€™t.â€
No NCAA championship game had ever drawn a larger audience , nor has one since. Some 400 media members covered it, nearly double the amount from the previous year. Yet in those days the Final Four wasnâ€™t the spectacle it is now , it wasnâ€™t even part of the sporting lexicon. In fact, many fans had never seen either guy play, even on television , after all, this was before cable and ESPN.
When basketball historians say this title bout changed college basketball, they are largely talking about the evolution of the tournament. After Magic and Bird, it became a happening, it became . . .. March Madness. After Magic and Bird, dominant players were judged not just by their obvious skills but also by how much better they made those around them.
Johnson, said Donnelly, â€œmade guys like me much better than they would have otherwise been.â€
This is why, all these years later, he still doesnâ€™t mind being introduced as a small part of someone elseâ€™s titanic clash, a role player backing up a Hall of Famer. Besides, Johnson never made anyone on the team feel that way.
â€œHe got the team up,â€ remembered shooting guard Brkovich, who lives in Windsor now and works in the real estate business. â€œAnd nobody ever practiced harder than Earvin.â€
It was a team defined by Johnsonâ€™s exuberance, his constant encouragement and by Heathcoteâ€™s griping , â€œThat was a TERRIBLE shot, Earvin!â€
â€œJud wasnâ€™t always easy to play for,â€ Donnelly said. â€œIn practice, he would find one or two guys to focus on , and that is a nice word, focus , and youâ€™d walk out of that gym not wanting to come back.â€
You had to stick around long enough, Donnelly said, â€œto understand Jud.â€
â€œWe used to say a prayer before each game,â€ Kelser recalled at a reunion at the Breslin Center in February. â€œNever prayed for a victory, just to play to our potential. We felt like that would be good enough.â€
By Shawn Windsor / McClatchy Tribune