May 26, 2019

Remembering the ‘Magic’ of Johnson vs. Bird

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.

“This is Terry Donnelly, everyone: The guy who played with Earvin (Magic) Johnson.”

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 father’s paper processing company.

“It’s opened a lot of doors for me,” said Donnelly, who lives in a suburb north of Dallas. “In business relationships. In social relationships. All because of him.”

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 school’s first, and most celebrated, basketball championship three decades ago.

The title game, pitting the 25-6 Spartans against Larry Bird’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.

“Did we realize the importance of the game” at the time? asks Jud Heathcote, who coached the Spartans then. “Of course we didn’t.”

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 wasn’t the spectacle it is now , it wasn’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, “made guys like me much better than they would have otherwise been.”

This is why, all these years later, he still doesn’t mind being introduced as a small part of someone else’s titanic clash, a role player backing up a Hall of Famer. Besides, Johnson never made anyone on the team feel that way.

“He got the team up,” remembered shooting guard Brkovich, who lives in Windsor now and works in the real estate business. “And nobody ever practiced harder than Earvin.”

It was a team defined by Johnson’s exuberance, his constant encouragement and by Heathcote’s griping , “That was a TERRIBLE shot, Earvin!”

“Jud wasn’t always easy to play for,” Donnelly said. “In practice, he would find one or two guys to focus on , and that is a nice word, focus , and you’d walk out of that gym not wanting to come back.”

You had to stick around long enough, Donnelly said, “to understand Jud.”

“We used to say a prayer before each game,” Kelser recalled at a reunion at the Breslin Center in February. “Never prayed for a victory, just to play to our potential. We felt like that would be good enough.”

By Shawn Windsor / McClatchy Tribune

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