Sports

New book offers new look at 1979 title game

If there's anything writers like better than witty quotes, it's revealing anecdotes. Don't simply say Coach So-and-So is ruthless, tell us about the time he stole the orphans' milk money to buy a player.

Seth Davis, a writer for Sports Illustrated and college basketball analyst for CBS, has written a book rich in anecdotes. Those anecdotes breathe new life into a ground-breaking moment, making the book a reading pleasure.

When March Went Mad explores the 1979 national championship game that pitted Michigan State against Indiana State. But it's correctly remembered as Earvin "Magic" Johnson against Larry Bird. The book's subtitle — "The Game That Transformed Basketball" — is no exaggeration.

Davis dutifully chronicles how the game propelled the NCAA Tournament into a national preoccupation. Not so coincidentally, ESPN began operations the same year.

But Davis isn't merely interested in a recitation of scoring averages, television ratings and revenue gains.

"I didn't want this to read like a textbook," he said in an interview last week. "I wanted it to read like a novel.

"What drives the book are the characters."

Of course, the lead characters are Johnson and Bird. Davis tells us about them as people before they became icons.

"We all know so much about Magic and Bird when they became pros," Davis said. "They are much more interesting back then. It's a coming-of-age story."

Of those anecdotes, the one that jumped out at me was this: When Bird first arrived at Indiana State, he needed more than six root canals. That summed up a poor upbringing, poor diet and the reason he needed to transfer from his first college, big-time Indiana.

But there are plenty of other fascinating details that a reader might not know or simply forgot.

The Bird-Magic game came close to not happening. Johnson was ready to turn pro after the 1977-78 season. He met with Joe Axelson, then the general manager of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, then decided to return to Michigan State when Axelson took too much time making an offer.

Bird, already a phenomenon, only agreed to return to Indiana State for the 1978-79 season if he was not required to talk to the media.

Indiana State's coach, Bob King, missed the epic season because he suffered an aneurysm. His heir apparent, assistant Stan Evans, did not get the job because Bird liked the other assistant, Bill Hodges.

Kentucky figures in the story. Bird wanted to play for UK, but then coach Joe B. Hall did not offer a scholarship. Given Bird's shyness and the celebrity status of any UK player, that decision does not deserve second-guessing.

"He wouldn't have lasted a second at Kentucky," Davis said of Bird.

Kentucky also pursued Johnson. Then assistant Leonard Hamilton got excited after hearing Magic speak enthusiastically about UK.

"That doesn't mean a damn thing," Johnson's high school coach, George Fox, told Hamilton. "He's that way with everyone. I'm telling you, don't get your hopes up."

Davis approached the book as a reporter, not a writer. Rather than try for purple prose, he researched and interviewed. The effort shows.

Davis did not speak to either Johnson or Bird.

"They're not giving it away for free these days," the author said. "Editorially, those are two guys I needed the least."

Working on the book gave Davis an insight we should all remember the next time Kentucky signs some high school hotshot.

"You'll never again hear me talk about a current player and say 'he's just like Bird' or 'he reminds me of Magic Johnson,'" Davis said. "Because those guys are better and more unique than anybody I've ever covered."

LSU tops UK

One of LSU's key players, forward Tasmin Mitchell, originally considered signing with Kentucky.

"Oh yeah, Kentucky was very interested," Mitchell said last week.

Then-UK coach Tubby Smith went to Denham Springs, La., in the recruitment of Mitchell.

"There were a few points we didn't see eye to eye on," Mitchell said.

When asked to explain, Mitchell said that Smith envisioned Mitchell playing behind more experienced teammates as he began his college career. Meanwhile, LSU offered the possibility of a more prominent role almost immediately.

LSU had two other advantages. Then-assistant Butch Pierre was Mitchell's godfather. Plus, LSU was home, so the player's family and friends could easily watch him play.

When a reporter raised the subject of Kentucky's pursuit of Mitchell in 2004-05, LSU first-year coach Trent Johnson said, "Well, I know one guy who's happy they didn't get him."

Mitchell, an undersized 6-7 power forward, went into Saturday's game at Kentucky as LSU's second-leading scorer (16.6 ppg) and its top rebounder (7.3 rpg).

He and teammate Marcus Thornton give LSU two prime candidates for SEC Player of the Year.

Mike check

During a loss at Alabama last week, Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey yelled, "Wake up, Mike" to junior forward Michael Washington. That resulted in a technical foul.

Two of the officials working the game were Mike Roberts and Michael Stephens, and one apparently thought Pelphrey's wake-up comment was aimed at him.

"John didn't even know those guys' first names," Arkansas assistant coach Rob Evans said after the game. "He certainly wasn't telling them to wake up, but that's how one of those Mikes must have taken it."

Pelphrey also picked up a technical foul the previous week — even though he had bronchitis and could barely speak — from official Lee Cassell during the Hogs' 72-69 loss to LSU at Walton Arena.

"My son, Jaxson, always sits behind our bench and says, 'Dad, let's get a technical foul,' " Pelphrey said. "Before the LSU game I'm like, 'I don't think I have enough oxygen in my lungs to get a technical.'

"So I don't know how that happened. ... With the crowd in Bud Walton Arena, I don't know if anybody heard me the whole night."

Celebration

Arkansas will celebrate the 15th anniversary of its national championship team on Sunday. The celebration will be staged during a home game against Georgia.

The game is a sellout. Given the two teams' combined 3-23 SEC record, guess what drew the fans to Bud Walton Arena.

One of the star attractions will be Scotty Thurman, who made arguably the most famous shot in Arkansas basketball history. His three-pointer with 51 seconds left broke a tie in a 76-72 victory over Duke in the national championship game.

"When you're in the moment, you just think that's what you're groomed to do," Thurman said in recalling the shot in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "You go out and practice and work on shooting every day, and you feel like it's just another shot that you have to make.

"But then you realize how many lives you affected and how many people come up to you and remember exactly where they were at that particular moment."

Thurman noted that he took the shot after catching a pass from teammate Dwight Stewart. Stewart passed after bobbling the ball, which gave a defender time to get in his face.

"I've gotten a lot of credit for hitting, I guess, maybe the biggest shot in Arkansas history," Thurman said. "But I think people forget that had Dwight not fumbled the ball, he probably would have attempted the shot, and I believe he would have made it.

"Most guys probably would have forced that shot under pressure, and then it would have been a missed opportunity for us."

No celebration

After South Carolina whipped Kentucky, Gamecock fans did not charge the court to celebrate.

That might not reflect Kentucky's diminished stature, although UK no longer dominates the rest of the league.

As Devan Downey said when asked about the fun his team had in the game, "Up 20 against Kentucky, a legendary (program). Supposedly, everybody in the SEC is playing catch-up to their program. So it's always fun to win a game like this in this fashion."

Maybe a celebration of fans rushing the court would be too costly.

The SEC has fined South Carolina twice for violating the league's rule about preventing excessive fan celebration. So fans charging onto the court would cost the school $50,000.

'Serious unbelievable'

Until he saw video of the game, UK big man Patrick Patterson was not aware that South Carolina's Devan Downey interceded with the referees on his behalf. Downey suggested no technical foul be called after Patterson spiked the ball in frustration after scoring.

"He didn't mean no harm," Downey said afterward.

When asked on Friday about Downey's action, Patterson said his initial reaction was, "Wow, that is serious unbelievable."

Then Patterson added, "I wish he hadn't done that."

When asked why, Patterson said, "It just shows — what's the word I'm looking for? — pity."

'I don't know'

When asked why he sat for a noticeably long stretch of the second half at South Carolina, UK leading scorer Jodie Meeks was stumped.

"You'll have to ask him," he said of UK Coach Billy Gillispie. "I don't really know. I don't know. I don't know. I wish I could tell you."

When radio play-by-play man Tom Leach asked Gillispie during the post-game radio show, the UK coach shifted the conversation to why he sat big men Perry Stevenson and Josh Harrellson.

Second-guess?

A coach second-guessing himself can be charming. It can seem therapeutic after a game like Kentucky's 77-59 loss at South Carolina.

UK Coach Billy Gillispie seemed to be second-guessing himself on Friday when he noted a player like Josh Harrellson might be more productive with more playing time.

"As the season winds down, everybody gets conservative," Gillispie said, "probably too conservative."

The result can be inhibited players being afraid that a mistake can lead to a benching.

"I've definitely been guilty of that," Gillispie said.

That sounded like a healthy exercise of second-guessing himself. But, no, the UK coach said, that's not what it was.

"Just making a statement, a very, very direct statement," he said.

Remember Barber

It's the time of year to be thinking about all-conference players.

Those who choose the all-SEC team should consider Auburn forward Korvotney Barber. He's the only SEC player averaging a double-double in league play. He's also a big reason the Tigers posted their first four-game SEC winning streak since 2003.

Happy birthday

To Tom Leach. Kentucky's radio play-by-play man turns 48 on Tuesday.

Leach has called UK football games for 12 seasons. He's in his eighth season with the basketball team. A native of Bourbon County, he's living a dream in calling the action.

"It's still great fun," he said. "I love the job. I always tell people, it's as much fun as I thought it'd be."

Leach and his wife, Robyn, have two children, a son, Connor, 15, and a daughter, Caroline, 10.

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