Sunday, April 5, 2009

Book Review: WHEN MARCH WENT MAD by Seth Davis (Times Books, 2009)

It was inevitable that someone would get the bright idea of commemorating the 30th anniversary of the "Magic" Johnson-Larry Bird showdown in the NCAA championship game with a full-length book. What was not inevitable was that said book -- written by one of CBS' college hoops studio's talking heads, no less -- would turn out to be of such high quality. Seth Davis does an excellent job of painting the background scenery of the title clash between Michigan State and Indiana State, focusing (of course) on Johnson and Bird but not neglecting the other main characters, such as the opposing coaches -- MSU's gruff, sarcastic Jud Heathcote and ISU's country-bred Bill Hodges, who assumed the head-coaching position after the previous coach had fallen ill. The postscript is a little lengthier that one might expect but closes appropriately with Bird, that most reticent of superstars, returning to ISU many years after his great career to have his uniform number retired.

When it came to talking about the championship game itself -- to this day, STILL the most watched basketball game in history -- Davis was faced with a dilemma: The game itself wasn't that good. MSU dominated pretty much from the off, with ISU staging only one mild rally in the second half, and Bird, bothered by MSU's tough zone, experienced a terrible shooting night. In point of fact, the only really good game that Final Four weekend in Salt Lake City (not counting the meaningless third-place game, which would be discontinued two years later) was the semifinal game between ISU and Ray Meyer's DePaul.  Meyer, the venerable, beloved coach whose quest for a national title was a main object of national attention during the late 70s and early 80s, was just as big a story that weekend as "Magic" and Bird. Ditto Penn, the fourth Final Four participant and only the second Ivy League team ever to make it that far. If I have a quarrel with Davis' approach to the Final Four games, it is that he didn't make it clear exactly how big of a deal these other stories were. Unfortunately for Penn, after being blown out by MSU in the other semifinal matchup, their amazing achievement (which included a win over #1 seed North Carolina in Raleigh) was blown right out of the water by the foofaraw over the "Magic"-Bird confrontation. It's probably unfair to criticize Davis for what he did not attempt, but surely Meyer and Penn contributed more than a mite to the excitement of that weekend.

I encourage Davis to put down the mike more often and write additional stories about the history of college hoops. This first effort is well worth reading.

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