SALT LAKE CITY - The game itself might not stand out in a list of greatest college basketball games. Michigan State's 75-64 victory in the national championship game over Indiana State was, on its own, remarkable only in the ease with which the Spartans dispatched the previously unbeaten Sycamores. But the meaning and importance of the game went so far beyond the final score. With good reason, Michigan State's first championship is often called the most important game in college basketball history.
Before the Spartans and Sycamores met in Salt Lake City, college basketball was often relegated to the back-burner of American sports. Sure, the occasional game could get some extra attention, but the NCAA tournament was, for the most part, largely ignored.
That started to change in 1979. Led by senior Larry Bird - who had been drafted the previous summer by the Boston Celtics, who were willing to wait a full year to be able to actually sign him - Indiana State went on a storybook run in the 1978-79 season. Bird averaged 30 points a game for the third straight season, and the Sycamores cruised to the national championship game with a 33-0 record.
Facing them was Michigan State, led by super sophomore Magic Johnson. Johnson was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, a 6-foot-8 point guard blessed with the best passing ability anybody had ever seen. The Spartans weren't undefeated like the Sycamores, but came into the NCAA tournament on a 10-1 run. The Spartans cruised through their first four tournament games, barely breaking a sweat as they met up with Indiana State.
The championship game matchup was a dream for basketball fans and NCAA promoters alike. The two best players in the country were matched up with a championship on the line. The game ended up setting the ratings record for an NCAA basketball game, a record it still holds.
But it's what happened after the Spartans beat the Sycamores that made this game into a legend. At first, it was viewed as a matchup between Magic and Larry for a championship. Afterwards, it became merely Magic vs. Larry, part 1, as Johnson and Bird the next season began an individual rivalry unlike any the NBA had ever seen. Bird and the Celtics and Johnson on the Lakers dominated the NBA in the 1980s and received much of the credit for helping the sport gain popularity throughout the decade.
Magic vs. Larry helped shape and define the NBA in the 80s. And it all started on March evening in Salt Lake City, when they were just a pair of talented college kids.