ESPN was in its infancy, the internet was a sparkle in Al Gore’s eye, the NBA was an afterthought or not thought of at all, and March had yet to go Mad. When March Went Mad by Seth Davis chronicles an important developmental era of basketball, and more specifically how its marketing and hype machine would evolve as seen through the prism of the 1979 Indiana State vs. Michigan State NCAA Final.
Most of us are familiar with Seth Davis from CBS and SI, but here Davis tries his hand at historian and myth maker. Davis lacks the story telling skills necessary to carry this flawed drama (the game itself an anticlimactic one), and it lacks a consistent tension to make this a truly riveting read. But the book is exhaustively researched, and the fact that neither Bird nor Johnson participated in the process allows for many unique viewpoints from several angles of perception of the events that unfolded.
Having the main characters absent would seem like a detriment to the process, but it actually allows for us to meet participants that have long been forgotten. From the coaches, to the role players, to the team managers, these secondary and tertiary characters help Davis mythologize the nexus of the personal rivalry that would translate into a rebirth of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the ’80’s.
College basketball has always been about programs. Modern sports programmers would have to be talked off the ledge if you told them that Michigan State would be paired with Indiana Sate in the final game with nary a Duke or North Carolina around to represent the powers that be. But they would be clicking their heels together in delight at the thought of a mano-a-mano battle between the two best players in the country, one having already been selected in the previous year’s draft by the evil genius of Red Auerbach and another poised to be picked first by the glamor franchise on the West Coast.
It a was time when the college game was a regional phenomenon. But Bird and Magic would usher in the modern age of basketball. They would be the ones who would give a young David Stern no choice but to begin to market personalities and individual stars. They would be the ones whose coat tails ESPN would ride as college basketball would be become the phenomenon that we may be seeing wane in the era of the one and done.
The basketball deities birthed these twins as saviors to bring basketball into the national consciousness. The white kid from French Lick, who is Jimmy Chitwood but with a back story that never would have made into the romanticized world of Hoosiers, and the black kid from Michigan, whose smile and style would have kids across the country regardless of height pining to be point guards making no look passes, cast as foils. Then to place them under the spotlight of the National title game in Salt Lake City, Utah, many fans seeing them for the first time that night, is so storybook, central casting may have deemed it too corny to produce. The anti-climactic game aside, where Michigan State showed they were the better team with Bird laying the proverbial egg, failing to duplicate the performance that had seen the Sycamores go undefeated that season and that still eats at him to this day,
The structure of the novel follows the recruitment of the two players with Bird’s being the more riveting tale. We may connect Magic with Hollywood and Showtime, but it is Bird’s tale that is truly cinematic. He liked to fight. He liked to drink beer. He joked and harassed in a manner that displayed his lack of knowledge or concern with things political or correct. Davis’ depiction of Bird as the prototypical yet complex “hick” is the novel’s strength.
Johnson’s portrayal peels back the layers from the public persona that we dream is inseparable from his private one. In previous tomes writers have failed to give any depth to who Earvin really is. Davis does nice work in allowing the reader to make connections and decide if there really are any chinks to be found in the wildly-adored Teflon Johnson. From a Laker-centric viewpoint, When March Went Mad can be seen as a pre-history of Johnson. Long time fans will find themselves making connections between the collegiate Johnson and the professional one. I found myself especially ruminating on Johnson’s amazing rookie year with the club, showing that the leadership and skill he possessed at Michigan State would translate to the pros better than any imagined.
Davis also plainly yet elegantly fleshes out exactly what made these two players unique on the court. They were innovators and improvisers yet understood the premise of the game at a level that those around them were struggling to keep pace with. Davis takes us through the parallel journeys of two teams previously unrecognized on a national level and their ascent to prominence.
When March Went Mad chronicles an unrepeated “moment in time” that could be called the Coming of Age of basketball in its rise in the American consciousness. The days of “bracketology” and the injection of the information age still on the horizon, one can see where it has come from and can’t help but continue to speculate where it is going.
-Scott Thompson aka Gatinho