When March Went Mad…A Review

Gatinho —  April 6, 2009

Michigan State vs. UConnESPN 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

Gatinho

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62 responses to When March Went Mad…A Review

  1. http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=4046405

    I guess Zach took last nights loss really hard. What an idiot, could’ve killed someone.

  2. 1. Kevin at Clipperblog had the best line:

    Now Randolph will be forced to defend something.

  3. Gatinho-Great review. I heard ESPN mention that Magic and Bird are working on their own book, looking forward to your review of that as well.

  4. Just to start a discussion about the NCAA tournament game…..

    I thought Michigan State looked the best I had seen them in a few years against UConn. (And, as my wife’s best friend is a Spartan and we get together with them to watch games now and again, I see them more than most college teams. For whatever that’s worth.)

    But the reason was that they got out and ran — they knew they couldn’t get effective penetration with Thabeet in the paint, so they ran a much quicker offense than normal so he could not set up. Smart strategy. And their PG Lucas really thrived up tempo, he makes great decisions in transition for the most part.

    That said, if the Spartans run with UNC, they will get crushed. Lucas is no Lawson and UNC has better athletes throughout, plus they love to run more. So Michigan State needs to return to the slow it down style somewhat to have a chance.

    The first game between these two doesn’t really matter, it was four months ago and the Spartans were without Suton, so TH went off for UNC. Different story there tonight. But if the tempo is up at all, it is UNC’s game. If Michigan State can slow it down a little on their home court, it’s a close game.

  5. Gatinho — great job sir!

  6. http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6564162.html

    Here’s the press release for the upcoming book that Magic and Larry will publish. Stay tuned.

  7. For those who want to see Bynum move around a little:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAIAyTql2Yg

    Thought #1: He’s huge! Look at those arms…

    Thought #2: Seeing the moves from up close, he’s really quick and quite fluid with his footwork. Granted, there’s no real contact, but Kareem’s work really shows.

  8. http://www.nba.com/bulls/news/smith2_090406.html?rss=true

    very interesting piece about lebron and his fouls

  9. Lebron’s fouls…
    He was not considered a very good defender until this year. Has there ever been a player who was average one year – at anything – and the best there ever was the next year? Just asking…

  10. Way off topic, but it needs to be in here:

    Manu is officially out for the rest of the season and the playoffs. Ginobili felt stiffness in his lower right leg during the Spurs-Cavaliers game in Cleveland on Sunday afternoon. Following the game he returned to San Antonio. Earlier today, in San Antonio, he underwent a CT scan and an MRI. The examinations showed an increased marrow edema and a stress fracture in his right distal fibula.

  11. Kurt thats bad news for the Spurs and Basketball fans in general.

  12. Way off topic as in huge news in the western conference? Also Ghatino I really liked the review – you write like some of my lit professors. Amazing job.

    So… No Kings preview?

  13. The Sacramento game is Tuesday, there will be a preview.

  14. Solid write up, T. I even had to look up “tertiary”… Good stuff.

    Thrill

  15. Great book review… just ordered my copy.

    Z-Bo’s been about as big of a knucklehead as the NBA’s seen since he came into the League. I’m a Laker fan that’s lived in Portland for the last few years, and he was constantly raising hell in strip clubs, night clubs, etc… a lot more than was reported in the national media. Portland’s a pretty small place, and word gets around. It’s no surprise the Clippers brought this guy in, and now he’s getting into more trouble. And on the court, Randolph puts up nice numbers, but is a selfish black hole who blames his teammates when anything goes wrong. And it’s not like Dunleavy will ever put him in his place.

    It was encouraging to actually see Bynum getting some work in. With him back and Manu out, I don’t see who can challenge the Lakers out West. Hopefully they get Dallas and can put an end to that series quicky, get Bynum a bit more up to speed, etc. As much as everyone’s on the Cav’s bandwagon, the Celtics still worry me the most.

    Finally, I don’t see how the Spartans hang with UNC tonight.

  16. Wow I didnt even notice that my b.

  17. Check out this insane quote from Dunleavy about Z-Bo:

    Dunleavy also took a philosophical approach.

    “Obviously this was bad judgment as far as being out the time he was out, etc. My initial thought was, ‘What a fool, this guy was out clubbing,’ ” the coach said. “[But] he was traveling from a condo in Marina del Rey to his home in Marina del Rey, probably about a mile difference. He was in a couple of vehicles with his family members and he was pulled over.

    ***

    ‘Bad judgment in terms of the TIME he was out’?!?! Uh, not that he was driving drunk? And the subsequent semi-rationalization that he didn’t have all that far to drive?

    Dunleavy, future MADD spokesman.

  18. gatinho,
    Great insight into the book. The rivalry that was born in college did take over then NBA. I’d love to read it just because of the background on Magic.

    As for Manu, that’s a tough one for the Spurs. Do they even get out of the first round now? I would think they don’t escape the second for sure. There are no easy outs and with Duncan not looking like himself, it seems they’re going to go as far as Parker can take them. Wow.

  19. Now I’m not sure I see the Spurs getting out of the 1st round.

    Actually; Utah, NO, and Portland now seem the biggest challengers to the Lakers. NO because of Chris Paul, Utah because of Williams and Sloan, and Portland because they match up well with the Lakers. Of course, this is Portland’s first dance, so they might stumble a bit, but if they get a couple of series under their belt before they meet the Lakers, they could be a tough out.

  20. Great, we get to hear more excuses from San Antonio when the Spurs don’t win the title.

    “Barry was fouled…”

    “If Manu had played then…”

    “Shots shouldn’t count if there’s less than half a second on the shot clock…”

  21. This was posted on Mark Stein’s powerrankings:

    “Interesting late-season scenario: If the Lakers have no shot at the league’s best record in their final game of the season at home to Utah, do they let the Jazz have the game to make sure Dallas winds up eighth? I’m guessing yes.”

    This got me to thinking about playoff seedings since who you are matched up with is such a huge factor. So my question is if we face a similar senario with the exception that we will get homecourt over the Cavs if we win, but if we lose the game, Utah will clinch the 7th spot. Do we and should we let them win? What is more important, avoiding Utah in the 1st round or getting homecourt over the Cavs?

    I don’t think that Utah is an easy out in any round and there is always the chance they’ll beat us. Bynum’s return and adjustment might take a little bit of time to work itself out and the same goes for Odom/Ariza’s transistion back to the bench. We already know that Farmar struggled through the Utah series last year and with the bench’s current state, there is always a chance that we lose to Utah. I also think that Utah overall is a better team this year than last and are better than their record due to Millsap’s development and the bench improvement. They were hampered early in the season by injuries.

    The other motivating factor for ensuring that Utah gets 7th even if we give up homecourt advantage to the Cavs is because there’s no gaurantee that the Cavs will be in the Finals. if they don’t make it to the finals then we will for sure get homecourt anyways. Besides we are the only team that beat them at home. That’s significant considering their amazing home record. You know they were amped up for that game against us and we still beat them.

    So what do folks think? What is better if we end up in such a senario?

  22. I’m thinking with my heart tonight. I’m from Michigan, Izzo was from nearby, and they beat USC. They owe us a victory.

    Besides, I’ve always been against North Carolina.

  23. I say beat Utah. If we can’t beat Utah then we have no business being in the finals.

  24. yeah, I agree. Ultimately, we’ve been saying all along that the only team that can beat us is us, so why admit that we’re scared of anyone?

  25. Magic @21.
    Utah has shown that they just aren’t a good road team. I don’t see why any team with home court advantage would be afraid of them. Anyways a longer series is just more time to integrate Bynum into the lineup.

  26. NC is crushing MSU

    darn it.

    I hope MSU gets a good finishing kick in the first half and set up a wild rally for the second half

  27. Magic,

    Utah has no shot at beating us, unless they pull 3 fans out the stands to referee a one game series in Utah.

    Other than that happening, it shouldn’t go more than 5 games against them. Sweep if Bynum is back and playing well.

  28. The Dude Abides April 6, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    I’m pretty bummed about Manu. Even with all his histrionics, I love watching that guy play ball. I also remember how our Lakers have lost important players for the playoffs (Worthy, Nixon, Magic 1983; Magic, Byron 1989; Bynum, Ariza last year) so I can sympathize. I really, really hated the Bowen-era Spurs, but I’ve come to respect them as he’s really the only dirty player on that team, and the rest of the squad is pretty much a decent group of guys.

  29. Beat Utah regardless.

  30. Dude, what about Worthy when we took on Jordan for his first title?

  31. In all honesty, now that the Spurs won’t have Ginobili, the team I fear most is, believe it or not, Orlando. Not only are they one of the 5 teams that managed to beat us at home, but they also have one of the best road records in the league. As for the C’s, they have serious injury problems, and they’ll have a tough time getting out of the East if they have to go through Orlando and through Cleveland to get to the Finals. We’ve proven we can beat Cleveland, even lacking Bynum, on their home floor and on ours. All the other teams in the West just don’t have the firepower to keep up with us, and none of them are defensive juggernauts like Boston, Orlando, and Cleveland.

    However, the one thing Orlando does best is our greatest weakness: penetrate and kick for threes. Against Cleveland, the Orlando guards got into the lane at will, Dwight Howard was unstoppable in the post, and this led to kick-outs to open shooters for threes. On defense, they press on the perimeter, having Howard behind them to cover their mistakes, so the only way to beat them is to have guys who can attack the basket and get Howard into foul trouble. Unfortunately, our best slasher (Kobe) doesn’t want to slash, while others (Jordan, Trevor, Lamar) can’t drive to the basket under any measure of control, so Howard will just swat away all their shots.

    As for playing Utah, there’d be nothing better for our team to wake up than a kick in the teeth early from the Jazz. I think if we drop a couple games in the 1st round, it’ll toughen the team for the long haul of the playoffs, as opposed to cruising through the first few rounds and getting overconfident.

  32. Well, as much as I’m bummed UNC is annihilating Michigan State, I think we’d be happy to draft Wayne Ellington. He’s been on fire this game.

  33. BCR – +1. Wayne Ellington has been bananas in this tournament. I think he was hitting 48% from beyond the arc coming into the game. I wouldn’t mind seeing that firer power come off the bench for the Lakers.

  34. So much for thinking with my heart.

  35. Hardwood Paroxysm’s said it best, I think: Talent tends to win out, and UNC had way more of it. They have a number of future NBA guys, guys who will stick for years, you can’t say that about the Spartans. And it showed.

  36. 31) I agree about Orlando.

    I also wonder if a couple of 6 game series would be better than two 4 game series (assuming Lakers successful either way) to give Bynum more time to get his rhythm/conditioning back. (And no, I not counting chickens here. HONEST!!)

  37. This is an interesting rock-paper-scissors game at the top of the NBA, more so than in recent years. These statements are premature because because the playoffs are a different animal, but if we were to go off what we’ve seen so far:

    Cleveland has the edge over (a healthy) Boston
    LA has an advantage over Cleveland
    Orlando has an advantage over LA

    In addition, Boston still matches up relatively well with us, especially if Andrew plays in the 15-20 range.

    I can’t remember recent years being like that at the top. Matchups and style of play really prevent you from declaring a clear ‘best’ team in the league this season.

  38. The Dude Abides April 6, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    30. I had my memory wiped of everything that happened in the year 1991. Specifically, November 7th. But yes, I did forget Worthy’s sprained ankle (at least he played). I also left out the injuries to Malone and Fish in 2004 .

  39. The Dude Abides April 6, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    39. I agree about Orlando, I worry more about them than I do Cleveland or Boston. The team I actually worry the most about in the West is Portland, as they match up with our length very well, although Steve Blake will ultimately be their Achilles heel.

  40. The Dude Abides April 6, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Arggh that was meant for 31…a lovely triple post.

  41. 38. And Fox and Devean.

  42. Gatinho, great post like usual, I know I am in for a good time with your multiple links that you always include with your writeups. That was a good time of basketball with Magic and Bird at it year after year.

    Challenge = We know what we are, but not what we may be.

  43. Well, finished 14th in the bracket thanks to North Carolina.

    Anyway, that was sorta fun. Now let’s get the regular season over with to see the big boys play

  44. the thing about the magic is that they rely heavily on the 3 pt shot. this is obviously good enough to give them a good record, but when the playoffs come around teams tighten up there defense, one off game could lead to momentum shifts, etc… so it doesnt usually work out for teams whose success relies so much on the 3 ball. as they say “live by the 3, die by the 3.”

  45. There are 3 series to be won before any finals series can be played. That is something we all need to keep in mind – Kobe and Phil sure will.

  46. I didn’t have any general prediction before the game, until I saw CBS just a few minutes before tip-off. You could see the difference between the two teams during the starting lineups. Michigan St. seemed a bit rattled/jumpy and were covering it up with a display of too much screaming and machismo. NC’s players looked incredibly relaxed, leaning against the table and laughing before they were introduced. Last year really helped with their composure, they knew what to expect and came out with a serious purpose on the defensive end.

    I hope Tyler Hansborough enjoys tonight. I didn’t see anything from him in this tournament to impress me. But I stick to my one core philosophy that anyone who works that hard will carve out a role for themselves in the NBA. For me work ethic trumps all, although Hansborough may test that.

    North Carolina does an impressive job of shrinking the floor. Of course the college game is smaller, but their length and activity was very impressive to watch.

    Worst play of the game: Morgan getting crushed in his already broken nose. I physically hurt just watching that.

  47. In addition to the Magic’s drive-and-kickouts, here’s an observation from Kevin at Truehoop:

    “Orlando has gotten very good at keeping defenses off-kilter with reversals and cross-court passes.”

    Isn’t that the biggest weakness of the SSZ? Another reason the Magic’s style exploits ours.

  48. Renato Afonso April 7, 2009 at 2:15 am

    Hasn’t history taught us anything? Remember what the Mavs did and what happened against GS in that 1st round? I would actually prefer to face Utah in the 1st round and toughening up a bit right off the bat. I just hope that Portland doesn’t fall into the 4/5th spot in the west, as I think they are the only team that could knock us out of the playoffs…

    Anyway, should we be able to revert back to basics (1st unit with Fish, Kobe, Luke, Gasol and Bynum/Odom and 2nd unit with Farmar, Sasha, Ariza, Powell and Bynum/Odom) and I think we can keep every game under control and reach the Finals with enough rest…

    Also, I believe that running Bynum with the 2nd unit would be helpful, by increasing or shot altering ability and improving our fastbreak. The SSZ is designed to help our 1st unit, not the second, so Bynum would be the difference in that second unit.

    And worry not, it’s going to be Cleveland or Boston in the Finals for sure, as the only thing better for the league than the Lakers vs. The Leprechauns will be Kobe vs. LeBron.

  49. The fantasy that the Lakers are going to somehow float into the NBA championship and face the Leps in a replay of last year–except with home court advantage reversed–needs to be set aside as reality sets in.

    Tghe West presents many traps for the overconfident. Denver, now #2 under the leadership of Chauncy, may have finally developed into a bonafide threat. Dallas has a slew of veterans that know how to win in the playoffs. Portland might beat the Lakers on youthful hate alone. I see less of a serious threat from the banged up Jazz, Rockets, Spurs, or the Hornets (who the Lakers might be fortunate enough to face in round one), but I’m not about to take anything for granted.

    Although they won, the Lakers proved to me again against the Clippers on Sunday that the Lakers can lose to anyone.

    The team the Lakers need to fear the most from the East, if they get that far, is the team from Orlando that has finally found a replacement for the Shaq that we stole so many years ago. They’ve already proven themselves with their win at Staples–even if Nelson is no longer available this year.

    The Leps are limping into the playoffs possibly in the third slot without guaranteed homecourt or even KG.

    The Cavaliers melt a little with top competition–where the loss of Wallace shows the most.

    Who knows? Even Miami might sneak through, like they did a few years ago.

    I just hope we can survive Sacramento this week and maybe see Andrew with Spencer Hawes draped over his back–instead of a Playboy bunny.

  50. I’m not sure that Kobe vs. LeBron will be more watched than a rematch of Lakers vs. Celtics.

    Any Finals with the Lakers is going to have good ratings, but for the casual fan, Lakers/Celtics has more cache. Boston has more fans in more places than LeBron and the Cavs do. More history. I think the NBA wants LeBron in the Finals so they can showcase their top 2 stars, and it’s a win/win for the NBA for future marketing, but for right now, the better bet is LA/Boston.

  51. Hey people, we still have to get there. Beware the ides of April.

    I like Kobe & Phil’s mantra — how do we win the next game?

  52. 50-Cavs have highest ratings in NBA. LBJ in finals would get a bigger number, I’m sure of that.

  53. wondahbap,

    Think global… While Lakers/Celtics is more suitable for the USA and Europe, I believe that Kobe vs. Lebron would be bigger in Asia without any significant dropoff in ratings in USA/Europe… But maybe one of our asian mates can help us with that.

  54. Kwame,

    Locally or nationally? There’s a huge difference.

  55. So long as the Lakers make it, the NBA Finals will draw huge numbers. But the NBA marketing machine has always been about stars over teams. LeBron v. Kobe is an easier sell for them than Lakers v. Celtics.

  56. Drrayeye makes a good point. If you think about it, this is the first time that this Lakers team have gone through an entire season and will head into the playoffs as favorites. Yes, after Pau we were #1 last year, but that was a late season turn, and we weren’t as overwhelming favorites for so long. This is a very young team, not too many veterans. Can they maintain that mental poise and sharpness (or at least find it again)? Normally I’d say with Phil it isn’t a problem, but the bench has been worrisome.

  57. Kurt,

    I know from marketing standpoint, it is better to have Kobe v. Lebron. I admitted that. My contention is this year, Lakers vs. Celtics might be better from a ratings standpoint.

    Long term the Kobe vs. LeBron is as good as it gets. Win/Win for the NBA. Even better if the Lakers win. They get a legend in Kobe solidify his legacy, and can still play the LeBron’s quest angle. LBJ’s reign seems inevitable anyway, so personally, it’s better for the NBA to hedge their bets and see Kobe improve his career. If LeBron won, then they can delve into LBJ’s reign faster.

    The media will be making excuses for LBJ, should they lose because the Lakers are supposedly more talented. If the cavs lose, they were supposed to. If they win, LBJ is god.

  58. On a lighter note, check this out:

    http://lakers.freedomblogging.com/2009/04/07/vujacic-still-gets-kicks-over-new-shoes/14807/

    I guess Chinese companies will settle for a shoe endorsement from any NBA player…

  59. For me personally, “Lakers coast to Finals” is more of a nightmare than a fantasy. Three rounds of play-offs that are like last night’s NCAA final? Other than a chance for the Lakers to perfect the lead-blowing skills they’ve been working on all season, it wouldn’t be very interesting to watch. Then in the finals we suddenly have to face a team that’s amped up and hardened from series that were actually challenging…

    FWIW, I think a Celtics/Lakers rematch draws the casual fan that doesn’t watch the NBA much, but Kobe/LeBron isn’t far behind, and is probably easier to market with highlight plays and shoe commercials. (Just realized I’m saying the same thing as Wondabap/50 – Kobe/LeBron definitely plays better for the future, especially if the LeBrons relocate to NYC in 2010.)

  60. Alex,

    Yeah. I also believe that the NBA (from a business standpoint) would rather LBJ not win in Cleveland, so it’s easier for him to leave for NY and take over there.

    The NBA is in a good position right now.

  61. Wondahbap-I was referring to local ratings, but I would guess that the Cavs have garnered higher ratings nationally than the C’s this season. Especially since the 1st of the year. I’d love for the Magic to take both of them out and see the look on Stern’s face.

  62. Kings preview up