Friday, April 10, 2009

KU, UNC deserve credit, too


Anniversary years in sports have a way of distorting the overall picture and awarding near-sainthood to events and people which may not deserve quite that level of reverence.

That’s how I feel about the recent over-promotion of the 1979 NCAA basketball title game featuring Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as the major breakthrough for college ball. Kansas and North Carolina did that 22 years earlier and deserve far more credit than the CBS and NCAA throats dole out.

The recent NCAA Tournament transpired 30 years after the Magic-Bird caper. Wonder if they’d be hustling that dull title game if the two principals had not gone on to become such superlative NBA rivals and superstars.

Johnson led Michigan State to a 75-64 victory over Bird and Indiana State in a game that, despite the hype, never amounted to much. The more versatile MSU put it out of reach early by turning outmanned ISU into a one-trick pony. A great game? Not.

Now, in ’57, you really had a game to get excited about; the unbeaten No. 1 team, North Carolina, against No. 2-rated Kansas (24-2) featuring Wilt Chamberlain.

Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium officially held only 10,500, and there actually were fights outside for tickets, which in some cases were going for (gasp!) $60. KU and Carolina each were allotted only 250 tickets.

The largest media group in tournament history included an 11-station television network, 64 newspaper writers and live radio broadcasts on 73 radio stations in 11 states. It was the first time any basketball game was televised in North Carolina.

Noted journalist Frank DeFord has stated that ’57 will always rank as “the defining game of the NCAA Tournament.” He and a number of us can amplify why, beyond just the ratings. With its 54-53 triple-overtime win, Carolina became the first school from the Old South to prevail. No team in NCAA history ever had posted a 32-0 season record.

What a melting pot!

Carolina started four Irish Catholic kids from New York and a Jewish superstar, Lennie Rosenbluth. He was listed from Greenville, Tenn., where his parents had moved, but he grew up in New York.

Kansas featured two African-Americans, Chamberlain from Philadelphia and Maurice King from Kansas City. Of the seven Jayhawks who played, four were Kansas high school products (Gene Elstun, John Parker, Lew Johnson and Bob Billings). Ron Loneski, the only one still living, was from Sin City, Calumet City, Ill.

San Francisco with Bill Russell, Hal Perry, K.C. Jones and Gene Brown won the 1955 and ’56 NCAA titles, stirring the racial pot for senior King and sophomore Wilt. The black athlete had exploded onto the scene; those three NCAA title efforts put that in sharp focus, even though the ’57 Carolina champions were all-white.

There were no huge arenas in the 1950s that could come close to luring the more than 72,000 who watched the 2009 championship match of Carolina and Michigan State. Television was still in its infancy, but radio was still a powerful source; print media gave great coverage. College ball had dramatically arrived, to stay.

Magic and Bird helped in the follow-up, but the precursor of NCAA dominance was provided in 1957 by Kansas and Carolina. Just another case of Jayhawk presence for gigantic occurrences in college basketball.


JayCeph 10 years, 9 months ago

And, unfortunately, KU ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard after that bout. One more reason to supremely detest the tar-holes.

jaybate 10 years, 9 months ago

The 1957 championship game has been looked at from every direction but one.

How in the heck did KU with a Chamberlain and King and some decent role players, plus Carolina's 32-0 team, manage to score only 54 and 53 points in a triple overtime game?

It seems a statistical impossibility with the scoring ability and general talent that these two teams had that they did not at least break 60 points in a triple overtime game.

Maybe someone who was there (nudge, nudge Bill) could explain this.

Frank Maguire is on record as saying they decided to let Wilt have his points, and were determined to stop the rest of the KU team.

Letting Wilt have his points in regulation, plus three overtimes, seems like it would almost guarranty Wilt throwing down 60 on his own.

Did Maguire have Carolina stall every time down the floor on offense and zone on defense?

Could neither team hit the broad side of a barn?

What caused that incredibly low score in a triple OT game?

KUFan90 10 years, 9 months ago

Great question Jaybate - I'd also love to hear the answers. However, I have yet to ever see Mayer respond to any comment on one of his articles...I suspect he probably doesn't read them.

Perhaps you could email him instead.

Brian Conrad 10 years, 9 months ago

no shot clock , teams like Carolina would play keep away from Wilt hold the ball for 5 minutes . with shot clock Wilt would have destroyed them 120 to 50

Brian Conrad 10 years, 9 months ago

four corners ball... UNC would stick guys on corners for offesense and pass back and forth till fans booed them out , really for minutes .

Brian Conrad 10 years, 9 months ago

NCAA killed Wilt's rare high paced athletic game. no dunk rule, no lob, no dunk from free throw, he was so poor from foul line he could jump and dunk!! . only good was later implemented shot clock.

Brian Conrad 10 years, 9 months ago

real record. Frank Mcquire had 4 to 5 guys instant on Wilt on defense and four courners offense. they used clock, only way to beat Wilt in college.

Kevin Holt 10 years, 9 months ago

Officially there was no "four corners" offense back then. Keep away and spread the court, yes. But the term "four corners" came later.

jaybate 10 years, 9 months ago

Regarding Bill's understatement of the importance of Magic and Bird:

With several decades of hindsight on Wilt, Rosenbluth, Magic and Bird, what has become increasingly apparent is that Magic was the true freak of nature who has never been duplicated.

Several 7 foot centers have come along since Wilt who equalled, or approached, him in physique and performance (though I am the first to admit that Wilt remains the greatest single center in history). Alcindor and Shaq are two guys who approached in dominance and physique.

And there have been lots of 7 foot centers since.

There has not been one other 6'9" point guard that I can think of, and certainly not one that could do even half of what Magic could do on a floor.

Magic Johnson comes the closest to being something from another planet dropped in the midst of mere basketball mortals that the game has ever seen.

Wilt foreshadowed great big men to come and set a standard so high that few could come close to it, but some have.

Again, there has not been another Magic.

Magic is the greatest point guard of all time and there is no one that even comes close to him. Magic was so great that he could and did at times play every position on the floor. He is the only point guard that I know of who ever started a championship series game in the post in the NBA and excelled doing it!

jaybate 10 years, 9 months ago

And put 6'9" of Magic at his best on Michael Jordan at his best and MJ would have been locked down. Michael Jordan's great good fortune, pure luck in fact, was not to have had to play Magic at his best and to have had Magic's career tragically cut short by AIDs. When the Magic man departed the game, there was this vacuum the size of interstellar space in the NBA. Mere mortals like the 6'6" 2/3 position player that Jordan was, seemed to super nova in that vacuum precisely because the Magic Man had so stretched the fabric of space-time. Michael Jordan was another Oscar Robertson, not another Magic. Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson were the two greatest "humans" ever to play on the perimeter. But Magic Johnson was the greatest "super human" of all time. Not even close. One on one. Mano a mano. Magic dunks in both their grills any time he cared to. Magic smothers both of them defensively and blocks there shots unless they run away like girlie men and shoot from 35 feet out. And 5 on 5, Magic out dribbles and out passes MJ and makes his team just as good. Oscar could do a few things neither of these younger guys could do, but in the end, Magic in his prime could take Oscar, too. And to those who still wet dream about Jordan's springs, Magic was still 6'9" tall at the end of the game and had a heck of a vertical leap himself.

One more thing that reduces MJ's unprecedented-ness. While his ability to dictate rings from the perimeter is unprecended--even Magic could not do this as well as MJ--Bill Russell won way more rings than MJ. And as anyone knows, winning rings is a team dynamic. The guy who has the most good players and coaching on his team during his time, wins the most rings. MJ had Pippen and Rodman and Phil Jackson. They were three hall of famers. Bill Russell had more hall of famers and Red and won more, but Russell even won rings as a player coach for crying out loud. When you take away all the hype and glitz, Magic had Jabbar on the down hill part of his career and Pat Riley. No wonder MJ and Russell won more rings, especially when you add that Magic's career was cut short by AIDs by several years.

Magic just stands out among great PGs and great perimeter players as much as Gort the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still stood out among humanity.

jaybate 10 years, 9 months ago

Now, skipping to Bird, it turns out that most of what we saw of Bird was not vintage Bird. He was a truly great player in college who shot poorly in the national finals that year, as Bird and Magic have both noted. Magic has always recognized Bird, along with him, as being the other great player of his generation. Bird really only had two, maybe three seasons at the very beginning of his NBA career, where he was the great Larry Bird. When he could run and jump and defend and pass and dribble and shoot like a sniper from long range. The rest of his pro career, he was just a back injury and ferocious courage with a great J and McHale and Parrish to cover his limited mobility. Bird was to basketball, what Mickey Mantle was to baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time who was injured early and so never got to show his full game for a career. In turn, we can only infer how great either man truly was by the numbers he put up injured and by the esteem he was held in by his peers. Magic has made clear that Bird was the only other great unprecedented package of a basketball player in his time. Bird and Magic understood each other in this regard. And Bird's performances and scoring numbers and steals and rebounds and clutch baskets and championships earned without ever having played with a truly great guard in the pros attest to just how phenomenal he might have been without the back injury.

In the years before or since, there has never been a 6'9" player that could do what Bird did until Lebron and it is still not clear that Lebron can will a team from that position to a couple rings and shoot outside the way Bird could. But Lebron can do things Bird never dreamed of even when Bird was well. So even the great Bird, the Bird we only saw a little of in the NBA, is not the extreme freak of excellence that Magic was.

For what its worth, Lebron is to me the next potential off-planet freak of nature, if he can overcome the packaging container he has been put in from such a young age and do it. But the more time passes, the more he seems like Kobe to be a great, great player, who can not quite break the bonds of nature and become his own constellation in outer space.

To the extent that we talk about players as being without peer, as being unprecedented, and as having none who followed who approached him either, there is now only one: Magic Johnson.

For this reason, I think that championship game with Magic and Bird is rightly held in memory with above average fondness by those who grew up with and experience the Magic Man's magic act.

Mike Barnhart 10 years, 9 months ago

The birth of HYPE!

Leading up to the 1979 championship game, the networks and newspapers hyped Michigan State vs. Indiana State into Magic vs. Bird.

At the time, "Wide World of Sports" and "This Week in Baseball" were how most Americans got their sports fix. Taped and edited! The Globetrotters and Evel Knievel were at the top of the sports world. Magic vs. Bird started the transition to live sports and helped pave the way for ESPN later that year.

The 1979 championship was not a good game but it was a turning point.

Steve Gantz 10 years, 9 months ago

I don't get too worked up over these so called slights. A game played before most of us that contribute to these chats were even born. To try to say everyone should know about a game more than 50 years ago? Don't care much. And yes, I am a diehard Jayhawk fan.

kkoenig 10 years, 9 months ago

In the 1957 championship game KU went 15-47 from the field and 23-33 from the free throw line; UNC 21-45 and 12-22 In the semifinals KU went 34-57 and 12-19, UNC 28-89 (!) and 18-27

Jacobpaul81 10 years, 9 months ago

they can make a big deal out of the Michigan Indiana State game all they want to, the truth of the matter is, it wasn't a very good game. They make a big deal out of it cause it changed how the NBA was played, not cause it changed NCAA ball. Magic and Larry don't rank in anyone's top 10 NCAA player lists that I've ever seen. Those roles are reserved for true NCAA greats. Bird and Magic did their work in the NBA, not the NCAA.

Personally, I break NCAA ball up into 3 distinct periods.
1. Pre-Chamberlain Basketball 2. The Era of the Center 3. The Modern Era

Period 1 of course is the era of Allen and Iba. Fast past ball played by small players. Remember, Clyde Lovellette and BH Born were something to fear in 1952. They were the biggest dudes on the court. Both won MVP honors in the NCAA tourney's early years. The game wasn't originally built around big men like those.

Although players like Lovellette and Born existed, it wasn't til Chamberlain and Russell came that NCAA ball took on a center focus. College offense went straight through them. While on offense, teams had to keep the ball away from them. Waste clock. Keep the scores low. Don't give Wilt a chance to score 50. With their coming came the era of the Center. Teams in the 60s and 70s that were truely great all had dominant centers. It was during this period that the NCAA had to start making rules to force teams to play against these newly discovered big men. Shot Clocks were introduced (although the modern day shot clock is very short in comparison to the shot clock of the 60-70s.)

Now, the Modern Era. Some would argue it came with Alcindor, which I think is balooney. Alcindor was just another Wilt/Russell. The true change in the game, that led to the modern era came in 1986-1987. This of course is when the NCAA, to combat center-centric basketball tactics, put into play the 3 point shot. Basketball since has ceased to be center-centric, and become even more of a game of tactics. It gives smaller teams hope, and saves wear and tear on big men. It makes defenses actually have to defend outside the paint, instead of packing it in. So the 3 pointer changed the game.

Rarely do things change on a dime. There were many changes made over the history of NCAA basketball, but the two major changes that had huge impacts on the game were Wilt/Bill and the introduction of the 3. Outside that, the game changes but at a slow steady pace from year to year.

Jacobpaul81 10 years, 9 months ago

Now that I re-read that, Past should be paced, and the shot clock was introduced in the early 80s i do believe. I dont think magic or bird ever had a shot clock. There were time clocks for getting the ball over half court, and the 3 second rule was in place in the 60s-70s, but not sure on the shot clock issue.

FlaHawk 10 years, 9 months ago

I remember watching the 57 title game the olde B&W reception was bad and the lighting in Municipal Auditorium was unbelieveably poor. Game was very boring and not particularly well played. Neither team could play their game. Game got tense only in the last second of regulation and OTs.

Lot's of unspoken racial overtones as NC was lily white and masked as being NYC dudes not NC dudes.Poor WIlt he never had a change witht he saggin zone and UNC was committed to their game plan even though it wa not their style. Coach McGuire had the plan and he was correct! Coach Harp could not find anyone that could hit the side of Municpal AUditorium at 10 -15 feet that night.

Man that was a long time ago!

kvskubball 10 years, 9 months ago


Magic is very deserving of the hype you place on him. However, much of his success as a large point guard can be attributed to his college coach, Jud Heathcote. Most coaches see someone with Magic's size and pigeonhole them as being a forward. I think that many coaches don't always have the willingness to think outside of the box and allow a player to be an anomaly. I also think that Magic had a huge late growth spurt, and had grown up playing the PG position and then morphed it as a 6'9" wunderkind. He was a rare talent but I don't think he is really all that unique. The NBA now has several Point Forwards that handle the ball much of the time as if they were guards...

Well, I'd like to continue but the weather is telling me I better get off my computer...

Fun topic...

kranny 10 years, 9 months ago

Jaybate, I'll have to respectively disagree with you about Magic Johnson. First of all, Magic was a mediocre defender at best. His career rebounding stats are not impressive and he lead the league in steals only one season. In fact Michael Cooper was considered the overall best defender followed probably by Scott and Worthy during Showtime's prime. Secondly, there wasn't anybody who could guard MJ, nobody, hands down. MJ was the league scoring champion for 10 years averaging over 30 points a game and for 6 of those years Magic was in his prime. Michael was a cut above the rest and won every accolade including defensive player of the year. Even Magic himself is quoted as saying that Micheal is the best to ever play the game.

jaybate 10 years, 9 months ago


You make a good case and do so with a civility that makes me respect you very much.

I went through my MJ is the best phase. And I have heard Magic say that about MJ, but Magic just is not the kind of showman to say he is better than MJ. And I watched them both up close and Magic was the better guard and had Magic played it, the better 3. MJ frankly couldn't have held Magic's jock strap as a ball handler. Frankly, the only thing better about MJ was his outside shot.

And regarding saying MJ is the best ever regardless of position, here's the problem:

Wilt and Kareem outscored him.

Bill Russell won way more than he did.

Oscar Robertson said that he himself was better than Jordan as a guard.

Frankly, MJ wasn't the best at anything.

MJ was to basketball, what Joe DiMaggio was to baseball. He was one of the all-time greats, who had enormous charisma, a great run, and was amazingly graceful and skillful. Finally, like joltin' Joe, he had from early on a very sophisticated marketing and image management team packaging him. I believe in retrospect, that as the hypnotic effects of the packaging wain the idea that Jordan was the best of all time will dissipate and he will be recognized for being one of the very great ones, but people will find it increasingly odd that people ever thought him the unparalleled greatest of all time.

As much as I love Wilt, and as great as I think MJ was, and even though I believe Magic was the most unprecedented player, and the one no one has since come close to matching at his position, Bill Russell is the only basketball player who could ever be called the greatest of all time. And I don't even like to call him the greatest of all time. I don't believe anyone can be the greatest of all time. The various positions on the floor are all so different.

But if one had to hang a "greatest of all time" label on someone, it had to be Bill Russell.

kranny 10 years, 9 months ago

Jaybate, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. Makes for interesting conversation though.

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