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.