Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Book Review: When March Went Mad


by Seth Davis

(buy the book)

On the eve of the 30th Anniversary of the NCAA Tournament championship game between Michigan State, led there by (as he was so often and so thoroughly referred to then) Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and Indiana State, carried there by Larry Bird, Seth Davis gives the (still) highest-rated championship game in history the book-length treatment. The championship game itself was neither well-played nor close enough to carry a book on its own so Davis soundly chose not to just recount the story of the season (though he does that well) but also to extend the backstory to the recruitment of Bird and Johnson* as well as describing how many of their teammates got to Indiana State and Michigan State, respectively.

*The 30-year-old tales of recruiting are simultaneously quaint and suggestive of how common extra benefits were in those days.

Neither Bird nor Johnson spoke with Davis for the book; not that there's a lack of source material to draw on regarding either's biography. Rather than have the absence of their first-person accounts limit the scope of the book, Davis allows himself more room to sketch portraits of the two coaches: Jud Heathcote and Bill Hodges. Davis obviously spent a lot of time talking to both men and it's period-appropriate that the book be, at times, dominated by the head coaches as much as the college game often was in the pre-shot clock era.

Hodges has the more interesting story, getting the Indiana State job before the season only after head coach Bob King suffered a brain aneurysm. Davis argues convincingly that Hodges' remarkable success in his initial season ultimately derailed his coaching career as Hodges, for reasons both in and out of his control, failed, with his subsequent Indiana State teams, to remain competitive on a national level.

Heathcote, who coached Michigan State for 20 years, is the more familiar figure but Davis makes full use of Heathcote's sarcastic wit* and storytelling acumen.

*Though Davis does fall into a trap all too typical of writers of sports books by not trusting readers to recognize Heathcote's sarcasm even in context and, thus, grinding a paragraph to a halt to reassure the reader that the immediately preceding quote was Heathcote being funny rather than an asshole.

Best of all for a serious basketball fan, Davis watched tape of as many Sycamore and Spartan games as possible from the 1978-79 season and ably augments the contemporary accounts with his own observations. In this respect and without making a big deal about it, Davis succeeds in bridging the gap between then, when Bird and Johnson were new and their games were unusual and magnificent enough to inspire mixed-up confusion as often as adoration, and now, when their games are iconic and revered.

It's jarring for someone my age (first basketball memory: the 1982 NCAA Championship Game) to read period accounts which are skeptical and/or critical of the young Bird and Johnson. To his credit, Davis doesn't retroactively score scornful points* against those who wrote what would prove to be profoundly wrong opinions about two of the greatest basketball players** ever to live, rather he uses them to accurately re-create the tenor of the time.

*Though he does, with a friendly manner, establish how long-standing his former CBS colleague Billy Packer's dismissive skepticism of college basketball teams from non-power conferences is.

**It's also useful to remember that neither player was finished developing as a basketball player. Bird turned the ball over 17 times in the '79 Final Four.

Similarly, Davis succeeds in describing how different college basketball was 30 years ago without (as Frank Deford unfortunately does in his blurb for the book) making a value judgment about one era versus the other. I think this quality speaks to Davis' interest in and appreciation of college basketball. He neither dismisses the palpable excitement of the time, when, for most people, Larry Bird existed as more myth than (young) man for much of the season nor passes up the opportunity to gather and process as much information as possible to tell the most complete version he can of the 1978-79 basketball seasons for these two teams.

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