DETROIT (AP) – Thirty years later, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are still as captivating.

The duo whose rivalry changed college basketball and turned the NCAA tournament into March Madness, were together again Monday night. The NCAA asked them to present the ball before the title game in honor of the 30th anniversary of their iconic matchup, and the two friends joked and laughed as they reminisced about that game and what it meant to them.

“We played the game the right way. We didn’t play it for ourselves, we played it for our team,” Johnson said when asked why Americans still have a fascination with the two of them. “We were two unique guys being over 6-8, being able to handle the ball, being able to score inside or outside, being able to make the right pass to our teammates. Because we really didn’t care about scoring. We really cared about winning the game.

“And then you have one player black, one player white. One player who smiles, one who don’t – except right now,” Johnson said, flashing that dazzling smile as he put a hand on Bird’s shoulder. “I think it was just special.”

Bird and Johnson were already stars in 1979, but it was a much different era then. There were a handful of channels to choose from, not a few hundred. Players were lucky to get on national television once, maybe twice during the regular season, and there were no Web sites or ESPN to chronicle the every move of every team.

But Magic and Bird produced a seismic shift in the game. Their personalities were as different as their games – Magic was the outgoing city kid with the dazzling smile, Bird was the shy guy from rural Indiana – and the fact that their rivalry continued well into their NBA careers has made their first meeting seem that much more special.

That the fierce rivals became such good friends made them all the more appealing. Their affection was clear Monday, with Johnson often putting his arm around Bird’s shoulders and both making references to conversations they’ve had before. And Bird is still very much Johnson’s straight man.

“I always tell people, Michael (Jordan) was the greatest in the air that I’ve ever seen, and Larry Bird is the greatest that ever played on the ground. Because Larry couldn’t jump but that high,” Johnson said, holding his thumb and index finger slightly apart.

“Not like you was flying through the air either,” Bird deadpanned. “Trip over the painted lines.”

Johnson revels in his memories of that ’79 game – no surprise, considering his Michigan State Spartans beat Bird and Indiana State. It remains, he said, the most special title he’s ever won. No small thing, considering he won NBA titles and an Olympic gold medal, too.

For Bird, the memories are a little tougher. He sobbed at the end of the game, not for himself, but for his teammates, his school and the city of Terre Haute, Ind.

To this day, he’s never watched the game.

“I watched it enough for him and I,” Johnson chimed in.

MJ vs. Magic

Magic vs. Michael for the title again?

It was suggested Monday that if the national championship game were tied after overtime, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan should decide the outcome with a game of 1-on-1.

Both Hall of Famers – Jordan was elected Monday – won national championships for their teams and are expected to be in the stands cheering on their schools. Jordan’s jumper from the left wing lifted North Carolina past Georgetown for the 1982 title. Johnson led Michigan State over Larry Bird and Indiana State three decades ago.

Jordan got the better of Johnson in the NBA, leading the Bulls to the first of their six titles with a five-game victory in the 1991 finals.

Talk of a rematch brought out the trash talk in the notoriously competitive Jordan.

“You really think he can beat me?” Jordan said. “He couldn’t beat me in the finals at all.”

Emotional boost

Michigan State’s run in the NCAA tournament has provided a welcome emotional boost to the economically struggling state, Gov. Jennifer Granholm said Monday.

“Not to put more pressure on them of course, but they really have become a symbol for our state,” said Granholm, who wore a green Michigan State sweat shirt under her dark business jacket Monday at the state Capitol in Lansing. “You know, a symbol of what can happen when you work really hard. As (coach) Tom Izzo says he’s got a blue-collar team, and all they do is work, work, work. It’s a great statement about them, certainly. But it’s a great, uplifting moment for us.”

Next generation

Michael Jordan took a moment to greet Ty Lawson after the North Carolina junior won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard.

“You ready?” Jordan asked Lawson, putting his hand on his shoulder.

Jordan said he wouldn’t speak to the team before the game, noting that he didn’t do so before the Tar Heels beat Illinois for the 2005 title.

But if he were?

“These are the games that are a lot of fun because the expectations are a lot higher,” Jordan said. “The stakes are a lot higher. But that’s what you live for. That’s what’s fun about it. I’d tell the guys just go out and be who you are and have fun.”

Championship parallels?

North Carolina’s path to the national championship game has a familiar feel, especially when compared to the Tar Heels’ past two title runs.

All three teams went into the final with almost identical records to face opponents from the Big Ten conference. Heading into Monday’s game against Michigan State, the Tar Heels had the same 33-4 record as the 1993 team that beat Michigan’s “Fab Five.” The 2005 team was 32-4 before beating Illinois.

In addition, all three teams lost at Wake Forest in January and headed into the NCAA tournament following a close loss in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament despite winning the league’s regular-season crown. The 1993 team lost in the ACC final by two points, while the 2005 and 2009 squads both lost in the semifinals by three points.

On Monday morning, Ty Lawson won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard just as Raymond Felton did the morning of the ’05 title game.

Lawson did manage to avoid one unwanted similarity.

Coach Roy Williams said Felton nearly dropped the award when it was presented to him and threw his back out trying to hold on to it. He said Felton needed about two hours of massage from a therapist before the game.

No such drama with Lawson, who held his hands under the award and rested it against his chest for a photo.

“I have coached Tywon to have his feet spread shoulder-width apart with the weight distributed on the balls of his feet,” Williams said. “When he’s handed the award, it’ll show you part of leadership is taking coaching.”

Proud papa

Gene Hansbrough has watched his son go from always-heralded to often-criticized after returning to North Carolina for his senior season. Now Tyler Hansbrough and the Tar Heels are playing for the national championship.

“Like Tyler said, he loves his teammates, and he loves his coaches,” said Gene Hansbrough, who watched Saturday’s win against Villanova from a front-row seat at Ford Field. “Life will never get better than being a basketball player at Chapel Hill, so why give up a year of it if you don’t have to?”

Buzzzzzzz

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says he’s going to fulfill his promise of shaving his head.

Izzo told students he would do it if the team won its first Big Ten conference championship since 2001 and acknowledged – again – his plans for a buzz cut.

“I’m probably dumb enough to do it,” Izzo said. “I don’t exactly know when.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.