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Sunday, April 5, 2009
Updated: April 6, 2:37 PM ET
Bird and Magic: In Their Own Words

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA in 1979 -- back when games were still shown on tape delay -- and together lifted the sport of basketball to unprecedented heights.

Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers won five NBA titles, and he was a three-time MVP. Bird also won three MVPs, and his Boston Celtics won three NBA titles. Their rivalry was fascinating, a compelling clash of gifted equals, who were so utterly different in position and personality. They met head-to-head three times in the NBA finals, with Johnson coming away with two championships.

In the end, when Johnson was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, he asked Bird to present him.

But there was a beginning, too, a glorious spark 30 years ago that changed the college game and set off this classic rivalry: The 1979 NCAA championship game, played in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was Bird's 33-0, No. 1-ranked Indiana State Sycamores versus Johnson's Michigan State Spartans. To this day, it is still the highest-rated college basketball game of all-time.

These days, Johnson is a high-profile supporter of his Spartans as they try to complete their magical tournament run with Monday night's national-title game in Detroit. ESPN recently interview he and Bird. Here, in their own words, is the story of that seminal game:

Bird: Going into the Finals, 33-0, that was something I never dreamed about.

Magic: We didn't know it was going to be this big -- but we knew it was big. It was a big stage for both of us.

Bird: It wasn't Michigan State; it was playing for the national championship. I mean, you can't beat that. And having the opportunity to play at the highest level. It's something you never forget.

Magic and Bird
The matchup between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird is still the highest-rated college hoops game ever.

Magic: You had two big men who played the game "different" than they had seen before -- that we could dribble, pass, shoot, take it the length of the court ourselves. I got a chance to play with Larry Bird the summer before -- the World Invitational Tournament. And I knew how great he was. I mean, this guy could shoot 30 feet out, as well as his will to win and his toughness is what really impressed me as well.

Bird: I remember watching them play and I knew. I even told my teammates, "I think that's the best team in the country."

Magic: I told my teammates, I said, "You're basically going to play against me." Because we mirrored each other … "so we have to understand that we can't let him get going on both the offensive side -- with his scoring ability -- as well as getting everybody involved."

Bird: He was pretty spectacular. I was more of a scorer then, and I just knew playing with him, you get a lot of easy shots. Different mindset. I thought maybe we had a chance if everybody played well, but just the way they played, and their length, and their quickness, and the way they could score points, I knew I had to play a perfect game.

Magic: I think the most intriguing thing was one of those players was black, and one was white. So it just captured everybody's imagination.

Bird: It's just two guys that try to play the game the right way, I guess. And you know, coming from a small school, a state school, and playing against a big powerhouse out of the Big 10, and I guess it just got everybody's imagination riled up.

Magic: I knew he was the ultimate competitor like I'm the ultimate competitor. So when you got a guy on the opposite side of you and he's just like you, you better be scared!

Bird: We knew the refs wouldn't call no fouls on him. So we had to tighten it up.

Magic: Coach [Jud] Heathcote called me up [before practice] and said, "Today, I'm going to use you as Larry Bird." And I said, "Huh?" He said, "Yeah, you're going to be on the scout team today. I don't have anyone who can emulate Larry's game, but you." And so I said, "OK, so does that mean I get the freedom to shoot anytime I want?" He said, "Yeah." You're not going to believe this: I shot probably 10 or 12 shots, and I hit them all in a row -- 10 or 12 in a row.

Bird: Well, our game was basically the same all the way through. I was gonna touch the ball every time down, try to make a play, or get myself in a position to score

The game itself did not live up to the hype. Bird had four steals in the first half but shot only 4-for-11 from the field. As a result, Indiana State trailed 37-28, then saw Michigan State run out to a 16-point lead. But when the Spartans' leading scorer, Greg Kelser, was called for his fourth foul, Indiana State came back, eventually cutting the lead to six points with just over 10 minutes left. That was when Johnson -- who would be named Most Outstanding Player -- took over, scoring seven of his game-high 24 points in the next five minutes. Final score: Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64. Bird finished with 19 points on 7-for-21 shooting from the floor.

Bird: It broke my heart that I wasn't able to bring back a championship to the city of Terre Haute and the Indiana State Sycamores because I put so much into that. It hurts just as much today as it did back then.

Magic
Johnson helped the Spartans win a title 30 years ago in Salt Lake City. Can his alma mater pull it off again Monday?

Magic: That's what it was all about for all of us -- just winning. Not the individual awards, not scoring the most points. It was all about winning, and making our teammates better. Nobody has ever played this game that I've seen that has made their teammates better more than Larry Bird.

Bird: If you're a competitor, you want to play against the best, and I thought he was the best.

Magic: We hadn't seen anybody like Larry Bird and we still haven't seen anybody today like Larry Bird. It couldn't be Larry Bird versus somebody else. It couldn't have been Magic Johnson versus anybody else. It wouldn't have been the same.

Bird: It's pretty surprising to me because there's been a lot of great champions throughout the years, a lot of great finals, but it seems like every five years, they keep bringing this one up.

Magic: That was the game. That was it. America got to see the two new guys that was on the horizon, two guys who really, I think, were the ambassadors to the NCAA that really represented college basketball to the highest level. We put the madness in March. And I think that's why people will always remember that.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.