As a sports fan you can see games being played on T.V. all day. Given the global reach of major sports, it doesn’t matter what the time of year or time of day is. If you want sports, you got it. Even Christmas Day isn’t safe from the reaches of major sports broadcasting with the NBA now a tradition in many houses. Sports games are always being played.
But when was the last time you watched a heavily viewed college basketball game? Was it the 2015 National Championship game with Duke and Wisconsin? The 2021 National Title game with Baylor and Gonzaga? Or maybe you genuinely don’t remember. I can guarantee that the most televised college game ever you would’ve never guessed correctly.
What is the most watched college basketball game ever?The 1979 NCAA College Basketball title game is the most viewed college basketball game in history. The game was played between the powerhouse Michigan State, out of the Big Ten conference vs a small school, Indiana State. The two teams faced off on March 26th, 1979 at the Special Events Center located in Salt Lake City, Utah. The NBC network hosted the game with an amazing 35.1 million viewers from around the world who checked in to watch the game.
Only 15,410 people were in actual attendance for the game. But the amount of people who watched the game over television is historical in volume.
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Why was 1979 the most watched College Basketball game ever?
The previous year at the NCAA Final Fours Tournament there were only about 200 people at most in attendance from the media. But the 1979 title game was a lot different. It was 400 different people who worked for different parts of the media in attendance for the game. Billy Packer, Al McGuire and Dick Enberg were the announcers of the game on NBC.
But the anticipation and hype towards the game was definitely worth it. The Michigan State Spartans were led by Magic Johnson. While Indiana State was being led by Larry Bird. Heard of them?
Before the start of the 1978-1979 season Bob King had decided to step down as the Head Basketball Coach for Indiana State. Unfortunately he had suffered a heart attack. Bill Hodges replaced King as the Head Coach of the Hoosiers. To everyone’s surprise they started off the season looking very good. The first game of the season they beat Lawrence 99-56. After defeating Lawrence they would go on to play Purdue the second game of the season and win that game by 10 points. A strong start for the new coach. During Indiana State’s third game of the season Larry Bird, who had been drafted to the Boston Celtics and decided to play a final year in college before signing his pro contract, would go on to drop a huge 40 points in a game against Evansville. Even though it was a close game, Indiana State still managed to pull off the victory. After the Evansville victory Indiana State would go on a monster streak and the hype started to build. Larry Bird was the returning leader and star of the team coming back in as a senior. The previous season his Junior season, he had averaged 30 points per game.
Bird was the only returning starter from the previous season. He was the leader and star of the team coming back in as a senior. The previous he had averaged 30 points per game. The other four starters from the 1977-1978 season had gone on to graduate.
Larry Bird’s lowest scoring game of the season came not too long after the victory against Evansville. They were playing against Bradley. Bradley’s defensive strategy coming into the game was to play the triangle-and -two defense against Indiana State. Bradley’s team executed on their strategy and it worked. They were successful in containing Bird to only four points that night. Indiana State still managed to pull off the victory that night, a testament to the Legends’ selfless play and leadership. His future stardom was painfully clear to everyone.
By February 13th Indiana State was the top ranked team in the country and they had won all of their 16 games against MVC competition and remained undefeated.
Magic Johnson and the NCAA Title
Coming into the start of the 1978-1979 season Jud Heathcote was the Michigan State Head Coach. Heathcote had returning star player Magic Johnson coming back to school as a sophomore, this would be his final season before joining the NBA and changing basketball forever.
But Johnson had already proven the previous season to be a very good and promising player. He had helped the Spartans win the Big Ten Conference Championship as a freshman. That was Michigan State’s first solo conference title since the 1958-1959 season. Johnson and the Spartans started off the season strong with three straight wins. But in their fourth game of the season they lost a very close game by one point to North Carolina. 69-70.
After the loss to North Carolina they made up for that by going on a six game win streak. By early January they were a top ranked team. But shortly after being high ranked in January the Spartans would go on to lose back to back games against Purdue and Illinois. After those two consecutive losses it caused them to fall five places in the polls. The Michigan State Spartans were ranked the second seed going into the Mideast Regional for the NCAA Tournament. Through all this though, Magic Johnson had proven his metal, no one doubted he was ready. The anticipation for Magic vs Bird was palpable.
What happened in the 1979 NCAA Basketball Final?
Immediately after the tip-off Michigan State got the ball. But Magic Johnson committed a traveling violation by tripping over Indiana State player Brad Miley feet. Indiana State then got the ball and Steve Reed scored the first basket of the game. Jud Heathcote’s and Michigan State’s plan going into the game was to collapse all of the defenders on Larry Bird whenever he got near the baseline so that he couldn’t score. But early on in the first half Kelser and Johnson both picked up three fouls. By picking up those early foul’s Heathcote had no choice but to sit the players so they wouldn’t risk fouling out. Going into the second half Michigan State was winning 37-28.
Magic Johnson and the Spartans came out of the second half to a very strong start. Kelser scored a bucket for the Spartans six feet away from the basket. After Kelser scored the basket Michigan State went on to score seven consecutive points. By doing this their lead was now up to 16 points.
Michigan State was leading 50-34 when Bird and Indiana State started to make a comeback. Indiana State had cut the lead down to 10 points after Bob Heaton and Bird scored baskets.
Kelser committed his fourth foul in the game with 4:27 remaining in the second half. Kelser was replaced by Jay Vincent. Even though Vincent replaced Kelser who was in foul trouble he wasn’t much of a factor. He was suffering from a foot bruise and even though he only played 19 minutes in the whole game he still committed four fouls. Indiana Coach Bill Hodges recognized that Vincent was the weaker link now that Kessler had to sit out because he was in foul trouble.
Indiana State’s strategy was to keep attacking the basket with Larry Bird. And they were successful at it. Indiana State had cut the lead down to 52-46 with 10:05 remaining in the game. Michigan State’s coach put Kelser back in the game to stop Indiana State’s run.
Once Kessler checked back in the game him and Johnson were both responsible for the next eight points that the Spartans scored. In those eight points Magic Johnson dunked on Heaton and was fouled in the process, he also had a four point play and made two free throws.
The Spartans burned a lot of time off of the clock the last five minutes of the game. Michigan State would go on to win 75-64 to become National Champions, inflicting the first defeat of the season on a string Indiana Team.
Magic Johnson had a great game for the Spartans. He finished the night with 24 points, but he was also 8 of 15 shooting. Kelser also had a very strong game. He led Michigan State in rebounds with 8 and finished the night with 19 points.
For the Hoosiers, big man Donnelly was the only other player besides Bird to score in the double figures. Donnelly finished the game with 15 points and made all five of his field goal attempts. Larry Bird led Indiana State in scoring. He finished the night with 19 points. But he also had the most rebounds out of either team with 13.
The game lived up to the hype. Both the stars shined brightly and the game was competitive, if ultimately the bigger school did manage to grab the win. It would set the tone for what the Bird Magic rivalry would bring to the NBA. Excitement, Drama, Narrative and most importantly… fans!
Both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird turned professional after the season. But what’s even more impressive is how the two managed to keep their rivalry going throughout their careers.
Magic and Bird both not only changed the game of basketball that night by holding the record for viewers which still hasn’t been broken. They also changed the history of both the franchises whom they played their careers for and the modern game of basketball.