Throwback to When Magic Johnson’s MSU Beat Larry Bird’s Undefeated Indiana State In 1979 NCAA Finals

Magic Johnson’s MSU against Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA Finals is an iconic piece of College Basketball history, likely due to the legendary careers of both NBA greats.

Published on Apr 15, 2024  |  08:32 PM IST |  61.8K
When Magic Johnson’s MSU Triumphed Over Unbeaten Larry Bird Team
When Magic Johnson’s MSU Triumphed Over Unbeaten Larry Bird Team ( Getty Images )

Larry Bird and Ervin ‘Magic’ Johnson are looked upon as two of the greatest basketball talents to ever take the court. Known for their unwavering attitude and second-to-none potential, both legends played a monumental role in elevating their franchises and came to define the 80s decade of NBA Basketball. 

Drafted just one year apart (Bird-1978, Magic-1979), both young guns became NBA champions just a few seasons into their careers. When the icons eventually met in the NBA finals, they helped shape one of the most memorable and talked about basketball feuds to date. 

While most fans today know of their rivalry and friendship through the NBA, many are unaware of what truly kicked off their competitive feud.

Bird vs Magic: The Beginning

Born to working-class families, both Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson grew up dedicated basketball enthusiasts and understood the values of hard work and sacrifice early on. Despite being polar opposites in terms of personalities, they were equally skilled when they had the ball in their hands. 

Averaging 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds per game, Magic led Everett High School to the state championship in his final year. On the other hand, averaging 31 points, 21 rebounds, and four assists as a senior, Bird led Springs Valley High School in scoring and finished as the school’s all-time scoring leader. 


Though Magic received offers from top programs such as Indiana and UCLA, he decided to remain close to home and committed to Michigan State University (MSU). Unlike Magic, however, Bird committed to the less popular Indiana State University (ISU) after dropping out of Indiana University Bloomington due to adjustment issues.


Having been eliminated in the elite eight during the 1978 NCAA tournament, Magic and MSU returned the next year better than ever, managing to reach the finals. 

Bird’s ISU dominated the Missouri Valley Conference and went undefeated with 33 straight wins. This marked the first time that Indiana State finished with a perfect win/loss record and managed to reach the NCAA finals. 

With both Magic and Bird now in the finals, the stage was set with high stakes and a potential to make history.       

The 1979 NCAA Championship Game 

With two of the most talked-about college athletes at the time taking center court, the 1979 NCAA finals became the most-watched college basketball game in history, a record that stands to this day. 

A seemingly no-name institute that had never reached the tournament was undefeated throughout the season, led by a blonde guy who made them the most popular college team in the country. The other school, led by a sensational 6 '9 point guard, had also managed to make their first finals trip in their 81-year history. 

As the game began, Bird was put under tight defense from the get-go, allowing him limited possessions and field goal opportunities. In his twenty-one attempted field goals, Bird made just seven, finishing with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 5.0 steals. 

Magic scored more freely, shooting eight of fifteen from the field and finishing with 24 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists. 

In the end, the Michigan State Spartans defeated the Indiana State Sycamores 75-64 to lift their maiden National Championship. When looking back at the 1979 finals, Bird has stated on multiple occasions that it was one of the toughest losses of his career. Despite rallying in the second half, the MSU offense proved to be too strong. 

The Magic vs Bird rivalry has inspired many competitive feuds and will continue to be a memorable portion of basketball history. Their willingness to finish on top, yet their dedication to mutual respect will forever be remembered as a true lesson in sportsmanship.    

ALSO READ: When Larry Bird Allegedly Accused David Stern of Rigging 1984 NBA Finals; All You Need to Know

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