It was 40 years ago on March 26 when the Spartans, led by Magic Johnson, topped Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, in the most watched NCAA finals game ever. That game, many have said, put college basketball on the map.
I was a senior a Michigan State University working for the State News and was lucky enough to get the assignment to cover the Spartans in Salt Lake City, Utah. During the season I followed the team to Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbus, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois during the regular season and Tennessee, Indianapolis and Salt Lake City during the tournament.
Needless to say, with all of that traveling I didn’t do a whole lot of studying. But I got to watch one of the greatest basketball players ever lead my favorite team to the national championship.
Jud Heathcote was the coach of that team. He was a gruff, old, smart-alek who would say anything at anytime. Live interviews always were interesting.
He took me to task one time when I misquoted him about Magic. We were on a tight deadline after the game and I had somebody get the quotes while I wrote. By the time the quotes got to me, something was lost in translation and I got it wrong. Instead of quoting Heathcote saying the team basically would be nothing without Magic, I quoted him saying the opposite and the team could survive without him.
He never said anything to me until after the next game when all of the media was there. Before taking any questions, Heathcote looked over the throng of reporters and looked right at me. “Please quote me right this time,” he said to me, making sure all of the other reporters heard him.
He made his point and never said another thing about it.
He did corner me at the Final Four when I was coming out of the media lunch room eating an ice cream bar.
“You aren’t even printing a paper this week, are you?” Heathcote asked with a grin on his face. He knew darn well it was break week and we weren’t printing. “What have you been doing all week?”
Years later, Heathcote retired and Sports Illustrated did a big feature on him. They ran some file photos and one of them was a picture of Magic sitting on the shoulders of his teammates and cutting down the net following the national title game. I was pictured in the background taking it all in.
I found out about the picture from an old buddy of mine, Dave Hirschy, who was an assistant basketball coach for Ken Broz at Norwalk High School.
It was a Friday afternoon and as Hirschy put it, he was in the bathroom at Norwalk Middle School for his pre-game ritual reading Sports Illustrated.
He called me and let me know about the photo.
Heathcote was replaced by Tom Izzo, who is making his eighth trip to the Final Four and matched Heathcote’s national championship in 2000.
This has been a fun ride for me and all Sparty fans around the world. It all started 40 years ago and I am thankful I was part of it.
Joe Centers is Reflector managing editor. He can be reached at [email protected]