Review: When March Went Mad: the Game That Transformed Basketball

The title of When March Went Mad: the Game That Transformed Basketball is misleading.  It's not a book about the 1979 NCAA Basketball Championship Game between Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores and Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans, which is still the highest-rated college basketball game of all time.  That's probably a good thing, since the game wasn't that great.

First and foremost, WMWM is instead a book about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Coaches Jud Heathcote and Bill Hodges, and both teams' supporting casts.  Like a documentary, the story in WMWM recounts the roads Magic and Bird took to their respective schools, and the roads their teams took to the Final Four.  It's a great narrative, and does a good job of painting the world of college basketball in the late 70s (the Big 8 Coaches of the 80s make guest appearances: Johnny Orr at Michigan, Billy Tubbs at Lamar, and Danny Nee as a Notre Dame assistant).

Of course, the history lesson is only the framework of the real themes of the book.  At its heart, WMWM is about two things.  One is stated, and provides the framework of the narrative.  In the prologue, Davis recounts the production meeting before NBC's broadcast of the championship game, where Don Ohlmeyer recognized the birth of spectacle: Magic and Bird were far bigger than anything else about this game.  1979 was a year that transformed the way America watches sports.  ESPN was born, the NBA was about to erupt into the biggest thing around, and the NCAA Tournament went from a niche event to the biggest month in sports.

The other theme present through the book is leadership.  Magic and Bird were great players not because they were scoring machines (though they were) but because they could do so much.  The best game skill either possessed was their ability to pass -- distributing the ball to where their teammates could do the most damage.  They were great on-the-floor leaders, and it showed.  Likewise, the coaches, Heathcoate and Hodges, demonstrate highly contrasting styles, but both achieving the same results.

Seth Davis, a college basketball analyst for Sports Illustrated and CBS, adds his own touch to the narrative.  His connections throughout the college basketball world are a big asset, as he is able to connect with all the people who played major roles in the 1979 season, and his ability to connect the world of sports before the Game and after makes it an informative and entertaining read.  Moreover, his focus on the human aspects of the season, especially the stars, makes it an enjoyable and relatable read, highly recommended for any fan of college basketball, or sports in general.

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