1979 MICHIGAN STATE
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Greatest College Basketball Teams: Spotlight 1979 Michigan State
Should the Michigan State Spartans basketball team be included on the list of the greatest ever? They went 26-6 and won the NCAA Championship in 1979. The following year, however, the Spartans went only 12-15 despite having all but two of their players back. They placed ninth out of 10 teams in the Big Ten. On the other hand, five of the six losses were by three points or less and the main reason for the steep drop off between 1979 and 1980 is that one of the two players who didn’t come back was Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson, arguably the best basketball player ever. Michigan State’s coach Jud Heathcote summed up Johnson’s talents best when he said “He always made the guys he played with better.”
Earvin Johnson grew up in Lansing, Michigan, one of ten children of a General Motors factory worker. As a boy, he received a basketball as a present. “I slept with my basketball,” Johnson later said. “I practiced all day. I dribbled to the store with my right hand and back with my left.”
Johnson attended Everett High School in Lansing. A local reporter gave him the nickname “Magic” when, as a 15-year-old sophomore, Johnson scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and had 16 assists in a single game. His senior year, Johnson led Everett to a 27-1 record and the state championship.
Although recruited by the top basketball schools, Johnson chose to attend Michigan State in Lansing. The Spartans went from 10-17 in 1977 to 25-5 in 1978, Johnson’s freshman year. As a freshman, Johnson averaged 17 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game.
As a sophomore in 1979, Johnson averaged 17.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.4 assists. His broad smile and willingness to do anything for the team made him a natural leader. “He was the coach out there on the floor,” Jud Heathcote said. "He's been this happy ever since he was knee-high to a duck," his mother said. “Nobody doesn’t like Magic Johnson,” a writer once said. Teammate Greg Elser said, “I’m one of his biggest fans.” Even rival Larry Bird couldn’t help but like him. “Every time I see him, I'm happier," Bird said.
His ability to drive to the basket and draw fouls enabled him to set Michigan State season records for free throws (202) and free throw attempts (240) in 1979 that still stand. Defensively, Johnson used his height advantage and amazing quickness to put pressure on opposing guards and steal the ball. He set the Michigan State season record for steals in 1979 with 75.
Johnson’s ball handling skills and passing ability are legendary. At 6’8”, Johnson had an ability to see the floor that smaller guards didn’t have. When Johnson was a boy, his father said “Give the ball to others to score.” After scoring 45 points per game in his first three games his senior year in high school, his high school coach told him his teammates were just standing around watching him. The next game, Johnson scored 12 points and had 18 assists. "He is the only player who can take three shots and still dominate a game," Hall of Famer Julius Erving said.
Johnson’s 8.4 assists per game in 1979 are a Michigan State single season record. “You’re running down the floor and you’re open and most people can’t get the ball to you through two or three people,” teammate Terry Donnelly said, describing playing with Johnson, “but all of the sudden the ball’s in your hands and you’ve got a layup.” Michael Cooper, one of Johnson’s teammates in the NBA, agreed. "There have been times when he has thrown passes and I wasn't sure where he was going. Then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run back up the floor convinced that he must've thrown it through somebody." UCLA star Bill Walton said he watched Johnson orchestrate the fast break in an NBA game and was amazed. ''Split-second decisions every time,” Walton said, “and he never made a single wrong pass. Not once.''
Teammate Greg Kelser said “Earvin was absolutely stunning in his grasp of the game, his knowledge of the game and certainly his control of the game. Then, throw in all the charisma and everything mental that he brought to the court, and you’ve got just an unbelievable package.”
What Johnson couldn’t do when he was at Michigan State was shoot. He had the worst field goal percentage of any starter on the team. Of course, he didn’t have Magic Johnson passing him the ball.
Johnson was named an All-American in 1979. Johnson left Michigan State after just two years. He was the number one pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1979 NBA draft. Larry Bird beat out Johnson for Rookie of the Year honors, but the Lakers won the NBA Championship and Johnson was MVP of the NBA finals.
During his NBA career, Johnson was an all-star nine consecutive seasons, league MVP three times and NBA finals MVP three times. His 11.2 assists per game is an NBA record. In 1992, Johnson won an Olympic gold medal on the first USA basketball “dream team.” "Magic is head-and-shoulders above everybody else," rival Larry Bird once told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I've never seen [anybody] as good as him."
High flying, dunking senior forward Greg Kelser was the number one target of Johnson’s passes. “Special K” led the 1979 Spartans in scoring with 18.8 points per game and in rebounds with 8.7 per game. Kelser holds the all-time Michigan State career record for rebounds with 1,092. He was an Academic All-American and team captain in 1979. Kelser was the fourth pick in the 1979 NBA draft and averaged 9.7 points per game in seven NBA seasons.
Sophomore center Jay Vincent averaged 12.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in 1979. Vincent was a second round pick in the NBA draft in 1981, but played in the NBA for nine years, averaging 15.2 points per game.
Junior forward Ron Charles averaged 8.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game for the Spartans in 1979. Charles holds the Michigan State records for career and season field goal percentage (.639 and .676 in 1980, respectively). His .665 shooting percentage in 1979 ranks second only to his record setting 1980 performance.
Junior shooting guard Terry Donnelly (6.6 pts) complemented Kelser, Vincent and Charles with great outside shooting. Had the three pointer existed in 1979, he would have taken a lot more shots.
The 1979 Spartans won their first three games easily before traveling to North Carolina to play the number 13 Tar Heels. North Carolina beat the Spartans 70-69.
After six more wins, the Spartans hit a rough patch. In a seven game stretch, Michigan State lost four games on the road and needed overtime to win two games at home. The low point of the season was an 83-65 loss to Northwestern. After that game, the team had a meeting and agreed to practice and play harder. The stars took the meeting to heart. “Johnson and Kelser were our hardest working players in practice,” Heathcote said.
After the rough spot, Michigan State won all of their regular season games until the last game of the season at Wisconsin. The Badgers beat the Spartans 83-81.
Michigan State started the NCAA Tournament by blowing out Lamar 95-64. Kelser scored 31. In the second game, Michigan State pounded number seven LSU 87-71. In the regional finals, Michigan State beat number four Notre Dame 80-68. Johnson had 13 assists.
In the semifinals, Michigan State crushed number nine Pennsylvania 101-67. Johnson scored 29 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and had 10 assists. Kelser scored 28 and had nine rebounds.
In the NCAA championship game, Michigan State faced Larry Bird and the top ranked, undefeated Indiana State Sycamores. Michigan State’s defense was too much for the Sycamores. Bird managed 19 points on 7 for 21 shooting from the field. Johnson scored 24 points, pulled down 7 rebounds and had 5 assists. Kelser scored 19, with 8 rebounds and 9 assists.
Johnson and Kelser were both named to the All-Tournament team. Johnson was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.
Name Pos Class Pts Reb Ast
Greg Kelser F SR 18.8 8.7 1.8
Earvin Johnson G/F SO 17.1 7.3 8.4
Jay Vincent C SO 12.7 5.2 1.2
Ron Charles F JR 8.8 5.1 0.4
Mike Brkovich G SO 7.0 1.8 1.2
Terry Donnelly G JR 6.6 1.6 2.0
Gerald Busby F FR 2.3 0.9 0.5
Rob Gonzalez F FR 1.7 1.0 0.2
Greg Lloyd G JR 1.4 0.5 0.6
Rick Kaye F/C SO 1.3 0.6 0.1
How would the 1979 Michigan State Spartans do against the teams of today? How would they handle the shot clock and the three pointer?
The 1979 Michigan State Spartans had one of the best basketball players ever. Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson could do it all. Athletic forward Greg Kelser was a great inside scorer and a first round NBA draft pick. Guard Terry Donnelly had an excellent outside shot, and would definitely be dangerous with the three pointer. The Spartans certainly wouldn’t have to worry about the shot clock with their high flying fast break style. With no player taller than the 6’8” Johnson, Michigan State might not dominate inside as much today as they did in 1979. However, Michigan State would be a very good team today.
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