Full disclosure: I am reviewing the book written by my oldest son, Seth Davis, "When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball," published by Times Books on the 30th anniversary of the 1979 NCAA college basketball national championship game between Indiana State University, led by Larry Bird, and Michigan State University, led by Ervin "Magic" Johnson.
So, first, how do I justify reviewing my son's book in my own political blog?
I could say that a story about the intersection of the two lives of Larry Bird, from the very Red State of Indiana, and Magic Johnson, from the now very Blue State of Michigan, could be called, to paraphrase the sub-title of Seth's book, "The Purple Game That Transformed Basketball."
But that would be an obvious stretch.
The fact is, while I love my son, I would love his book even if I weren't his father, because it is more than about a basketball game or about sports. It is about a universal experience -- which Seth imparts through careful reporting of the lives, the plots and sub-plots, involving universities, players, coaches, sports writers, and clashing cultures and personalities of rural and urban life in the late 1970s -- all caught up in what famed ABC TV Sports broadcaster Jim McKay described at the time as "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat"
The book reads more like a novel than a non-fiction account of an athletic event. It's more about character development than just about sports. At times it takes on the feel of a "who-done-it" mystery - forcing the reader to keep turning easy-to-read pages and chapters into the wee hours to figure out, how did this clash of titans happen? Where are they now? How do they feel today about the memories?
The Game, itself, was a bit anticlimactic - Michigan State, the Big Ten champion, easily handled undefeated Indiana State, which came into the final game 33-0. MSU won 75-69. Larry Bird played poorly: He finished with 19 points on 7 for 21 shooting; he went 5 for 8 from the foul line, committed 6 turnovers, and had a season-low 2 assists. The last image of him on national TV was with his face in a towel. He refused to talk to the press after the game.
The Game, in fact, has stood up over the last 30 years as the highest Nielsen rated sports event for any basketball game, college or pro, in the history of the sport. That night, nearly a quarter of all TV sets in America were tuned to watch the game. This was before ESPN, which didn't exist at the time, but was about to go on the air for the first time just six months later. So, to put that huge audience in perspective, there weren't several hundreds cable stations competing for viewers that night.
An example of Seth's writing that opens the reader up to the themes of the book that transcend sports:
"Those millions of viewers had no idea they were watching the birth of the most storied rivalry in modern American sports. They were simply drawn in by the dramatic story line ripped straight from the Old Testament: little Indiana State, which had competed in the NCAA's Division I for only ten years, was taking on Michigan State, the might Big Ten team, for the title.... 'This was a classic David versus Goliath story,' Don Ohlmeyer, the executive producer of NBC Sports, which broadcast The Game that night, told Seth for his book. 'It made people feel like this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.'"
In the powerful last chapter, we find ourselves in 2007, 28 years later, in the Roanoke, Virginia living room of Bill Hodges, the Indiana State coach of the '79 game. After he lost that game, life had not been so kind to Mr. Hodges. He lost his job at ISU a couple of years later, and since then bounced aroundn in and out of sports, in and out of jobs. Now Hodges is a history teacher at Roanoke's William Fleming High School. The pathos is palpable.
"I had some good memories, I have some that aren't so good," Seth quotes Hodges telling him as they talk memories of The Game and the disappointing aftermath together that afternoon in his living room. "When you play a game, you lose some, you win some, and you better be willing to accept both with humility."
And then there's the final scene recounted in Seth's last chapter of Larry Bird returning to Terre Haute at ISU in 1999 for the twenty-year reunion of The Game. the entire team was inducted into the Indiana State Hall of Fame. Bird was the final speaker. Obviously, after all these years, and all his professional successes in college basketball, on the Boston Celtics, and to this day running the NBA's Indiana Pacers, the intensely competitive and sensitive Mr. Bird had still not gotten over the pain of not playing as well as he could have that 1979 night. Here's how Seth closes "When March Went Mad," quoting Bird's last words:
" 'I've always been heartbroken by the fact that I wasn't able to bring that championship trophy back to Terre Haute. I didn't play the way that I usually played....'
"When Bird said the word 'way,' his voice quavered and his eyes filled. Then he stopped talking. He took a deep breath. He raised his eyebrows and looked toward the ceiling. He absently used his right fingers to scratch the back of his left hand.
"Finally, he gathered himself and delivered the epitaph for that dream season. 'Hell,' he said, 'Magic was just too tough.' "
Get chills reading this? Son or no son, I sure did.
* * * * *
So I hope readers will forgive me for writing a glowing book review about my own son's book. At least, I hope fathers and mothers who are proud of their children will understand.
Recently, Don Imus interviewed Seth about his book on his nationally syndicated "Imus in the Morning" radio show. After the interview, I emailed Mr. Imus and thanked him for his gentle and positive treatment of my son. This was Mr. Imus' response:
"What a delightful young man. When he talked about you...the look that washed over his face nearly brought tears to my eyes. Charles [Imus' news broadcasting sidekick] and I talked about it later. We both have sons. The respect and love Seth has for you must be a wonderful comfort for you....Lovely kid. Pretty good old man."
Pretty good comment from anyone to a father about his child, I would say.
Originally Published at The Hill's Pundits Blog on March 16, 2009.
Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006 to 2007. He is the author of "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America."
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