There’s a slew of stories about the 1979 NCAA title game right now. Linked below is the one that appears in today’s Indy Star. My favorite quote is clipped as well, and it’s one that appears in some form in most of the articles, books, and specials about the game. I like it because it reminds us of how much the world and sports has changed in the past 30 years.
“An old teammate at Denver called me,” Heaton recalled. “He couldn’t believe Larry Bird was a white.”
Earlier this week I linked to the NYT Magazine cover story about a 12-year-old basketball player. If you follow college basketball, chances are you can rattle off the names of a few high school players your favorite team is recruiting. If you’re a serious fan, you probably know a lot more about those recruits than just their names. And when a phenom comes along, we get immediate information overload about the kid.
But 30 years ago, there were people who didn’t know Larry Bird was white until the final regular season game of his senior year. I think that’s kind of awesome.
Expanding on that, when Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks had that crazy scoring run in February, it made me think of when I first started following basketball in the late 70s. Back then it seemed like all the really good teams had one awesome player, and he was all you heard about.* And then there were guys like Meeks, who weren’t on great teams, but poured in points every night. The stars and the scorers all seemed larger than life.
(I lived in southeast Missouri at the time, so Kentucky’s Kyle Macy was the first guy I remember who stood on that pedestal.)
(One of the three over-the-air TV stations in the area was from Paducah, KY, thus the UK coverage.)
Some of that was certainly just being a kid, discovering the game, and having limited access to information. But, a lot of it was also due to the same conditions that hid the fact Larry Bird was white from a significant part of the country. There was one college game on TV each weekend. There was no 24 hour sports news network. There was hardly any live, local TV coverage of college games for that matter. So most likely what your local evening news carried was a list of the local and ranked teams’ scores without any highlights. Same for your paper, which was also unlikely to have pictures attached to the capsules for out-of-town games.
We live in the golden age of sports coverage, where the internet and cable/satellite dishes can let any fan nearly anywhere follow their favorite teams from around the globe. But there’s also less mystery about the games and the players, and through that, perhaps less romanticism and legend involved.