The books for this column wound up flagged with two bookmarks - one keeping my place, another my son’s. We take basketball smack seriously here; I played high school ball and coached Will’s team from first through fourth grade (our last season was undefeated, and yes I’m bragging). Now, he’s on a travel squad as a 12-year-old forward with a nice Paul Pierce pump-fake. Will inhales the Globe’s sports pages; his room is glossy with sports magazines and books. And when March Madness blasts forth, our house is both snowy with brackets and hot with trash talk. Duke win this year? No way, Wichita State!
There’s a good sweet 16 of books on the subject, but these are our final four picks. Best to go in order of game year, and thus “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball’’ (Holt, 2010) about the 1979 matchup between Magic Johnson and Michigan State vs. Larry Bird and Indiana State. It’s still got the highest Nielsen rating of any NCAA game ever. ESPN was brand new, Bird and Johnson launched their famous rivalry, and the story was irresistible.
There’s Bird, quitting Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers after 24 days, leaving Bloomington, which felt like Paris to a boy from the poorest county in the state. He goes home to French Lick to work on a garbage truck and then he’s coaxed, instead, to the much less fabled Indiana State by new coach Bill Hodges, who tracked him down at the local laundromat. But would a freshman Bird bolt Terre Haute, too? (“It was like holding your breath for a year,’’ said Hodges.)
And Magic’s story is equally dramatic; the hero of hometown Lansing was as gregarious as Bird was shy (Bird “talked like Harpo Marx,’’ as one sportswriter cracked) and also opted out of the fancier university. He chose Lansing’s Michigan State because his parents couldn’t afford to drive far to watch him - and 5,000 local schoolchildren signed a petition begging him to stay. Lowbrow schools, star players, crazy ambitious big men who play like guards; just a juicy plotline. But the game itself? A fizzle; Michigan beat Indiana, 75 to 64, with Johnson shining and Bird having an off night. Still, that sense of buildup would color broadcasts from then on.
“Do you think Bobby Knight is crazy?’’ I asked Will while reading John Feinstein’s “A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers’’ (Fireside, 1986). “Yeah, Mom, he’s crazy, but you have to be kind of crazy to coach at that level,’’ he answered. “And passionate. No one’s more passionate than Knight.’’ You got that right. The man is hard to abide - the book follows him the year after the famous chair-throwing incident - but Will’s such a fan of Feinstein, the dean of sports writing, that I held my nose. I wasn’t sorry; this is a riveting book.
“It was a dangerous game,’’ as Feinstein writes of Knight’s tactics: “[P]ut pressure on them now so they will react well to pressure from opponents later.’’ When a few players don’t give it their all one game, Knight kicks them off the team plane. He screams at Daryl Thomas that he “hasn’t scored a basket inside since Jesus Christ was lecturing in Omaha!’’ He gets a technical in the first 90 seconds of a game against Iowa. Still the man won three NCAA championships, and is Division I’s second-highest-winning coach of all time. Homage is due.
For sheer thrills, turn to “The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and The 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball’’ (Penguin, 2012). ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski gives a truly heart-pounding account of this 1992 East Regional final game in alternating chapters from either team’s side (including quotes from the players’ moms, thank you very much!).
Kentucky, its program gutted after scandals the year before, was a distinct underdog, with only a handful of players who decided not to transfer - now known as “The Unforgettables’’ - and one, Sean Woods, sank a shot in overtime that put it Kentucky 103-Duke 102 with 2.1 seconds left. But then, the miracle: Duke’s Grant Hill hurled a perfect 80-foot inbound pass to Christian Laettner - he’d gone 10 for 10 that night - who hit a jumper to win the game. The portraits of haughty Laettner plus brilliant coaches Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski are (I have to say it) unforgettable.
And who could also forget last year’s Cinderella story? “Underdawgs: How Brad Stevens and Butler University Built the Bulldogs for March Madness’’ (Scribner, 2012) by Indianapolis Star reporter David Woods, offers up a coach a mom can like: Stevens is as calm as Bobby Knight is volatile. And Will and I agree this is the “Moneyball’’ story of basketball. Such stats! The smallest school in 40 years to make the Final Four, with only 4,200 students; the youngest coach to reach the Final Four, at age 34); the odds of making it to back-to-back NCAA finals, 1000 to 1. This Indiana school can’t afford stars, but instead teaches and recruits for “The Butler Way.’’ It “denies selfishness, accepts reality, yet seeks improvement everyday.’’ A winning philosophy for basketball and, as I tell my power forward son, life.