On March 26, 1979, Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson, played Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, for the NCAA championship. The Spartans were the powerhouse team from the Big Ten, led by the charismatic, urban superstar. The Sycamores began the season picked to finish fourth in something called the Missouri Valley Conference. They somehow reached the game's ultimate stage with a 33-0 record and ranked No. 1 in the polls. Yet, many so-called experts wondered if they were, in the parlance of sports, "for real."
The public sensed that if these teams played 10 times, Michigan State would win seven, maybe even eight or nine. But they weren't going to play 10 times. They would play once. And in a one-game scenario, the thinking went, anything can happen, so you better watch.
You better watch.
That, boiled to its essence, is the entire point of the NCAA tournament. This is not a postseason tournament like those of the NBA, NHL, or Major League Baseball, decided by best-of-five or best-of-seven series. The NCAAs are one-and-done, with everything at stake. It's where Cinderella actually gets invited to the dance. Sometimes she even scores the hottest date.
Think about it. One of the most iconic images of the NCAAs is that of Valparaiso guard Bryce Drew hitting a miraculous buzzer beater to defeat Ole Miss, then sliding chest-first onto the floor as delirious teammates piled on. It was a first-round game! George Mason didn't win a national championship in 2006, but when the Patriots went to the Final Four, the nation was so spellbound that most people couldn't tell you who won it that year. (Florida, if you care.) This time last year, most college basketball fans had no idea who Stephen Curry was. Two weeks later, the baby-faced guard was America's Sweetheart as his little-engine-that-could Davidson Wildcats came one errant three-pointer from reaching the Final Four.
The one-and-done format gives even greater drama to all the big moments. What if Duke forward Christian Laettner's shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 East regional had occurred in game one of a best-of-seven series eventually won by Kentucky? It would have been memorable, to be sure, but not epic. Ditto for Lorenzo Charles's last-second alleyoop that clinched the title for N.C. State in 1983, Keith Smart's late jumper for Indiana in 1987, or Kansas guard Mario Chalmers's three-pointer that sent last year's championship game into overtime, where the Jayhaws prevailed. These are the moments that make March mad, and you can only find them here.
In many ways, these moments are defined as much by the losers as the winners. When the games end, these kids have lost something that can't be bought, sold, or cashed in. Yes, this is a big business, and we all know there is a seedy side to college sports, an underworld infested by lecherous agents, illicit payments, and academic fraud. That might be the sport's underbelly, but not its soul.
If you want to see that soul, watch Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison's reaction when his Bulldogs blew a second-half lead to UCLA in the Sweet 16 in 2006. Morrison had been the face of the sport all season long, but when he fumbled away the final possession, that face was contorted and teary, with Morrison sprawled on the court, inconsolable. Duke guard Thomas Hill wore a similar expression after Laettner's shot; you will find no better illustration that agony and ecstasy are inches, not miles, apart. Then there was N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, dashing around the court after Charles's game-winner, searching in vain for someone to hug. What price can you put on something like that?
On that historic night 30 years ago, Bird's Sycamores lost 75-64 to Magic's Spartans. Bird ended his college career on the Indiana State bench, his face buried in a white towel. Larry wept, but not because he had lost any money. He knew he was going to the NBA. Rather, Larry wept for a lost opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to become a college champion. He knew the night would be memorable, but he didn't want to remember it like that.
That championship game generated a 24.1 Nielsen rating—still the highest ever in the sport, college or pro—and ushered the world into the modern era of March Madness. That is the world Magic and Larry made, and it is the world we celebrate now that this glorious month has arrived once more. You better watch, America. And you will.
Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated is the author of When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball.