Seth Davis is a professional sports journalist who worked his way up from the
New Haven Register to a fact-checking job at Sports Illustrated, and then on to a 15-year, award-laden career covering college basketball (and golf) for SI's magazine and website. And you also might possibly recognize him from the teevee, because he has a reserved seat every March at CBS Sports' Ultimate Hoops Power Desk with Greg Gumbel and Greg Anthony, all throughout the NCAA Tournament. Last spring, he had his first sports book published, called When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball. It concerns that famous 1979 national title game, as well as the long and interesting roads that Indiana State and Michigan State took to get there.Mr. Davis was kind enough to join us here for our weekend interview series to talk about his book, as well as the widely-watched tilt that launched a billion dollar industry, created a Bigger Dance, and introduced the concept of David-Goliath hardwood battles to a mainstream audience. We discussed the eternal musical question: why does America love underdogs so much? And what might have happened if that Bird-Magical matchup never took place? We also touched on family, and the challenges of chronicling events that our generation was too young to experience first-hand. We also chatted a bit about his new "Courtside" discussion show on CBS College Sports.TMM: Last March 15 in the late evening, while the debate over who should be in or out of the 2009 Tournament went on and on, I switched off the TV and escaped back into 1979. I thought your book was fantastic, if not only because it was about the road to that showdown as much as it was about the NCAA Championship game itself. It wasn't just about Magic and Bird. Before you wrote word one, what was the approach in constructing the book?SD:
First of all, thanks for the compliment. Much of the marketing and promotion of the book centered on the case that this particular game "transformed basketball," but the basic truth is, I wanted to tell a good story. I wanted the book to read like a novel, not a textbook. The primary ingredient in good storytelling is fascinating characters, and in this one I had two protagonists (Magic and Bird) and two supporting players (Jud Heathcoate and Bill Hodges) who provided me with great grist. That kind of approach was essential because the game itself really was not that exciting. It's kind of ironic, and nobody really pointed this out when reviewing the book or interviewing me, that the book was ostensibly about this game, yet I think I devoted all of seven pages to the game itself. All the events leading up to that game and all that has happened since really make it a story worth telling.TMM: What really stuck with me was that "other" material... especially your kind and respectful treatment of Bill Hodges, the accidental head coach of Indiana State at the time. The final "years later" interview at the end was so moving. Now, Coach Hodges is usually depicted as a guy who just sat there while Bird did his thing, and he never had the same kind of success again. To me, he's one of the great tragic characters in college basketball history -- just an ordinary man who fell short when given a chance to touch greatness. Think, say, Gene Hackman's Norman Dale character if he hadn't won that championship at Hickory High. Tell me a little about your dealings with Coach Hodges, as well as your thoughts on his place in history.SD:
Bill Hodges is a delightful guy, and he and I are still in regular contact. He recently had a health scare and needed to have brain surgery to fix an aneurysm (ironically the same malady that sent his boss, Bob King, to the sideline, giving Hodges the chance to be head coach). It's funny, when I first took on this project I did not know the name of Bird's coach. I defy most college basketball fans to tell me they know the answer to that trivia question. But when I started checking it out, it was immediately apparent that Hodges would be a critical character in the book. You can't make up the stuff that has happened to him, not only the circumstances under which he took the job but all that has happened since. Yet, despite all that, he has maintained an admirably upbeat attitude about life. Hey, stuff happens, and for all the hard times he has endured since that game, I know he wouldn't trade that memory for all the world.TMM: The impact of that one Indiana State-Michigan State game on Our Game's history is undeniable -- "When March Went Mad" is a great way for this new generation to understand its full context, much more so than a simple viewing of the game tape could ever provide. Without that 1979 title contest, we're all living in a complete alternate universe... I know for a fact I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. Where do you think college basketball (and the NBA, for that matter) would be without that game? Where, what and who would you be?SD:
Well, not to undercut the thesis of the book, but the fact is, we were going to get here from there regardless of whether this game took place. It's just that this game was a galvanizing moment, one of those events that looks even bigger in retrospect than it did at the time. There was just no way back then to anticipate all the changes that were on the horizon, primarly with the birth of ESPN six months later. The early years of ESPN were really built on college basketball, and the exposure Bird and Magic got obviously enabled them to make a huge impact on the NBA before they played a game. As I mentioned in the book, the NBA had never put any rookie on the cover of its media guide, but they put both of those guys on the cover the following season.
As for me, if that game never took place, I'd like to think I'd be doing just what I'm doing. Except of course I wouldn't be answering questions regarding a book I wrote about a game that never happened.TMM: That is an excellent existential point. OK, so in just about seven weeks, you'll be dead-center in the middle of the storm again, a New York conduit between the arenas around the country and the millions of viewers at home. This is one of those stock postgame press conference questions, but how does that feel? Do you ever ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here?"SD:
Only, like, every day! I know people like to say that luck is when preparation meets opportunity, or luck is the residue of hard work, or you make your own luck, and all that is true. But at some point, you gotta get fricking lucky - and I did, twice. The first time was when Stefanie Krasnow, who was then the chief of reporters at Sports Illustrated, plucked me away from the New Haven Register to become a fact checker. All I ever wanted to do when I was growing up was write for Sports Illustrated. (Do kids today feel the same way? I hope so.)
The second was when Sean McManus and Tony Pettiti gave me a segment on CBS during the 2003 Final Four in New Orleans. When they brought me into the studio fulltime for the following season, I don't think they really knew what they were going to do with me. I didn't even think I was going to be in there every weekend. Then in early February, Tony casually says to me, "Yeah, we're gonna have you at the desk during the NCAA tournament." I hadn't even thought about that, and I was afraid to ask if that meant I would be on the CBS set at the Final Four. So while I take a backseat to nobody (well, maybe to you) in the work department, I do know how lucky I am to have the seat that I have. If you think about it, I have seen every second of every NCAA tournament game for the last six years. I don't think there are too many people who can say that.TMM: No, that definitely gives you the front seat, sir. I know you went to Duke, so you have never, ever had the experience of being an underdog. (Kidding!) But I want to get your valuable perspective on this. One of the byproducts of the Bird-Magic title game was that America really began seeing basketball as a canvas for David-Goliath battles. (The example I always use is that little UNC-Charlotte made the Final Four out of the Sun Belt in 1977, and got a fraction of the national attention that George Mason got 29 years later.) Then "Hoosiers" came out in 1986. It's as if the passion was there all along, and was simply ignited and unleashed in 1979. Seth, why do Americans love underdogs so much? What is it in our national character that makes us root for the Sienas, the Northern Iowas, the 16-seeds?SD:
Passion for the underdog has defined our national character. This goes back to the Revolutionary War, the original American Cinderella story. It's human nature because it happens so infrequently. And it is the essence of the NCAA tournament. I always say, the NCAA tournament is ultimately about crowning a champion, but it is not solely about crowning a champion. Much of the appeal is the one-and-done format that allows for unforgettable moments. Think about it, one of the most memorable moments in sports history was Bryce Drew's shot for Valparaiso that beat Ole Miss back in 1998. That was a first-round game.TMM: I actually have a Bryce Drew "The Shot" bobblehead on my desk, so I don't go a day during the summers without remembering. Now, you and I weren't very old back in 1979, and so we don't have a first-person perspective on the UCLA dynasty. We were kids in the Seventies, way too young to get into Studio 54. As such, we're dependent on second-hand knowledge, and we're links in the chain, keepers of the torch. I know your father is an important and outspoken political figure who has helped move our country into this new century; how did he play a role in building your love for basketball?SD:
My dad played a huge role in building my love for sports in general. He always took me to games. I remember being real young, about the time that Magic and Bird were in college, and he bought a package of tickets to Washington Bullets games that included the playoffs. I was in the Capital Centre when the Seattle SuperSonics beat the Bullets to win the 1979 NBA championship. We also had season tickets to Redskins games at RFK Stadium - this was way back before they were a laughingstock, which is tragic of course. I first took an interest in college basketball by following Len Bias at the University of Maryland, but it wasn't until I got to Duke that I really got bit by that bug. The other thing my dad did for me was encourage me not to be a lawyer. (Not that I needed it.) He actually always wanted to be a journalist and writer. He'll tell you to this day the best job he ever had was chairman of the Yale Daily News. I have just started to take my own sons to sporting events, and there is just nothing like it. It has been fun for me to enjoy sports from the perspective of a fan again.TMM: Speaking of journalism and stuff, you have a new show on CBS College Sports called "Courtside." I caught it the other week when I was home for a couple of days. It's definitely filling an unfilled niche -- an actual college basketball discussion show about actual college basketball with people who actually take college basketball seriously. Please tell the nice folks out there in Hoops Nation why they should tune in, or why they should call their cable or satellite provider (to get those Atlantic 14 games too).SD:
We're three shows in so far, and I am really having a blast. It has been a fun and challenging creative outlet for me. My producers at CBS College Sports are terrific and they instantly embraced my vision for this show - which, as you aptly put it, is designed for the serious fan. I want it to be informative, opinionated and fast-paced. I'd like to think there is nothing else like it on television. I have been especially pleased by the way some of the biggest names in the sport have been willing to come on the show. We have even more big names lined up in future weeks, so keep tuning in. Incidentally, while I realize I have a huge bias in saying this, there is a lot of great programming on CBS College Sports. That network has gone through plenty of challenges, fits and starts, but it continues to grow and develop and is a terrific asset to the CBS family. (WARNING!!! SUCK-UP METER RUNNING WAY TOO HOT!!!!)That's okay, Seth, we don't need no water. You can catch the brain-meltingly awesome "Courtside" show on CBS College Sports Monday nights at 9 pm Eastern, with repeats conveniently scheduled throughout the following few days. You can also find Seth on Twitter, and he's one of the very few sports media mega-superstars who will actually tweet you back.
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