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Mike Lopresti | | February 25, 2019

Magic met Larry 40 years ago. But the guy who made the big shots was Terry Donnelly

Watch Bird and Magic battle for the '79 championship

The reunions at Michigan State and Indiana State this season have come and gone, celebrating the landmark moment 40 years ago when they crossed paths and changed college basketball. Everybody still calls it the Magic-Bird game. This is about the guy who made a lot of the biggest shots that night in Salt Lake City.

And his name is neither Magic Johnson, nor Larry Bird.

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It is halftime on March 26, 1979 in the Special Events Center. The duel between Johnson and Bird that basketball had so badly wanted — so badly needed — is tilting toward Michigan State, 37-28. Magic has 12 points and coach Jud Heathcote is certain Indiana State will devote extra effort in the second half to slow him down. Someone else will have to step forward to finish the job.

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Heathcote scans his locker room and settles upon a spindly junior guard who had scored only 20 points in the Spartans’ first four NCAA Tournament games. A role player in the Michigan State Magic Johnson-Greg Kelser traveling all-star band, who never in his college career would average double figures. A kid Heathcote had offered a spare scholarship without ever seeing him play.

Terry Donnelly.

“He looked at me and said `Terry, I think it’s going to be your man that’s going to slough off and double team Earvin. They’re going to leave you open, you’re going to have to knock down shots,”’ Donnelly remembers four decades later. “I took that as a green light, and a vote of confidence from my teammates and my coaches.

“I think Kelser and Earvin started looking for me, after I hit the first one, the second one, the third one . . .  “

The play-by-play sheet of the second half from that night tells us what happened.

Donnelly, 18-footer from the side.

Donnelly, 18-footer from the corner.

Donnelly, 16-footer from the side.

Donnelly, 18-footer from the corner.

By then, after a four-minute dose of Terry Donnelly, Michigan State had a 50-34 lead. Indiana State and Bird eventually fought back and cut into the margin, but could never escape the hole Donnelly had shoved them into. It ended 75-64, Johnson with 24 points, Bird with 19, Kelser 19. None of that from the stars a surprise. But Donnelly, a member of the supporting cast nobody saw coming? He had 15 points and was 5-for-5 from the floor, and 5-of-6 from the line.

It remains the highest rated TV college basketball game of all time, and is the night many believe the sport took an enormous leap forward. Johnson and Bird went on to more or less save the NBA and be Hall of Fame legends. Donnelly returned the next year for his senior season — the Magic-less Spartans had a losing record — and then became a stock broker.

Snippets of that game will be replayed a lot this March, with the 40th anniversary. You’ll see Johnson, you’ll see Bird. But don’t overlook the skinny kid tossing in daggers from the corner.

“It was just the perfect setting for a wonderful time in my life,” he says over the phone from his home in Texas. “To play with Magic Johnson against Larry Bird on the grandest stage in college basketball, and to hit those five jumpers, what else can be said 40 years later — I won the basketball lottery.

“I can always tell Earvin, like I did last weekend when we were sitting at breakfast (at the reunion of the ’79 champions), `You should have thrown me the ball a little more during the year.’ He chuckles and laughs and looks at me and goes, `You’d better be glad you knocked those five down.’”

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Donnelly still treasures a picture of him pumping his fist to the crowd during the award presentation that night. Then the Spartans went out to celebrate. But not him. There was something else unusual about that weekend in Salt Lake City.

He was sick, with a temperature over 100 degrees. He didn’t practice the day before, nor at the morning shoot-around, staying in bed back at the hotel. That’s how Donnelly prepared for his One Shining Moment.

“I had two pancakes in two days and some water. That was about it. Quite frankly, it might have calmed me down. I was just trying to stay hydrated and make it through 40 minutes. Afterwards, I was completely exhausted. I didn’t even go out, I went straight back to the hotel room and went to sleep.”

Forty years later, Donnelly has his room at home with Spartan mementos. “As my wife calls it, the Michigan State shrine. Pictures, plaques, pennants. They still made pennants back then.”

He has a tape of the game. “My wife tries to hide it.”

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He has his national and Big Ten championship rings, which he breaks out each March.

He has two kids, a daughter and son, the latter showing a lot of promise as a high school player in the Dallas area. Donnelly says Nicholas is stronger and bigger than his father. “I’ve even sent Izzo some film. I don’t know if he’s looked at it.”

He has a successful career, working with his father and brother to build a multi-million dollar business supply company, Donnelly Hamco.

And there have been many moments when Salt Lake City comes alive again. Take the night in 2009. He was in Kansas City to see his old teammate Magic inducted into college basketball’s Hall of Fame. Bird was there, being inducted as well.

“He came up to me and said, `Don’t you ever let Earvin tell you he won that game. You won that game.’ Which is kind of nice, Larry Bird telling me that. He actually looked at my ring. He goes,`I might just give you my NBA Finals rings for that one, because that one hurt worse than anything.’”

It will always, always, always be the Magic-Bird game. But it was the Donnelly game, too.

“I think about it all the time. How would my life be different if it didn’t unfold that way?” he says. “What if I go 0-for-5 instead of 5-for-5? Earvin, if we had lost that game, I don’t think his life is any different. Maybe he would have stayed at Michigan State another year. I can sit here 40 years later and say, look, I played in the greatest college basketball game in history, with two of the greatest players in history. It’s absolutely changed my life. In business, in public, people always remember that game, they remember what I did. Who knows what my life would have been like if I hadn’t gone to Michigan State, played with Magic Johnson and hit a couple of jumpers?”

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And he uses his own story — a four-year starter with little fanfare — as an example for his son. “I was doing my roles, I was staying out of the way on offense. My job was pretty much to defend, stop the break, do the things support players do. A lot of guys nowadays think they have to score 15 or 20 points a game to be on a championship team. That’s not necessarily the case. There’s guys like me who can actually play in college basketball who are not the significant stars, but can end up wearing a championship ring, and that’s what I did.”

That, too, is part of the legacy from March 26, 1979, since there are a lot more Terry Donnellys out there than there are Magic Johnsons and Larry Birds. Work hard, do your job. Who knows what fate might have in store?

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