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Mike Lopresti | | April 6, 2019

Here's the man that almost stopped the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird championship game

Watch Bird and Magic battle for the '79 championship

MINNEAPOLIS — Here at the Final Four, they’re marking the 40th  anniversary of the famous Magic Johnson-Larry Bird championship game. Want to meet the man who almost didn’t let it happen?

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There he was Saturday, up on the dais, being introduced as one of the newest members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Sidney Moncrief might be better known for his Milwaukee Bucks career, five times an NBA All-Star, twice named defensive player of the year. But before that, he was an Arkansas Razorback.

The record will show that on March 17, 1979, Moncrief played 40 minutes in the regional championship game in Cincinnati, scored 24 points, and had his team on the brink of a return trip to the Final Four. It took a shot in the last seconds to beat Arkansas that day 73-71. The man who put it up was Indiana Sate’s Bob Heaton, off-balance and with the wrong hand. Something of a desperation play, in lieu of Bird not being able to take the shot.

And why couldn’t Bird take the most important shot of Indiana State’s season? Because Sidney Moncrief was guarding him. You can imagine then, how the anniversary talk about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird carries some extra meaning to Moncrief.

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“One shot,” he sighed Saturday, 40 years after the fact. One shot.

But here’s the thing. Part of him is not unhappy it turned out as it did.  Moncrief is a basketball guy to his core. So he knows what 1979 has come to mean to the game he loves. At 61 and now a Hall of Famer, he still lives with the ultimate in mixed feelings.

“I’m glad it happened like it did because it certainly enhanced the viability of NBA basketball and basketball in general when Magic and Bird were matched up,” he said. “However … we were one game away from the Final Four for the second year. And the dynamics would have changed substantially and I don’t really think for the better, when you talk about the benefit to the game of basketball.

“It was not great for me, but sometimes things can be not great for you but great for the whole. And this is a perfect example of how that can happen.”

But losing still had to hurt. When you’re a college kid, the big picture of the future of basketball is not a very large blip on your radar screen.

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“It was difficult, because to me, part of the legacy you’d like to leave is — one Final Four lots of people never, ever do that — but two consecutive Final Fours?” he said. “I was very disappointed that I was not able to accomplish that.”

In 1978, he had helped Arkansas to its first Final Four in 37 years, where the Razorbacks lost to eventual national champion Kentucky in the semifinals 64-59. He had 13 points, and wishes it could have been more, which is why, if you ask Moncrief what college game he would like to have back, it isn’t the Indiana State loss. Nor the Kentucky defeat. It’s the 74-70 win over UCLA in the Sweet 16 in 1978.


Late in that game, he tried to dunk and was knocked to the floor.

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“I hit the floor hard. Today, I would not have played. I was never the same player after that fall. I think I had a concussion, but back then they didn’t really look for a concussion. I think had I been healthier and played better against Kentucky we had a shot at winning that game.

“I wish I wouldn’t have tried to dunk the basketball.”

If Arkansas beats Kentucky, maybe he ends up a national champion. But another disappointment was waiting in what turned out to be his last Arkansas game.

In the last minutes against Indiana State, it was almost as if the regional final had turned into a one-on-one game on a playground court. Bird would score, then Moncrief, then Bird, then Moncrief. Bird finished with 31 points, but with the score tied in the last seconds, he couldn’t shake loose from Moncrief to get an open look.

“I can’t stop Bird from getting the basketball, but I was playing good defense. Heaton got the basketball instead of Larry and just happened to stumble and shot a left-handed shot up in the air and the ball goes in. Maybe Bird should have gotten the ball.”

The national championship game the next week still ranks as the highest rated college basketball TV broadcast of all time. The audience included Moncrief, who was going to watch, no matter how badly he wanted to be there himself.

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“Absolutely. I had played with Larry in international basketball and I had played with Magic. So I wanted to watch two of the premier players go at it.”

Four decades later, he's in the Hall of Fame, mentioning Saturday how he first fell in love with basketball when a neighborhood court went up with chains for nets near his house in the Little Rock projects. And how the phone call he got to tell him he'd made the Hall of Fame felt so much better than the call two years ago telling him he hadn't.

"I’m pretty even keel. I don’t know what emotions I was expected to feel, other than than just very, very appreciative. The game of basketball, the old cliche, it’s been so good to me.  I tried to respect the game, I tried to respect the players that played before me. To be part of this group is special, but it also ran through my mind of how many great players that have played the game of basketball the years I competed, who would never be in this position, So you’re excited, but you’re humbled. Because there’s some guys that at any given moment could eat my lunch, on any given night, and they’ll probably never have this opportunity I have to be in the Hall of Fame."

Meanwhile. 40 years out, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird still is gets annually repeated, re-discussed, reheated. Moncrief understands how hard he worked and how close he came to making it never happen. Looking back, he’s glad it did. Sort of.

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