ON THIS DAY: Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser lead Michigan State to 1979 title


March 26 is a special day in the annals of Michigan State sports. It was this day back in 1979 when the Spartans men’s basketball team captured their first championship in school history.

Michigan State entered the 1979 championship game with a record of 25-6, winners of back-to-back conference titles and led by a senior in Greg Kelser and a superstar All-American sophomore in Earvin “Magic” Johnson. They went toe-to-toe with the Sycamores of Indiana State and 2-time All-American and national Player of the Year, Larry Bird.

The Sycamores entered the season with a perfect 33-0 record, but it was the the Kelser- and Magic-led Spartans pulling off the upset to win the 1979 title, 75-64. It was just the third season at the helm for Heathcote, after coming over as a largely unknown albeit successful coach on a smaller stage at Montana.

Kelser (18.8 PPG) and Johnson (17.1 PPG) were the Spartans’ two leading scorers all season in 1978-79. Bird meanwhile not only led his team in scoring at 28.6 PPG, but ranked second in the country at that time. And all three lived up to their elite status in the ’79 championship game.

PTS 24 19 19
REB 7 8 13
AST 5 9 2
FG% 8/15 (.533) 7/13 (.538) 7/21 (.333)
FT% 8/10 (.800) 5/6 (.833) 5/8 (.625)

Player Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference

Both Johnson and Kelser moved on from Michigan State to the NBA after that season. Magic was the No. 1 overall pick of the Lakers in the 1979 NBA Draft, while Kelser was selected three picks later by the Pistons.

Heathcote meanwhile went on to coach the Spartans for 19 seasons, leading them to seven additional NCAA Tournament appearances after back-to-back showings in 1978 and ’79. He retired from coaching after the 1994-95 season, having won 336 of his 416 career coaching wins at Michigan State. He passed the coaching torch to Tom Izzo, who was Heathcote’s assistant for his final five seasons in East Lansing.