Believe in Magic: ’78 UK Team Inspired Spartan Champs a Year Later

by:Ryan Clark06/04/15


Kyle I remember the security guy got in my way. I put on my best friendly face. "Where do you think he'll be walking out?" I asked. "I just want to say hello and get a picture." The man, who to me looked like a legitimate Secret Service agent, dropped his tough guy act for a moment. He pointed to the Rupp Arena sideline. "When the cheerleaders are finished, he'll be coming right through here," he told me. "If you set up here you'll be able to snap your picture." I took the security guy's advice. And that's how I was able to meet Magic Johnson, who would credit the 1978 UK national championship team with helping him win a title the following season.


In the spirit of the NBA finals starting this week, I thought back to the time I was able to meet Magic Johnson at Rupp Arena. Magic was one of my all-time favorites. He could play all five positions. He killed you with that smile. He was clutch. And he was a marvel, a legit 6-9 point guard running a Ferrari of an offense to five World Championships. And thanks to a Rupp Arena security guard, I was able to meet him. It was late February 2010, and Magic came to Kentucky to talk to Gov. Beshear about education initiatives for young people in the state. Of course, I think he also came to see John Wall, but I digress. I was covering the game as a blogger for The Cincinnati Enquirer. But our readers didn't care as much about the play-by-play moments. I was just supposed to blog fun stuff and commentary. It was a great gig. Of course, I wasn't paid beans but it was fun. That night, I wanted to meet Magic. Maybe get a picture with him. At halftime I told some of my colleagues I was off to do just that. The security guy was the key. Once I was told where to stand, I posted up near the sideline, and when Magic made his way past, I stepped up for a picture. Of course, I was also holding my notebook, which led the NBA great to assume I was trying to get a quick interview. So I rolled with it. Me: "Magic, welcome to Rupp Arena. You know about the tradition of UK basketball. Tell me what you see in John Calipari's squad this year that could bring an eighth national title to Lexington?" Magic: "It's all about athleticism, man. It starts with John Wall. I think he's the best player in college basketball. This team has enough talent to do it, and they're so big up front with Cousins and Patterson. But they're so young. Can they win it with players this young?" Me: "You know what it takes to win an NCAA title. What advice do you give Wall and company?" Magic: "You know, our Michigan State squad lost to Kentucky in '78 when Macy made a bunch of free throws to ice it. That UK team was so serious, they were like professionals. I feel like our team really learned from that experience. We watched Kentucky go on to win that season and we wanted to be like them. They set the tone for us that helped us win the next year. I would just say to be like that — don’t take a game off, or someone can get you. Go at it like professionals. Have that attitude." Then I asked for a picture, and he obliged. My direction: "Make a funny face." And he did. Magic But even more interesting to me was Magic's story about 1978. UK played Michigan State in the regional finals in Dayton. The Cats held the freshman Magic to just six points, five assists and forced him into six turnovers. As Magic remembered, Kyle Macy was the star of that game for Kentucky. The guard scored 18 points and made six free throws in the last three minutes clinch a 52-49 win and send UK to the Final Four. A week later they won their fifth national championship, defeating Duke. According to Magic, their own title run in 1979 started with that loss to Kentucky. We all know what happened then — Magic’s Spartans met up with Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State squad, with Michigan State winning the title. It was a nice little couple of questions to get to ask, and it made me like Magic even more. He knows about Kentucky’s history and tradition, and in a small way, he used that as motivation to get his own championship. And I got a wicked cool selfie out of the deal.

Rice Paved the Way

I have to give a quick shoutout to Russell Rice, UK’s longtime Sports Information Director turned historian, who passed away last weekend. I remember when I was a freshman sportswriter at Western Kentucky University in 1998 and I’d been tasked with writing a political story about the upcoming Jim Bunning/Scotty Baesler Senate race. The hook of the story was sports related: Could a baseball Hall of Fame pitcher (Bunning) defeat a former UK basketball player (Baesler)? I desperately needed some information about Baesler the player, and I remember looking at the latest issue of The Cats’ Pause and seeing Rice’s weekly column. Surely, I thought, who better to call? I got his number from a mutual friend and called Rice down at this home in Florida. Simply put, he was an outstanding person to me and provided everything I needed and more. I think he liked the idea for the story — Rice always liked a good story. And yes, I had more than one of his books on my personal library shelf. When I was a kid I thought he may just have the best job in the world. Now, after authoring a number of UK books myself, I can thank him for paving the way. Thanks, Mr. Rice. For everything.


sklars Do you have fun stories or selfies with celebrities? In honor of the Sklars hosting KSR earlier this week I present this one. Love those guys. Leave your stories or pics below and let us know. Or email me at [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter: @rhinoKSR or my website: and maybe I’ll share them. Go Big Blue!

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