Nostalgia Week

MSU, Pistons titles of 1979, ’89 hold special memories for Greg Kelser

Greg Kelser
Greg Kelser won a NCAA Championship 35 years ago at Michigan State.
MIchigan State

SALT LAKE CITY – Greg Kelser woke up here on Monday, just as he had 35 years ago to the day of the Final Four that changed the face of college basketball. Wednesday marks the anniversary of Michigan State’s 1979 NCAA title win over Indiana State and Larry Bird. When the Pistons come back to Utah in March, well …

“When we got in town the other day, I’m very aware this is our 35th anniversary,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly time has passed. It was an amazing time for all of us.”

Utah holds a prominent place in the basketball saga of the Pistons’ TV analyst. It was during a game against the Jazz in 1981 when he found it curious that Scotty Robertson removed him from a game in the third quarter and never put him back in.

“I was having a good game. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t go back in and then when I got in the locker room after the game, I understood why,” he said. “I’d been traded.”

With Michigan State set to play in the Sweet 16 Friday night – the same night the Pistons will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the franchise’s first NBA title team, with Kelser at George Blaha’s side to call the game – this is a nostalgic week for the 1975 Detroit Henry Ford High grad.

He had just recently embarked on his broadcasting career, doing Pistons radio, when the Bad Boys tore through the 1989 playoffs, going 15-2 with both losses coming to Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals. A knee injury cut short Kelser’s career, which began with much promise as the No. 4 pick in the ’79 draft – a few months after the Spartans snipped the nets in Utah – when he averaged 14.2 points and 5.5 rebounds a game as a rookie under Dick Vitale.

Without his trademark quickness and explosive jumping ability – he and Magic were among the first wave of frequent practitioners of the alley-oop dunk – Kelser retired after six NBA seasons.

He has another tie to the Bad Boys besides calling their games from the sideline. When he was traded in the middle of that game – Nov. 23, 1981 – the return was a player Trader Jack McCloskey had long coveted: Vinnie Johnson, the second vital piece of the team that would become champions, joining Isiah Thomas.

When Kelser and McCloskey were a part of the same Michigan Sports Hall of Fame induction class, Kelser pointed out their shared history during his induction speech.

“I said, ‘I want to congratulate Jack McCloskey, known for his shrewd deals. Jack traded me not only once, he traded me twice.’ ”

A year earlier, McCloskey had a deal to Seattle done for Kelser, but that knee caused him to fail his physical. Joking aside, the deal stung Kelser, who wanted to grow his hometown Pistons in the same way he’d been a part of elevating Michigan State to national prominence.

He and Thomas grew close the summer before Thomas’ rookie season when Isiah spent much of his time in East Lansing running in pickup games with his buddy Magic and other pros who congregated there, seeing in Isiah many of the same star qualities he saw in Johnson when he got to Michigan State for Kelser’s junior season.

“I knew he was going to be great,” Kelser said. “There was no doubt about that. He and I forged a friendship. When I was traded, he cried in the locker room.

“Isiah was good and I wanted to play with him. When we got Earvin and Jay (Vincent) in East Lansing, we were ready to take off. That was exactly what I needed to take off and soar, and the same thing with the Pistons. I thought, ‘OK, we’ve got a guard now who can distribute the basketball, who can really play’ – and then I was dealt.”

The Bad Boys’ title came 10 years after Kelser put up a Magic Johnson-like line in the ’79 title game: 19 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. To Michigan State’s great surprise, Bird came out guarding Kelser. Jud Heathcote immediately adjusted, attacking Bird to make him expend energy on defense and perhaps get in foul trouble. With the ball in his hands, Kelser became the facilitator, Johnson the scorer. Magic finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Bird was limited to 19 points on 7 of 21 shooting.

“We used a 2-3 zone, but it was skewed zone,” Kelser said. “We had never prepared for anybody else like this in my career. We would guard him with two people when he had the ball. We ran two people to him and the other three zoned up. When he didn’t have it, we made sure there was a guy on him. Because he was that lethal in terms of being able to score and hit his teammates. He didn’t have a good shooting night. He was frustrated.”

There have been other monumental college basketball games – the Texas Western win over Kentucky in 1966, when five black starters for the winning underdogs effectively accelerated the racial integration of Southern universities; North Carolina State’s buzzer-beating shocker over Houston and Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983; and the Villanova upset of Georgetown in 1985 when the Wildcats shot 79 percent for the game and missed only one shot in the second half.

But the epic 1979 game between Magic and Bird remains the highest-rated college game ever played and is widely credited with elevating the Final Four to the status of the World Series or NBA Finals.

Thirty-five years later, Greg Kelser is still proud to say he was a part of that – and maybe just a little wistful he wasn’t a bigger part of something else very special to Michigan sports fans a decade later.