It is difficult to find a part of the American experience not represented by portraiture. In most every athletic, cultural, and political discipline, there is a figure who has made some contribution to increase the span of that discipline’s endeavors. College basketball is no different. When the National Collegiate Athletic Association puts forth its selection of tournament teams each March, work stops and conversation turns to “bracketology,” or—as some would say—the science of picking the final four teams out of the field of sixty-eight, and ultimately, picking the national champion.
The National Portrait Gallery has its own Final Four tribute in the form of four portraits of individuals who made significant contributions to college basketball: John Wooden, coach, UCLA; Michael Jordan, guard, North Carolina; Earvin “Magic” Johnson, point guard, Michigan State; Larry Bird, forward, Indiana State.
John Wooden coached the UCLA men’s team from 1948 to 1975, winning ten NCAA championships during his last twelve years. In that same period, Wooden’s teams had an eighty-eight-game winning streak over three-plus seasons, and he coached twelve All-Americans, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gail Goodrich, and Bill Walton. Beginning in 1976, the year after Wooden retired from UCLA, the collegiate basketball player of the year has been honored by receiving the John R. Wooden Award.
Although Michael Jordan is best remembered for his professional years with the Chicago Bulls, his college days at the University of North Carolina marked the beginning of his spectacular career. Jordan made the winning basket against Georgetown to help the Tar Heels win the 1982 NCAA championship. However, that moment was overshadowed by one of the more bizarre endings to a championship; a few seconds after Jordan’s jump shot, Fred Brown of Georgetown was holding the ball with a chance to win the game when Brown threw the ball to James Worthy—North Carolina’s forward. Jordan’s three years at North Carolina served as his apprenticeship to one of professional basketball’s greatest careers, if not the very greatest. Jordan never forgot his days as a Tar Heel, noting in his NBA Hall of Fame induction speech, “I’m a true blue Carolina guy to the heart.”
At Michigan State University, Magic Johnson played both point guard and forward. Johnson averaged seventeen points, eight rebounds, and eight assists a game during his two years playing for the Spartans. His charisma, versatility, and passion for the game were obvious. Johnson put a limping Spartan squad on his shoulders and carried them for two seasons, eventually taking them to the national championship game in 1979, where they beat Indiana State.
The same Indiana State Sycamores who lost that 1979 championship to Michigan State had some magic of their own—starting forward Larry Bird. Bird, like Johnson and Jordan, would eventually become the face of an NBA franchise; he would land in Boston and play for the Celtics, while Johnson would play for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Jordan would spend most of his playing days with the Chicago Bulls. Larry Bird’s college experience had a choppy start, as Bird left his first school of choice, the University of Indiana, before his freshman season began. After sitting out a year, he played three seasons for Indiana State, averaging thirty points and thirteen rebounds a game.
John Robert Wooden /Jason Hailey/1975 Chromogenic print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; partial gift of Jason Hailey, photographer
Simply the Best (Larry Bird)/Bart Forbes/1985/Acrylic on canvas/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time Magazine