The game that started it all

Greg Kesler

Before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament became what it is today—March Madness’ billions-of-dollars-generating crown jewel—the annual semifinals and finals were played on college campuses rather than in large stadiums. 

The 1979 Michigan State-Indiana State finals, played at the University of Utah, would be the last of its kind. It featured two of the sport’s legends: MSU’s Earvin Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird. Over four decades later it still ranks as the highest-rated men’s basketball telecast in history.  

Greg Kelser also played in the 1979 classic. The 6’-7” Florida-born son of military parents graduated from Detroit Henry Ford High School, then matriculated to Michigan State, the Big Ten school that was known more for individual accomplishments on the hardwood than for team titles. 

 “I was in that same boat,” Kelser said. “As a sophomore, I averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds [and also led the conference in rebounding], incredible numbers for a 19-year-old in a conference like the Big Ten. But we were just an average basketball team.”

Led by Johnson and Kelser, whose nickname was “Special K,” MSU won the Big Ten and finished in the regional finals in his junior year, losing by three points to Kentucky (1978), and finished 25-5. “Losing to Kentucky was disappointing,” Kelser recalled. “I still can’t believe to this day that we only scored 49 points [in the 52-49 loss].”

State returned four starters in his senior year. “We should have a real good chance of winning it all, and 1978-79 will be our year,” Kelser said. He participated in an off-season Brazilian tournament in September 1978, representing the U.S., “and [later] we came back and beat the Russians by 16 points” on their U.S. college tour.

Michigan State that season repeated as Big Ten champs and won 15 of its last 16 games to win the 1979 NCAA title, finishing 26-6.

The game of Kelser’s life was a 34-point performance against Notre Dame. “We wanted Notre Dame, they were the number-one seed. I had a lot of good games at Michigan State, but that was the most important game of my career, and I came up very big.”

In the final men’s championship game played on campus, the last of his 19 points scored was Kelser’s iconic moment—his late-game breakaway dunk from a long outlet pass from Johnson. “It seemed poetic, like it was almost scripted. But I was really thrilled [to] have that be the last basket of the championship season. I’m just glad I didn’t miss the dunk.”

Kelser finished as the first Big Ten player and only Spartan to score over 2,000 points and grabbed over 1,000 rebounds in his career. A three-time All-American, he was the fourth overall pick by Detroit in 1979.

Nagging injuries that began in his rookie year haunted him throughout his pro career, where he played for four NBA teams (1979-1985) but still averaged nearly 10 points. State later retired his number 32.

After retiring as a player, Kelser went into broadcasting. “I am very proud of the fact that I have been doing it for 35 years, and been able to be part of the Pistons [broadcast] team for 33 years.”

He’s also proud to have been an integral part of March Madness history. “Here we are talking about it 41 years later, and it still has the ability to make me smile, to make me proud to achieve something with really good guys.”