Bird & Magic, Best of Frenemies
The unlikely basketball journey of two stars
One of the most storied rivalries in sports history became so ingrained in popular culture that it was even recreated as a Broadway show called “Magic/Bird”.
Starting in the late 1970s, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did legendary battles on the basketball court, first electrifying the NCAA’s March Madness tournament and then igniting a beleaguered NBA.
Before they were enemies, they were All-American teammates for 5 days, thrust against teams from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Yugoslavia at the 1978 World Invitational Tournament. At the time, Bird and Magic were second-stringers on the U.S. squad.
But few predicted the duo would soon explode as college stars, professional rivals, and later on, close friends. That odyssey only added to their lore.
BUY- Larry Bird and Magic Johnson engraved framed signature display
In 2020, Bird and Magic even released a book together, ‘When The Game Was Ours’, a compelling portrait of the two giants that became a bestseller.
A dazzling African-American hoopster with an infectious smile and an outgoing personality, Earvin Johnson, Jr. got his “Magic” nickname from a local reporter who was enthralled by his dynamic ball handling skills.
Johnson grew up in Lansing, Michigan in a busy household with 6 siblings and was influenced by his parents’ strong work ethic. His father was employed at a GM plant and his mother was a school janitor.
Magic’s future nemesis couldn’t be any different except for displaying the same drive for winning on the basketball court. A quiet white kid from French Lick, Indiana, Bird was slow and flat-footed, but a tough competitor and an undeniable shooting wizard.
Bird’s early years in rural Indiana were fraught with family problems and financial hardships. His parents divorced when he was in high school and his mother worked 2 jobs to support him and his 5 siblings. His father committed suicide a year after the divorce.
Brought together under unlikely circumstances, the two were now facing each other at the 1979 NCAA Division I Championship, Magic as a sophomore point guard for Michigan State and Bird as a senior forward for Indiana State.
The young prodigies lit up TV screens across the country and helped transform the tournament into the hottest sports property for CBS. ESPN network was founded the following year on that success.
At the 1979 Regional Finals, Indiana State defeated Arkansas with just a 2-point margin (73-71) before overcoming DePaul at the Final Four in an equally tight game (76-74).
Led by Bird who would be unanimously voted Player of the Year, the Sycamores managed an undefeated record of 33-0 when they got to the national stage.
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No. 2 ranked Michigan State took down Notre Dame (80-68) before sweeping the University of Pennsylvania (101-67) to earn a trip to the championship.
Averaging 16.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 8.2 assists during the regular season, Magic’s sophomore year was his last with the Spartans before making the leap to the NBA.
Neither Michigan, nor Indiana had ever fought for the national crown and the showdown was now set for what would become the most watched college game of all time.
On March 26, 1979, at the Special Events Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Spartans defeated the Sycamores 75-64 for the coveted title.
After leading his team to a perfect season, Bird committed turnovers, couldn’t find the open man, and failed to produce his famed distance shots. Sports Illustrated titled their article, “They Caged the Bird”.
The Indiana native ended up succumbing to Magic, who picked up the Most Outstanding Player award for the series. It was the beginning of the Bird and Magic feud, which would carry into the NBA.
BUY- Larry Bird and Magic Johnson signed Wilson basketball
The following season, Bird went east to join the Boston Celtics (1st Round/6th Pick) and Magic headed west for the Los Angeles Lakers (1st Round/1st Pick).
With their basketball journeys intertwined, they became the darlings of the sports media who exploited their rivalry to boost ratings.
The Celtics and Lakers weren’t strangers, as the two coastal franchises had confronted each other six times at the Finals during their dynastic heydays of the 1960s.
But times were different now. Boston was mired in a slump and LA hadn’t won a Conference since 1973. Furthermore, a falling fan base and disenchantment with a drug-infested league was eroding the reputation of professional basketball.
Emerging from a thriving college sports scene, the clean and fresh-faced rookies went to work, re-energizing a tattered NBA.
In his first year, Magic averaged 18 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game. Bird posted 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game.
The kid from French Lick, Indiana helped lift his team’s total victories by 32 games over the prior season and was named Rookie of The Year. Though, the Celtics fell to the Philadelphia 76ers at the Conference.
Magic and the Lakers went all the way to clinch the title, defeating the 76ers 4-2. In a span of just 4 seasons, the talented hoopster from Lansing managed to capture 3 podiums: state high school, NCAA, and NBA.
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In the pro championships, Bird and Magic locked horns three times- 1984, 1985, 1987- cementing the Celtics-Lakers rivalry as the greatest in basketball.
After hoisting the trophy with the Celtics in 1984, Bird felt vindicated from his loss to Magic in college. Though, Johnson and the lakers would claim the other two for a 2-1 career favor.
At the 2019 NBA Lifetime Achievement Award, Bird and Magic stood side-by-side, even holding each other’s awards, as they were honored for their dual contributions to the game.
Inevitably during their careers, racial overtones surfaced. Bird’s overwhelmingly white fan base from Boston saw him as the ‘great white hope’ in a game that was increasingly dominated by African-Americans. Blacks derided him as the ‘great white hype’, an overestimated athlete built up by a biased media.
But race was never an issue for the two luminary athletes who just wanted to play basketball and win games. Focused and disciplined, both averted the pitfalls of youth that could have sent them into dead-end, troubled lives.
In the summer of 1985, seeing the combined marketing potential of Bird and Magic, Converse featured them in a sneaker commercial that was shot outside the home of Bird’s mother in Indiana.
Skeptical at first about appearing together, they ended up bonding over lunch in the kitchen of Bird’s mother, planting the seed of a life-long friendship.
That relationship grew even closer after Magic tested positive for the HIV virus in November, 1991. Bird’s empathy and support in an era when HIV was a stigma on men, especially as seen by other NBA players, made Magic realize who his close friends were.
At Magic’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002, Bird (inducted in 1998) gave the introductory speech and stood on stage with Magic’s family as his close friend and old rival delivered a wistful talk to a packed audience.
BUY- Larry Bird and Magic Johnson autographed photo
Fittingly, the culmination of Bird and Magic’s playing careers came in 1992 when they formed part of the Olympic basketball ‘Dream Team’ that brought home the gold from Barcelona.
Bird and Magic came from different worlds and played a different game, but their dynamic dualism formed the core of a legacy that we will never see again.
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