40 Years Ago: Magic and Bird Meet Again for the First Time

Five years after their college clash, they played their first fantastic Finals.

TD Garden in Boston and NBA Finals Trophy (Photo by Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

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It doesn’t matter if they’re fictional or historical, friendly or fractious: People love a good rivalry. After all, what’s Thomas Jefferson without John Adams or Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty or Batman without the Joker? A rival gives you someone to strive against, pushing you to be the best. And 40 years ago, two legendary basketball players finally collided in the NBA Finals after years of build-up, setting the stage for a recurring clash that would define both of their careers and launch their sport to the forefront of American culture.

Even if you aren’t a fan of sports, you probably know the basics. Larry Bird, the introverted white kid from rural Indiana, and Earvin Johnson Jr., the gregarious city kid from Michigan, both loved basketball. As youngsters, each of them approached the game with a sterling work ethic, making practice and perfection of their skills a priority. After excelling in high school, both entered Midwestern universities: Bird, after initially attending Indiana University and finding it too big for his liking, went to Indiana State University; Johnson went to Michigan State. Johnson entered college already sporting the nickname that he would be known by for the rest of his life: after notching a triple-double in a game at age 15, Lansing State Journal writer Fred Stabley Jr. dubbed him “Magic.”

The HBO Documentary film Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (Uploaded to YouTube by TheNBAHistorian)

While Bird and Magic were building their reps as college players, they were afforded the unique opportunity to play as teammates. As players on the U.S. team for 1978 International Federation of Basketball (FIBA) World Invitational Tournament, they got to know each other a bit on the floor.  In the HBO documentary film Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, Magic recalls wanting to tell his friends back home that, “This dude named Larry Bird is for real. This is the baddest white dude I’ve ever seen in my life.” For his part, Bird thought that Magic “was probably the best guard on the team.” In the rare moments that the duo saw game time together, they dazzled the crowds with their back-and-forth no-look passing and ability to score. Despite the obvious chemistry on the court, their off-court interaction was generally distant, as the introverted Bird preferred to keep to himself and avoid the spotlight that Magic enjoyed.

Magic vs. Bird: Their legendary 1979 NCAA title game battle (Uploaded to YouTube by March Madness)

The following year, Bird and Magic met in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, and national interest in basketball hit a fever pitch. Both had made good on their early promise, developing into high scorers and excellent passers with a tendency for game-breaking plays. Bird had led his Indiana State University Sycamores to an undefeated season; Magic’s Michigan State Spartans reached the finals via a series of upsets throughout the tournament. In front of a record setting audience of 40 million people, Magic’s Spartans beat Bird’s Sycamores 75-64. It was the first time they’d faced each other; it would be far from the last.

In the NBA, the greatest rivalry was between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. The teams first met in the Finals in 1959; the Lakers were still located in Minneapolis, and would make the move out west the following year. Between 1959 and 1969, the two teams met seven times in the Finals, with the Celtics winning every time. So, it was almost destiny that after their captivating college showdown, Bird and Magic would wind up on those two teams. Bird, of course, went to Boston, and Magic joined the Lakers.

The effect that Magic and Bird had on the league was seismic and instantaneous. It’s hard to believe now, but a good many NBA games in the late 1970s were either shown on tape delay or played in daytime hours without a wide TV audience. The two young stars pulled in new viewers and began to drive a new wave of fandom with their unselfish passing and incredible scoring. In his rookie year — 1980 — Magic led the Lakers to the championship, defeating superstar Julius “Dr. J” Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. The following year, Bird, along with new teammates Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, beat the Houston Rockets. The 1982 Finals saw the Lakers return and once again defeat the Sixers. In 1983, the Sixers, with Dr. J and Moses Malone (acquired via trade from Houston), beat the Lakers. Magic and Bird were certainly showing out at the end of each season, but the real Finals battle that fans wanted to see wouldn’t materialize until 1984.

The 1984 NBA Finals (Uploaded to YouTube by TheNBAHistory)

The mechanics of the 1984 NBA playoffs were similar to today’s system. Sixteen qualifiers met, eight each in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference. The first round had previously been a Best of 3 system; in 1984 it moved to Best of 5, with all subsequent rounds being Best of 7 (today, all post-Play-In rounds are Best of 7).  The Celtics and Lakers were each the number one seed of their respective conferences; the Celtics had the best record in the entire league that year at 62-20, while the Lakers sat atop the West with the second-best record in the NBA at 54-28.

Magic and Bird were their respective team leaders, but each man was supported by a legendary starting line-up (in addition to stellar benches). Bird had power forward Kevin McHale, center Robert Parish, and guards Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge on the start, while Magic had the immortal Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center, forwards James Worthy and Kurt Rambis, and shooting guard Michael Cooper. Both teams played a fast-paced, pass-heavy offense, though the Lakers were vaunted for the speed of their “fast-break”-driven offense. Bird was coming in off of an MVP year in which he averaged 24.2 points per game and recorded 796 rebounds and 520 assists. This was a situation where every starter was a top-shelf performer, and the player-to-player position match-ups were incredibly tough. It made for captivating basketball.

It should be no surprise that the Finals went to seven games. The Lakers took Game 1, but were edged out by the Celtics in an overtime Game 2. They alternated the next two, with the Lakers taking 3 and the Celtics winning 4. The Celtics pulled ahead with a Game 5 win, but the Lakers forced a seventh game with a hard-fought win. The seventh game garnered ratings that rivaled those of Bird and Magic’s NCAA duel. The Celtics emerged victorious, and Bird was named series MVP (in addition to his League MVP). In the lead-up to the playoffs and the aftermath, the NBA’s popularity surged on the strength of the rivalry and highly-rated Finals. The Bird-Magic rivalry made the days of tape-delays a soon-to-be distant memory. The NBA had established itself as a cool, ferociously-contested sports destination.

By the start of the 1984-1985 season, anticipation was high that the Magic and Bird might face each other again. But there was another story driving more interest in the NBA as it welcomed 1982 NCAA Champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Michael Jordan into its ranks that fall as a member of the Chicago Bulls. The eyes of the sporting world followed all three stars that year, but it was still Bird and Magic’s show. They met again in the 1985 Finals, but it was Magic’s turn; the Lakers finally defeated their old nemesis in six games.

Boston’s 1985-1986 roster is still considered one of the greatest teams of all time. With Bird’s starters bolstered by the addition of Bill Walton at sixth man, the Celtics bulldozed the competition all season. Despite a heroic effort by Jordan in the playoffs, the Celtics beat the Bulls to face the Rockets. The Celtics won, and returned the next year to find the Lakers waiting. Magic led the Lakers to the 1987 championship. It would be Magic and Bird’s last meeting in an NBA Final. Magic’s Lakers would win in 1988 as well, defeating the Detroit Pistons.

Magic Johnson on Bird’s friendship after his HIV announcement (Uploaded to YouTube by Michael Chambers)

By the dawn of the 1990s, Bird and Magic were widely recognized as the combined force that saved the NBA from its precarious post-’70s position. Unfortunately, both men were on their way out of the game. Bird’s back issues were pushing him toward retirement, and Magic’s HIV diagnosis led him to immediately retire, though he did return to play. In 1992, Bird and Magic finally got the chance to be teammates again, joining Jordan and other stars to be part of the U.S. Olympic Men’s basketball team. Forever known as “The Dream Team,” the group demolished the competition on the way to the gold and energized global basketball fandom. Bird retired for good after the Olympics; Magic would return to play in the NBA in 1996, but officially retired after that season.

Magic and Bird receive their NBA Lifetime Achievement Award (Uploaded to YouTube by House of Highlights)

Today, it’s almost impossible to think of one without the other. The rivals had begun to build a friendship when shooting a commercial together in 1985, and that friendship was cemented over time. Bird offered immediate support to Magic upon his diagnosis, and both men spoke at one another’s retirement ceremonies. At the 2019 NBA Awards, they were co-awarded a joint Lifetime Achievement Award for their careers and lasting impact on the game. As the 2024 NBA Finals are about to begin, it would be hard to imagine that any pair of rivals could affect public consciousness the way that Magic and Bird did. Then again, if the story of a quiet farm boy and an outgoing city kid becoming rivals, then friends, then legends, is possible, anything is.

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