A carefully crafted screenplay couldn’t have done it better, or made the protagonists more different. One was a black kid from Michigan, one of six children belonging to an auto worker and a custodian; the other was a poor white kid from Indiana who would lose his father to suicide. One was outgoing with a megawatt smile; the other was quiet, yet capable of unleashing withering trash-talk. They both fell in love with basketball and reached their collegiate peaks at precisely the same moment: the 1979 NCAA Finals. Their rivalry carried into the pros and set the NBA on fire 35 years ago. A game with an uncertain future became a national obsession as two titans clashed. Then, they did the most unexpected thing: they became friends on their way to winning Olympic gold medals. This week, the NBA presented Lifetime Achievement Awards to both Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. They were enemies, they became friends, and it’s not a stretch to say that they saved the NBA. Here’s the play-by-play.
This much is certain: Bird and Magic weren’t the first stars of the NBA. You had Russell, Oscar, Wilt, Kareem, and a laundry list of others. Each one touched the game in a unique way, elevating interest and drawing in fans. The NBA merged with the ABA in 1976, bringing four new teams into the fold, but that wasn’t a cure-all for a league that was struggling with attendance and having a hard time scoring prime-time television slots for their games.
When Bird and Magic met in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, one year after briefly serving as U.S. teammates for the World Invitational Tournament, interest in basketball hit a fever pitch. Both were 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.
As rookies, Bird and Magic wound up on teams that seemed almost predestined. Bird went to the Boston Celtics, while Magic went the to the L.A. Lakers. The Celtics-Lakers rivalry was one of the richest in sports history; between 1959 and 1969, the teams faced each other in the NBA Finals seven times, with the Celtics winning every time. The interest from the NCAA Finals carried over to the pros, as the freshly tapped audience wanted to see what the two new stars would do at these historic franchises. It didn’t take long.
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 Parrish, 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.
1984 finally saw Magic and Bird meet again in a championship. Each man was supported by a legendary starting line-up (in addition to stellar benches). Bird had McHale, Parrish, and guards Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge on the start, while Magic had Kareem, James Worthy, Kurt Rambis, and Michael Cooper. The Finals went to seven games, with the seventh garnering ratings that rivaled those of Bird and Magic’s NCAA duel. The Celtics emerged victorious, and Bird was named series MVP (in addition to also winning League MVP that season). The NBA’s popularity surged in 1984 on the strength of the rivalry and highly-rated Finals. The league also 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 nemeses 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 Finals.
Throughout the years of rivalry and bitter struggle, a funny thing happened in 1985. Called upon to shoot a shoe commercial together near Bird’s home in French Lick, Indiana, Magic and Bird actually talked at length for the first time. Off the court, they became friends. Magic attributed their bond to Midwestern roots, poor backgrounds, a mutual love of the game, and the fact that they were both steely competitors. Magic would lean on that friendship when he learned that he had contracted HIV in 1991; one of the first calls he placed after the diagnosis was to Bird.
Magic briefly retired after making his condition known. At the time, the diagnosis was considered a death sentence. Magic set out to prove doubters wrong, and played in the All-Star Game and scored 25 points after being voted in as a starter by the fans. Afterward, both Magic and Bird were selected for the 1992 Men’s U.S. Olympic basketball team, which was using pros for the first time. After 13 years as opponents, they were teammates again. Along with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, and collegiate player Christian Laettner, they simply dominated. The “Dream Team” is considered one of the most dominant line-ups in sports history, winning all of their games by an average of 43.8 points on the way to the gold.
Bird, beset by back problems, announced his retirement after the Olympic run. The Celtics immediately retired his number 33, and Magic appeared at the ceremony, wearing a Celtic T-shirt underneath his Lakers warm-up gear. Magic went back to the Lakers as both a player and coach; he retired from the NBA as player in 1996, later serving as an executive with the Lakers from 2017 until April, 2019. Bird also extended his basketball career off the court; he coached the Indiana Pacers for three seasons, taking them to the Finals in 2000 (though they lost to — who else — the Lakers). He’s been with the team as an executive or advisor ever since; he’s the only player to go on to win an MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. Both men are the in the Basketball Hall of Fame twice (each as individuals, and as members of the enshrined Dream Team). This week, at the 2019 NBA Awards, the pair was each given the Lifetime Achievement Award as co-recipients.
You can read any number of things into what Bird and Magic mean to their game and to the world in general. They demonstrate how people from different backgrounds can become friends while simultaneously showing that people aren’t necessarily that different below the surface. Their parallel careers are a celebration of hard work and excellence. They remain beloved by fans for their attitudes and skills. Certainly, they raised the profile of the NBA with their rivalry, and the Dream Team permanently changed basketball by sparking an international movement that’s seen the growth of leagues in other countries and a continuing influx of players from around the world into the NBA (including this year’s NBA Rookie of the Year, Luka Dončić). Arguments will continue for eternity about who the greatest player is; however, there will never be any doubt that the greatest, and most impactful, rivalry came from two Midwestern guys that walked into the game as rivals, and walked away as lifelong friends.