After a timeout Boston inbounds the ball from near half court. Bird gets it in almost exactly the same spot as he did during the Celtics' previous possession. The crowd roars. Bird cocks and fires. "I was floating to the left when I took it," Bird will say later. "But I was sure it was on target. It was either short, long or in the hole." It is...a bit long. Lakers—and Magic—win.
"The thing between us was that neither team could ever relax," says Magic today. "You never felt the game was over. That night was a great example. Even after Larry missed, we were afraid to move. It was like...we won? With individuals like us, and with two cities going crazy—not just two cities, but the world—there will never be another rivalry like it again."
From Dec. 28, 1979, to Feb. 16, 1992, the Lakers and the Celtics played 45 games: 26 in the regular season and 19 in the playoffs. There were five games in which Bird played but Magic didn't, including one last season after Magic retired upon discovering that he was HIV-positive. There were two in which Magic played and an injured Bird didn't. And there was one game—Feb. 19, 1989—that was Magic-less and Bird-less, as will be all future Boston-Los Angeles games, both men having firmly called it quits before this season began.
In the other 37 games—31 of which I was privileged to witness—the Lakers beat the Celtics 22 times. The teams met three times for the NBA championship, and L.A. won twice. And so the ultimate bragging rights fall to Magic. Says Bird, "I can still see him in my head, coming up court, faking right, faking left, then pulling it back and laying it in. Still pisses me off."
Magic and Bird met in the summer of 1978 as teammates on a college all-star team that toured Europe. Each saw something of himself in the other, and the reason was simple: Passing was an obsession for them both. In March '79 they were thrown together again, in the most anticipated NCAA championship game ever, Michigan State and Magic versus Indiana State and Bird. They were the two best college basketball players in the country, though neither was very fast nor much of a leaper. Each was his team's best thinker and source of inspiration, but there the similarities ended. Magic, from the big school famous for its sports teams, was outgoing and perpetually smiling, the media's darling. Bird, from the little school with no reputation for athletics, was introverted and suspicious of the press. Magic seemed to be everybody's friend; Bird picked his friends carefully.
Bird offered this pregame assessment: "Passing means so much in basketball. The way I look at it, I'm a scorer and Johnson's a passer." Magic was more expansive: "I'm a fan of Larry Bird's, and I love to look at what he can do with the ball. Only thing is, I just can't get caught looking at him tonight."
With Magic being Magic and with the Spartans' 2-3 zone harassing Bird into 7-for-21 shooting, Michigan State dominated the game—perhaps even more than the 75-64 score suggests. "I thought we'd win, because we hadn't lost all year," Bird says now, "but after about 35 minutes I knew they had the better team. I've never looked back on that game. The best team won."
The contest got the highest television ratings of any NCAA championship game—before or after. With that as a backdrop, Magic took his act to Los Angeles and Bird went to Boston. In the pros theirs became a bicoastal rivalry, even a cultural rivalry.
Magic became the embodiment of Showtime with his behind-the-back wizardry, his look-away passes and his million-dollar smile. In L.A. he was the right man in the right place at the right time. Bird became the favorite of knowledgeable Celtic fans mostly because of the effort he expended. Bostonians applauded him as much for diving to the floor as for dropping in three-pointers or throwing no-look passes. There was always the notion that he could have moonlighted as a middle linebacker.
The two first met as professionals on Magic's home floor at the Forum on Dec. 28, 1979. Each had already transformed his team. In their previous season the Celtics had won only 29 games, but by the time they arrived in L.A. with Bird, they'd already won 28. The Lakers, who had finished third in the Pacific Division the previous season, were only a game out of first with a 26-13 record. The Forum had been sold out for weeks. Each team had already filled arenas—Boston, the San Diego Sports Arena; L.A., the Salt Palace, in Salt Lake City—that were not ordinarily teeming with humanity.