For two people so firmly linked together—in these pages and throughout NBA eternity—they sure were different. Ebony and Ivory, Left Coast and East Coast, the prince of Hollywood Showtime and the lord of the blue-collar masses. But, to be sure, the best way to study Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Larry Joe Bird is to consider them as a single piece, with their double-dribble entry into the NBA in 1979 coming as a fortunate accident of timing that did nothing less than rescue pro basketball.
The NBA of the '70s was the enclave of the selfish and the satisfied, a place where individual talent flourished at the expense of team play. That's the way the average fan saw it, anyway, and there was more than a little truth in that perception. More to the point, attendance was flagging, advertisers were turned off, TV viewers weren't watching, several owners were talking about selling, and a bone-deep malaise permeated the whole sport. Magic and Bird turned it all around.
Theirs was an irresistible story line, hatched on a court in Salt Lake City on March 26, 1979, in what is still the most-watched NCAA final ever. Individually they were great players, together they became an epic tale, and their greatest combined contribution was bringing the art of unselfishness back to the game. They passed, they battled for loose balls, they lobbied with referees, they pushed themselves and their teammates to the limit. And, best of all, Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers and Bird's Boston Celtics won championships. Suddenly, players who came after them had a blueprint for how to play the game, and just as suddenly, fans had a reason to care about the NBA. Are you a Laker fan or a Celtic fan? Do you favor Magic or Bird? Do you like Magic's California fast break or are you partial to Bird's Massachusetts muscle?
Your answers spoke volumes not only about your ideas on basketball but also about yourself. To say that these two men transcended the game merely states the obvious, for it is impossible to separate the subject of Magic and Bird from the subject of race. The basketball traditionalist, typically an older white man convinced that point guard play began and ended with Bob Cousy, started with a vague mistrust of the flashy Laker point guard. But Magic would finally win him over, demonstrating that you can win with style and smile, play with both substance and a sense of theater. The younger urban fan scoffed at the more labored moves of this palest of the pale Celtics. But Bird would finally win him over, showing that you can win with grit and guile, play with both imagination and a headful of Hoosier fundamentals.
Since the two met only twice a year in the regular season, the average fan never grew tired of their rivalry. Their competitive confluences were always happenings, season checkpoints, whether they occurred late in December or early in April. Altogether they matched up 37 times as pros, including 19 times in the postseason; Magic's Lakers won 22, Bird's Celtics won 15. And when the clock was counting down and the game was on the line, there was no doubt who was going to get the ball: L.A. gave it to Magic, Boston gave it to Bird.
The debate over who was the better player raged among media and fans (and, more quietly, among other NBA players). Magic broke from the blocks first. He led his Michigan State team to a 75-64 victory over Bird's Indiana State ragamuffins in their first memorable meeting. Though Bird beat him out for NBA Rookie of the Year in 1980, it was Johnson who picked up a championship trophy in his first pro season. And it was after he moved from point guard to center (replacing an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the sixth and decisive game of the 1980 Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers that Magic's stunning versatility became obvious. But Bird won it all the next year, and their unspoken game of "anything you can do I can do better" became the NBA's No. 1 topic.
For the record, this vote for best player at first went to Bird, whose all-around game seemed superior, but later to Magic, whose physical condition held up longer and who still had the Lakers playing for the championship in 1991, by which time Bird's fortunes had fallen and the Celtics' with them. But ultimately their individual duel didn't matter. Magic's people respected Bird, and Bird's people respected Magic. Competitive NBA tandems had preceded them, of course—Bill Russell had Wilt Chamberlain. Oscar Robertson had Jerry West—but none had the combined resonance of Magic and Bird: sociological phenomenons, championship rivals, league saviors.
It wasn't until late in their careers that the principals at last seemed to get a sense of each other and the collective contribution they had made to the game. Oh, Magic, the chamber of commerce superstar, would usually say the right things about Larry, but they always rang a little hollow; and Bird, the reticent one, would say almost nothing at all about Johnson. Through most of the '80s their teams were too competitive, their pride too much at stake, their preeminence among their peers too much of an issue to allow them to toss one another crosscourt bouquets. But as they grew older and looked back on all they had achieved, they developed a sincere fondness for each other. After Magic announced in November 1991 that he had contracted HIV, Bird broke down and wept. A piece of himself was gone when Magic hung it up, and, indeed, Bird, plagued by back problems, announced his retirement just nine months later.
That was shortly after the two had stepped onto the court in Barcelona in the summer of '92 as co-leaders of the first U.S. Olympic team to include professional players, the symbolic denouement of their careers. Neither the 35-year-old Celtic nor the 33-year-old Laker was the sublime talent he had once been, but that wasn't the point. Without the dual influence of Bird and Magic, there might not have been a Dream Team. Or, for that matter, an NBA as we know it today.