It certainly promises to be a good thing for the game's aficionados, who have long awaited such a matchup. "It's inevitable that this whole series will be viewed as a confrontation between the two of them," says Bob Ryan, who for 11 years has covered pro basketball for The Boston Globe. "That's an insult to Kareem and Kevin McHale and Parish, of course, but it's unavoidable. The rivalry between Bird and Magic is definitely the subplot of this series." Johnson has been talking eagerly about the confrontation since February, when it became clear that the Lakers and the Celtics were the two best teams in the league. "Me and Larry at last," Magic said after the Lakers had beaten the Celtics twice within a span of 17 days. "Oh, boy!"
That this final series has been more eagerly anticipated than most is due in no small part to the fact that for the first time in 15 years two players who are arguably the best in the game have squared off in a championship series. The last great summit meeting occurred in 1969, which was also the last time Boston and L.A. met in a title series, when centers Wilt Chamberlain of the Lakers and Bill Russell of the Celtics renewed their historic rivalry. The Lakers and Celtics had met five times in the '60s for the championship—Boston winning every time—and then-Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so positive his team would win in '69 that, before the decisive seventh game, he had hundreds of balloons hoisted up to the rafters of the Los Angeles Forum, to be released when the Lakers had taken the title. But the only thing that dropped from on high that night was Celtic Don Nelson's shot in the last 77 seconds that hit the rim and bounced nearly over the backboard before falling cleanly through the basket, clinching Boston's 108-106 victory. That was also the game that caused Russell—who would retire before the next season—to lose his respect for Chamberlain as an opponent. With 5:19 to play and his team down by seven points, Wilt took himself out of the game with an injury to his right knee. Wilt never returned, though he wanted to. Russell later said that nothing short of a broken leg could have kept him out of the game.
The Russell-Chamberlain rivalry was a storied one, with Russell's teams almost always beating Chamberlain's—he played half of his 14 years for the Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers—and Wilt almost always scoring more points. But few individual rivalries have been sustained for as long at such a high level as the one between Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. Both guards came into the NBA in 1960 after playing for the U.S. Olympic team, and, like Bird and Magic, their careers were bound together by the debate over who was better. "They were the last two players before Magic and Bird who came into the league the same year and had the same innate ability to understand the total game," says Newell, who coached them to the gold medal in Rome. Robertson, who averaged 30.5 points a game, won Rookie of the Year honors over West, who averaged only 17.6. "We sort of followed each other around after that," says West, now the general manager of the Lakers. "It probably wasn't fair to either one of us." West and Robertson never met in a championship series, their playoff matchups being confined to the 1970-71 and 1971-72 Western Conference finals.
Because Eastern Conference teams now meet Western Conference opponents only twice each season, Bird and Magic have played only seven regular-season games against each other as pros (Magic was hurt and missed the other three regular-season games), which means that if this championship series goes the distance, we can see in two glorious weeks what it has taken five years to accomplish. "It's like the opening of a great play," West says. "Everybody's waiting to see it." What people won't see, however, is a great head-to-head matchup, like Russell and Chamberlain. "If Bird and Magic played against each other, then it would be real special," West says. "But they don't. As much as people want to talk about who's the best, you'd get a better idea who plays the greater total game if they matched up against each other."
"Johnson and Bird play the game differently than anybody has ever played it," Ryan says, "which means they can only be compared to each other. I love Julius Erving, but he was never the player Bird or Magic is. He's a conventional forward with extraordinary physical abilities, the next phase in the evolutionary cycle after Elgin Baylor. If you're talking about the greatest all-around player in the game, you're talking about Bird or Magic."
As well-rounded as Bird and Magic are, it's a happy coincidence that they should have come along at the same time, bringing with them the return of an all-but-forgotten art. "The unifying thread is passing," Ryan says. "Bird and Magic have completely restored the virtues of passing. They go about it differently—Magic has a way of making a spectacular pass that calls attention to itself; Bird has a knack for making an efficient pass that calls attention to the cutter—and they are contemporaries, so they couldn't have influenced each other."
Though they grew up and played for colleges only a few hundred miles apart, Bird and Magic didn't really become aware of each other until they were about to meet in that '79 NCAA championship game at Salt Lake City. "I thought it was amazing he could be so big and do the things he did," says Magic, recalling his first sighting of Bird. "We created the same kind of problems for a defense. Both of us did whatever it took to win. I'd never played against anybody like that." Johnson had gone 9 for 10 from the field as Michigan State routed Penn in the semifinals, and Bird had been equally spectacular with 35 points as Indiana State eliminated DePaul.
The 48-hour wait for the final game was almost unbearable. "Oh, it was hot all right," Magic says. "The two best passers in one game. You knew we were going to put on a show. And it turned out to be all it was built up to be." Particularly for Johnson, who had 24 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Bird never got anything going, shooting 7 for 21, with two assists and 13 rebounds.
For one night, Bird and Magic actually were teammates. It happened in 1978 at a postseason All-Star game in Atlanta, where they were members of a U.S. team that played Cuba. Kentucky's Joe B. Hall was the coach, and, curiously enough, the starting lineup for the American team included Rick Robey, Kyle Macy and Jack Givens—all Kentucky players—while Joe Barry Carroll, Darrell Griffith, Sidney Moncrief, Bird and Magic were relegated to the bench. But Bird and Magic did get some time together on the court, and despite the obvious temptation to overpass, they clicked instantly. "We read each other perfectly from the very start," Johnson says. "On one breakaway, I had the ball and threw it over my shoulder to him. Larry caught it and threw a behind-the-back pass straight back to me for an easy layup."
Bird has been getting his teammates easy layups since he came to the Celtics five seasons ago. Boston drafted Bird, who is now 27 years old, as a junior-eligible in 1978, the year before he actually turned pro. Thus, some poor general manager was spared the delicious ordeal of choosing between Bird and Magic, who is only 24, having turned pro after his sophomore year at Michigan State. Bird's uniqueness lies in his ability to make brilliant passes in the heavy traffic that swarms around the basket, passes that move through his large hands so quickly at times that he seems to be merely adjusting the course of the ball. One NBA head coach who has worked in both conferences believes that if Bird and Magic were to exchange teams, the Celtics would be giving up more. "If Bird played for the Lakers," he says, "they would be 75-7 [every year]."