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With the exception of Rick Barry, no forward has been able to both pass and score the way Bird has, and Bird is a better rebounder than Barry was. Those who believe Bird is now the best player in the game (he's expected to be named the league's MVP when the award is announced on June 25, only the second non-center chosen for that honor in the past 20 years, the other being Erving in 1980-81) usually cite the weight of his responsibilities as the determining factor. "They're both great players, but it's harder to find a Larry Bird than a Magic Johnson," says Houston's Bill Fitch, who coached Bird for four seasons in Boston. "It's tougher to do the things Larry does at forward than it is to do what Magic does at guard. I still say West and Robertson were better than Magic, but there aren't many players better than Bird."
There is also little doubt about which one of the two you would want to take the last shot for you in a close game. When the Lakers need a big basket, the ball almost always goes in to the 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar. In the same situation, the Celtics go to Bird. "If the game is on the line and my life depended on it," Fitch says, "I'd say give it to Bird."
Even West seems more enamored of Bird's game than Magic's. "Bird whets your appetite for the game," West says. "He's such a great passer and he doesn't make mistakes. Magic handles the ball more, and he makes more mistakes because he has it more. We're all fond of different kinds of books, different types of movies. The one that best approaches the kind of game I would recommend a young player model himself after is Bird. He's a genius on the basketball floor."
West is quick to add that he would say almost all the same things about Magic, but his is the fairly typical hedge of the purists who prefer Bird's efficiency to Magic's flair for the dramatic. And even some of them have been won over. "A lot of guys might turn you off with a hot-dog pass, but Magic never has done that to me," Newell says. "He's got the rare ability to transmit to the fan that basketball is fun. The day the game is no longer fun for Magic is the day he'll become just another player."
The fact that that day is still a long way away probably says a lot about the formidable challenge Bird presents to Magic, night after night, even when they're playing in arenas thousands of miles apart. "He's definitely the best player at this time," Johnson says of Bird. "But it's no personal battle—me against him. We never let it be personal, trying to outdo each other. Because that's going to be hard to do. He's the best, so you've got to bring your best. The boy is bad."
Bad. But not the baddest.
Because the best all-around player in basketball today is Magic Johnson. And here are the reasons why:
HE CAN DO MORE. The first important thing to realize is that statistically Bird and Magic are about as even as you can get (see box, page 38). Bird has a higher career scoring average (22.6 to 18.2), but he should because he takes far more shots. Magic has a higher assist average (9.8 to 5.6), but he should because he's a point guard. Bird averages about two rebounds more a game because he plays closer to the basket, but Magic, who doesn't take nearly as many perimeter shots as Bird, has a better shooting percentage (.542 to .490). However, Magic's ability to control a game almost defies quantification. "He's the only player who can take only three shots and still dominate a game," says Erving, whose 76ers lost to Johnson's Lakers twice—1980 and 1982—in the NBA finals before finally beating them last year.
Bird is one of the league's best team defenders—sagging off his man to give help in the middle—but he isn't particularly good guarding his man one-on-one because he can't jump. When the Celtics played New York in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Knicks' Bernard King had to wear himself out chasing Bird all over the floor, while Bird guarded Truck Robinson. Magic was a weak defender when he came into the league but has improved to the point where he now often guards the other team's best scorer. In last year's championship series Magic guarded Erving most of the time, and against Phoenix last week he was usually guarding Larry Nance, who, like Erving, is a forward. "Besides being a leader and an offensive catalyst," says Phoenix coach John MacLeod, who believes Johnson is the NBA's best player, "Magic is a guard who can defend both the point guard and the center. He can take the big forward and the small forward, too. And there ain't many of those. You talk about range."
HE PLAYS A MORE DEMANDING POSITION. No question, Bird is the best forward now, maybe ever. But after the center, the most important player on the floor is the point guard. "Under most circumstances," says Newell, "the point guard can get the ball to the right people at the right time, penetrate and dish off. Magic can kill you on the offensive boards, and he'll kill you on the post up, and his ability to take it to the basket creates tremendous pressure on the defense." His detractors say that Johnson is a freak at point guard, padding his assist totals by passing over players who are as much as six or seven inches shorter. But Johnson also runs the best fast break in the NBA, which, for most 6'9" players would be like trying to control the ball while dribbling at top speed into a ditch.