- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
They are as unalike in almost every way as two basketball players can be, and yet Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Earvin (Magic) Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers have in common one very distinctive quality. "Me and Larry's just different from everybody else," Magic says.
Different and better. Last Sunday in Game 1 of the NBA championship series between the Celtics and the Lakers, Bird and Magic finally convened what had become the sport's most eagerly anticipated confrontation. From the moment the two of them walked onto the parquet floor in the Boston Garden—Bird solemnly pausing to grasp the bottom of each shoe with his hands to dry his palms, a ritual that makes him appear to be trying to remove chewing gum, Johnson flashing his ever-present grin—every move they made was studied, judged and compared on artistic impression and technical merit. When the game was over and the Lakers had won 115-109, with Magic scoring 18 points, taking down six rebounds and passing off for 10 assists compared with Bird's 24 (on 7-of-I7 shooting), 14 and five, conclusions were quickly drawn and then hotly debated into the small hours from the corner bars of Brookline to the boîtes of Beverly Hills.
For the time being, both Bird and Magic have diplomatically kept out of the debate, but there's no doubt they've been paying attention. "Oh, they'll say it's not a one-on-one game, and they'll point out that they're not even guarding each other, and you can't blame them for doing that," said Pete Newell, a more than casual observer who coached the University of California to the NCAA title in 1959 and is now a consultant for the Golden State Warriors. "These are two of the greatest players we've ever had, and even though Magic's a guard and Bird's a forward, they sure as heck realize there are going to be comparisons made. Naturally, they want to be at their best. If you were Raquel Welch and you lived across the street from Marilyn Monroe, you'd make damn sure you looked good every time you went out the front door."
The Lakers came barreling through the front door in Game 1 Jumping out to a 24-9 lead in the first seven minutes while running their fast break to perfection. L.A. got 11 points on the break in the first period alone, and Magic, who sank his first four shots, drilled holes in Boston's defense. Celtic coach K.C. Jones decided that whoever the 6'9" Johnson guarded would, in turn, cover Johnson. That Celtic turned out to be 6'2" Gerald Henderson. In effect, Jones's decision allowed the Lakers to dictate the terms of the game.
Bird fared less well against the pressure applied from beginning to end by Michael Cooper. He scored only 10 points in the first half, and although he led a comeback that brought Boston to within 105-101 with 5:05 remaining, Jones described it as "one of his awful days."
L.A.'s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar woke up Sunday morning with a migraine headache, and then gave the Celtics one of their own. The 37-year-old center made his first six shots and was 12 for 17 for the afternoon, finishing with 32 points. Robert Parish, his Boston counterpart, fouled out with 7:23 remaining in the game, having scored only 13 points.
No one was more eager for the showdown than Johnson, whose basket with 1:05 left was the margin in the Lakers' 99-97 victory that disposed of the Phoenix Suns Friday night in Game 6 of the Western finals. "Everybody wants it," he said. "The world wants it. What makes it really interesting is that it's not like we're just two great scorers, because you can shut scorers down. We do so many other things. Even if one of us isn't scoring, we make our presence felt."
Away from the game, Johnson and Bird go about their lives in dramatically different fashions. Magic is the king of the L.A. discos—E.J. the Deejay—with a brand-new mansion in Bel Air. Bird is the quintessential "hick from French Lick"—Indiana (He's Got A Basketball) Jones—who is more comfortable in places where a lot of people wear caps that say INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER on the front. On the court, each has a distinctive style, and that's where their personalities begin to converge.
"We both do the same things," Bird says, "but we're not the same type player. When you think of the impact we have on a game, with me it's usually scoring, but with him it's always his passing. He's got his hands on the ball more than I do, so he. has more control of the situation. You really can't compare us. He's more flashy and can make more things happen than me, make them happen quicker. Magic is just beyond description. I think of him as one of the three top players in the game today, maybe the best. He's a perfect player."
The rivalry between Magic and Bird, who is also 6'9", began in college, coming to a head in each player's last college game—the 1979 NCAA finals in which Johnson's Michigan State beat Bird's Indiana State 75-64—and for a long time it wasn't a particularly friendly one. During their rookie season in the NBA—1979-80—they even squared off once after Bird leveled Magic with a hard foul, but that was at a time when each of them was trying to prove himself. "We let the media sort of keep us apart for a while," Johnson says. "But now we respect each other's talent. It's a comfortable feeling, like you don't mind being in the same room with him. It wasn't always that way. In the beginning there definitely was a rivalry, no question about it. That's always going to be there. But you can have a rivalry that's a good thing."