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No professional sports league is as dependent on the cult of personality as the NBA, and now it has, in one brightly wrapped grab bag, two of the world's most famous athletes going at each other smile for smile, quote for quote, spin move for spin move. Yes, the Magic and Michael made-for-TV miniseries, otherwise known as the NBA Finals, began at Chicago Stadium on Sunday. Game 1 ended, quite properly, with Magic Johnson throwing a pass and Michael Jordan taking a shot. Johnson connected, Jordan missed, and the Los Angeles Lakers crept away with a 93-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls in a game that, almost impossibly, was as good as advertised.
The NBA has never seen anything like this. Sure, for two years running, in 1988 and '89, the Finals brought together Magic and his close buddy, the Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas, to exchange pregame smooches at center court. Compared with Jordan, however, Thomas is hardly a blip on the personality radar screen. Before that, in '84, '85 and '87, Magic had the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird as a foil, but that was less a one-on-one personality battle than a confrontation between two storied teams.
What can you say about a matchup that offers a one-man conglomerate (Jordan) and the ultimate sunshine warrior (Johnson)? "You can't overhype Magic Johnson versus Michael Jordan," said Laker reserve Mychal Thompson last Saturday afternoon. He looked around at a huge throng of reporters. "Well, you'll try. But, nope, it can't be done. Talent, leadership, winning—Magic and Michael are the ultimate in all of those things. They're it." Because they're it, Sunday's game attained a hefty overnight rating of 16.4 for NBC, which has already moved Game 4 (in L.A.) and, should it be played, Game 7 (in Chicago) to prime time from their traditional Sunday afternoon slots.
The irony is that this season, for the first time since Jordan came into the league, in 1984, the Bulls had gotten away from the "one-man team" label. Similarly, Johnson is no longer the fast-breaking, Showtime quarterback, because the Lakers, under rookie coach Mike Dunleavy, are now playing a down-tempo power game. Note that they took only 66 shots in Sunday's game, which tied a championship-series record—the Lakers set it against the New York Knicks in 1970—for fewest field goal attempts. Nonetheless, as soon as Los Angeles turned back the Portland Trail Blazers 91-90 in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals to earn the right to meet the Bulls, who had swept Detroit in the Eastern finals, it was Michael versus Magic, the Prince of Midair vs. the King of the Hill, Nike vs. Converse, Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi, McDonald's vs. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Though the principals tried mightily to deflect attention from themselves, even they couldn't pretend otherwise.
Said Jordan, "It's great for the league, having the two best players going against each other." Any arguments there?
Said Johnson, "Sure, it's a little personal. I mean, me going against Michael Jordan in the Finals. It's what you live for, right?" Would Magic be getting this worked up to play, say, Charles Barkley?
One of the intriguing aspects of the MJ-MJ relationship is how badly it started. Jordan felt, rightly or wrongly, that Johnson was partly responsible for, or at least tacitly endorsed, a plan to keep the ball away from Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game. Johnson was on the other team, of course, but the freeze-out was, in Jordan's mind, the brainchild of Thomas. There has always been tension between Jordan and Thomas—it certainly was not alleviated by this year's bitterly contested Bulls-Pistons series—and Jordan automatically and not unreasonably put Magic in Isiah's camp. The Michael-Magic feud simmered until Johnson decided enough was enough during the 1987-88 season.
"It was up to me to take the initiative to end it, because Michael was the young guy and I was the veteran," said Magic, who is four years Jordan's senior. "I told him, 'We can't be separated like this. I respect you too much, and I'm sure you respect me.' When men come together and respect each other, you can straighten anything out."
Johnson is one of the few athletes in the world who can say something like that and sound believable. For his part, Jordan says of the old rivalry, "Magic and I are good friends now. We had a rocky start for no real reason [although Jordan didn't originally believe it was for no real reason]. Before, we hadn't known each other as people. Then we got to know each other, and that's when the friendship began."
Moreover, only in the past few years has Johnson put together a business team, a package of endorsements and an investment portfolio that he perceives to be equal to his celebrity. Jordan, by dint of his spectacular play in college, the Olympics and his rookie NBA season and the sagacious management of ProServ, had all those things, and that grated on many in the NBA, including Magic. But Johnson now realizes that, as he said last week, "there's enough for everybody."