For the last 12 years, Larry Joe Bird and Earvin (Magic) Johnson have engaged in a dance more intricate than a minuet, more wonderful than a waltz and more curious than the lambada. Despite being born 310 miles, one color barrier and 2 Vi years apart, despite playing different positions, despite suiting up at opposite ends of a continent, they have whirled along in a two-step all their own, a left-right, left-right of alternating titles and trophies that has propelled the NBA into prosperity and their own games to mystical heights. They have glared at each other, befriended each other, needed each other. Now, as the games, the years and the ice packs pile up, a question arises: Is this the last opportunity for them to go cheek to cheek for the title?
In the particular choreography of the playoffs the two are able to meet only when it matters most—in the NBA Finals. Last year, neither Bird's Boston Celtics nor Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers made it there for the first time since these players both entered the league in 1979, and thoughts of one last fling for them began to fade. But this season both clubs seem poised for formidable runs. With a new complement of fresh legs, the Celtics are back in fast-breaking form and through Sunday had the second-best record (54-21) in the Eastern Conference. With an improved half-court defense and an endless variety of post-up options, the Lakers have built the second-best record (55-21) in the Western Conference.
"The team that scares me the most in the West is the Lakers, because Magic can beat you in so many ways," says guard Danny Ainge of the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles's most formidable obstacle in its conference. "And the team I'd least like to play in the East is Boston, because of its blend of experience and youth."
Think about them together again. Bird standing at the top of the key, directing the flow of events with the imperious-ness of a traffic cop on Congress Street and then flicking a pass off his hip to a cutter for a layup; Johnson pounding the ball at full bore, head bobbing like a running back sprung free, penetrating into the lane for a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't assist. They have squared off in one NCAA title game (in 1979), 19 NBA championship games (in '83-84, '84-85 and '86-87) and 16 regular-season pro games. The bottom line in head-to-head competition, as each is acutely aware, reads: three rings for Johnson, one ring for Bird. (In NBA MVP hardware they're even, with three trophies apiece.) What will the final totals be? Or, more important, how soon will they be written?
The 6'9" Johnson, the game's greatest point guard, is 31; the 6'9" Bird, the game's most complete forward, is 34. Johnson can still high-step in the open court despite tendinitis in his knees; Bird labors stoically despite the pain caused by a swollen disc. Johnson recently complained of fatigue born of too many minutes; Bird has missed 16 games this season—including a 102-98 loss at Orlando last Saturday—because of recurring back woes. Johnson will probably face a 50-win team in the opening round of the playoffs; Bird will probably have to elbow past the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls—assuming the Celts avoid a major upset in the first round. Johnson has three years left on his contract; Bird has one. Their paths to another meeting in the finals are tortuous; their time is short.
"I think this is it," says one Western Conference general manager. "If they don't make it this year, it won't happen. One or both of them will retire before the Lakers or the Celtics make it to the Finals after this year. I just don't know if the Lakers are good enough. The Celtics are a different story. Bird is the key to their putting it all together."
Houston Rocket coach Don Chancy demurs. "I wouldn't put myself on the line to say this would be the last year they could meet in the Finals," he says. "If you continue to put them with good players, their intelligence will get them over."
The principals approach the prospect of another go-round in characteristically different ways. Bird's blue eyes flick across his shoe tops, and the words tumble out without reflective pause: "I haven't really thought about it. You get a chance to play against Magic, and you always want to beat him, but things change. You get a little bit older, you get injuries. You get mentally prepared to play them type of games. I hope it happens."
Johnson's brown eyes crackle with a combination of a competitor's fire and an entrepreneur's zeal: "I hope we will have that magical time again, because the world wants to see it. Not just us two and the two cities we play for. The world wants to see it one more time."
What the world has witnessed so far is a rivalry between two legends who have never guarded each other. The epic 76ers-Celtics series of the late 1960s revolved around two centers, Philly's Wilt Chamberlain and Boston's Bill Russell, in what must be viewed as the league's most heated head-to-head feud. Johnson and Bird rekindled that kind of rivalry not by going mamo a mamo but by elevating their respective teams to transcendent levels. Their passing skills brought everyone on the court into play, and their creativity with the ball brought every moment alive. The drama they created on the court overshadowed the roles played by future Hall of Fame cast members such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and James Worthy; it reduced Hollywood superfan Jack Nicholson to a character actor; it turned Celtics president Red Auerbach's cigar into a second-rate prop.