The tale of Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird is an important if sometimes distressing one in terms of how it reflects upon the society of the day.
The National Basketball Association finally came to an important realisation in 1984. The Finals of the illustrious competition need to be revved up to the maximum in the press and capture the public imagination. The surest way to achieve this is for the teams to have ginormous personalities and egos that clash on and off the court. As with most things in America, the spectacle of the show is everything. The more drama and excitement that can be injected into proceedings, the better.
When the Finals matchups don’t get the pulses racing, the ratings are startlingly different. For better or worse, America has been raised on a diet of high tension, drama, and action. The games that do not evoke these feelings simply cannot compete for viewers’ attention in an ever-increasingly distracting world. So, what was it that caused this epiphany? The NBA had been happily cruising along for three decades by 1984. What happened?
EARVIN ‘MAGIC’ JOHNSON VS LARRY BIRD IS WHAT HAPPENED…
When Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain retired in the 1970s, interest in the league slumped. A decent TV contract was not forthcoming and the arenas that athletes played to were often only half full.
The recognition that basketball could genuinely represent big-time, big-bucks came barrelling in courtesy of these 2 new giants of the game and the nature of the NBA was forever changed. As technology improved and became more and more ubiquitous, the spectacle of any sport became more about its widespread appeal for the millions watching via television sets, rather than those sitting in the crowd.
The pair and their on-court performances formed a kind of bridge between the old and new styles of sporting entertainment and its presentation. Racial tensions aside (more of that later) the pair exuded sheer determination and the will to win. This kind of passion and aggression is infectious and the nation was glued.
By the time their playing careers were over, the game was accelerating ever onwards and upwards and has never looked back since, or seemingly lost its momentum.
From 1950 to 1980, the USA itself and the NBA along with it underwent some pretty drastic changes. Professional basketball was completely transformed from a sport with virtually all-white athletes to a majority-black one. The style and pace changed as the full court came into play. Teams became less cagey and defensive and running and shooting came to the fore. This delighted the fans, of course, and went a long way towards increasing the popularity and aura of the sport.
THE FACT IS THIS:
The number of white NBA players who could compete with this newfound pace and relentless athleticism were few and far between. The likes of Jerry West, John Havlicek and Pete Maravich were in short supply.
It is hard to quantify a situation like the one that existed then. It has been argued by some that white fans would not support a black league. There may certainly be some truth in that. Outside of basketball arenas, the civil rights movement was in full effect. Dim-witted, bitter racists were probably reticent to see their precious white teams transformed into black ones.
The ‘black game’ was slurred and shunned by these types. They complained that it was more selfish and no longer a team-oriented sport. Stories about cocaine use were in the press (perhaps in an early example of the cynical use of media to further the cause of one viewpoint over another) and the whole sport teetered on the edge of oblivion.
The 1970s were no less turbulent. Although landmark events such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act had caused giant leaps forward in reducing the appalling treatment of African Americans, the journey ahead was still a long and painful one. The pushback against allowing black people to have the same basic human rights as whites seeped like poison into every facet of society and the NBA was no different.
The country was in economic and social turmoil during this time as jobs disappeared overseas and the laws that had prevented African Americans from having certain jobs, attending schools or having access to decent, habitable housing were abandoned and overturned.
This cauldron of tension, violence and disharmony was the environment that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson found themselves in when they appeared on the national stage in 1979.
THE PAIR WERE REMARKABLY SIMILAR
Both had grown up as part of America’s struggling working-class and made their way to the NCAA Championship.
Earvin Johnson grew up as one of seven children in Lansing, Michigan after his family moved North looking for work in the many auto plants there at that time. His father started a trash-hauling business to bring in extra money.
Johnson has fond memories of this time and remembers that they had –
“TWO GREAT PARENTS, FOOD ON THE TABLE AND TIME FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY TO BE TOGETHER.”
Johnson was a fun-loving, attention-seeking kid who adored playing basketball. He would go to his local court at 6 am before elementary school just to have extra time to play.
IN HIGH SCHOOL, RACIAL TENSIONS RAN HIGH
This was a sad reflection of the wider society. Although he was a black kid in a predominantly white school, Johnson’s basketball skills and genial disposition created something of a bridge between the races and he often played the part of peacemaker.
Larry Bird grew up as one of six kids less than 400 miles away in French Lick, Indiana.
Bird’s mother was a waitress and a cook. His father took odd jobs but was often out of work. What money he did have was duly tipped down his neck.
Unsurprisingly then, Bird was a shy kid, lacking in confidence. At the age of 13, he visited his aunt out of town and found himself in a pickup basketball game. He crushed it and was congratulated and revered by the other kids. This was a huge moment for Larry Bird and he later said that it was:
“…THE DAY I FELL IN LOVE WITH BASKETBALL.”
Fast-forward now to the highlight of both players’ college basketball careers. They had each individually rejuvenated the basketball programs at their respective colleges. At the end of Johnson’s second year with Michigan State and Bird’s third at Indiana State, fate brought them together.
IN 1979 THE PAIR MET IN THE NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had already become national stories by this time. They had both appeared at the same time and were streets ahead of everyone else in the college game. To this day, that NCAA Championship game remains the highest-rated in the history of college basketball.
Bird came into the game as College Player of the Year and Johnson was voted Final Four MVP. The stage was set.
Larry Bird didn’t produce his best performance.
MICHIGAN STATE WON 75-64
The loss still bothers Bird even now. He said:
“IT’S THE ONE THING I’LL NEVER GET OVER.”
Once the pair entered the NBA, the rivalry really took hold. It might never have been so lauded were it not for the fact that they played for the 2 most-spotlighted franchises.
Larry Bird joined the Boston Celtics and helped to take them from a 29-53 record the season before to 61-21. They made it to the Eastern Conference Finals but were thwarted by the inimitable Dr J Erving and his Philadelphia 76ers.
Magic Johnson joined the Los Angeles Lakers alongside the legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar and helped produce a 60-22 record. The side made it to the NBA Finals and came up against the 76ers who had triumphed over Bird and his Celtics. Even without the colossus Jabbar, who was out injured, the Lakers took a 123-107 win and the Championship title. This was in no small part down to Magic Johnson who started at center and contributed 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists.
There was already a long-standing tradition of fierce, competitive rivalry between the two teams. They had battled it out for NBA Championships time and again throughout the 1960s. There was also a new, less healthy tension between them that was more about race.
At that time, Boston was seen nationwide as a hotbed of racist ideologies. In 1974, there were riots and ugly scenes as racist whites baulked at desegregation and attacked black school kids.
TAKE A MOMENT TO PONDER THE HORROR OF THAT SENTENCE
The largely white, blue-collar workers in Boston saw Larry Bird as a great bastion of whiteness who would symbolise their retrograde beliefs. This perception was not helped by the Celtics signing a raft of other white players (deliberately or not) like Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale. This cemented the view of those neanderthal imbeciles that the team who had been the first in the league to draft a black player in the 1950s, now solely represented the glory of the whites. That the franchise had also been the first to employ a black coach in Bill Russell and the first to start an all-black lineup in the 1960s seemed to have conveniently slipped their collective (tiny) mind.
BLACK STARS FOR BOSTON MUST HAVE FELT SUCH DISAPPOINTMENT AND DISMAY AT THIS NONSENSE
Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Cedric Maxwell played for the Boston Celtics at this time but maybe they were the minority of black players that were deemed ‘ok’.
In Los Angeles, the Lakers had a team of African-American stars such as Kareem, James Worthy and Michael Cooper led by Magic Johnson.
The narrative surrounding these players was conveniently made to enhance racial stereotypes and ramp the tension up even higher. Magic was described as being overly flashy and lucky to be naturally gifted (‘because he is black’, is presumably the inference) He played a free-flowing ‘street-style’ game that was not only offensive but also offensive. Apparently, that style didn’t suit those of a paler complexion. They much preferred the slow, methodical style of Larry Bird. His skills had been honed through countless hours of self-discipline and he made use of his incredible basketball intelligence. Now, the sharp-eyed among you might have spotted a confusing contradiction in that view.
So, it’s ok for Larry Bird to have an inherent skill in his understanding of the game, but it’s not ok for Johnson to be inherently gifted physically? A curious dichotomy that almost makes a mockery of the view and brands its proponents as educationally sub-normal.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
Bird and his Celtics were successful in the Finals the year after the Lakers and the sense of a competitive rivalry (even outside of all the tedious racial tension) was growing stronger.
People across the USA were starting to sit up and pay attention as something special was clearly happening in the NBA.
The television ratings went through the roof and games between the 2 teams sold out rapidly.
The similarities in the games of these 2 iconic players are startling.
They are almost the same height of around 6’9”. Both used their unmatched vision and passing abilities in place of supreme athleticism. Both worked extremely hard in training and practice to improve their skills and studied their opponents looking for weaknesses to exploit.
The, by now famous, rivalry came to a dramatic head as the teams met in the first of three epic Finals in 1984. The Boston Celtics won but the Los Angeles Lakers had their revenge the following year and then again in 1987.
THE NATION WAS RAPT
Drama of this calibre had seldom been seen in any sports of the day, let alone the NBA.
Sadly and all-too-predictably, the rivalry once again became enhanced/tainted by race relations. Many white fans sided with the Celtics and the black fans sided with the Lakers.
Despite all the racist rhetoric and pathetic, misguided attitudes that tried to drag him into the fray off the court, Bird refused to comment on racial matters and generally said nothing.
In a rare discussion of the subject, Bird said he generally thought that, if you could play, race shouldn’t factor. He tells a story of how, in his teens, he joined a pick-up game against the black employees of a hotel in his hometown. He wanted some legitimate competition, and they were the best players. They accepted him without question and that was the end of the matter.
Larry Bird was pretty much focused on the game of basketball and winning every one he participated in. The rest of it was just noise.
Erving Johnson had not lost any of the charisma he had shown as a kid in Lansing. He was remarkably even-tempered and patient with abhorrent views and behaviour. Paying great attention to the stories his father shared with the family about growing up under segregation. He displayed a level of conciliation and understanding that many of us would struggle to achieve if someone stole our parking spot. Let alone spouted racist epithets at us.
THE BOTTOM LINE WAS THIS:
The NBA had hit solid gold and was on an upward trajectory as a direct result.
Whatever the back-stories and reasons for the intensity of their rivalry, there were 2 players at the peak of their powers going at it. As for the players themselves and how they felt about each other? There was little or no animosity beyond the natural will to win on the court. They had deep respect and admiration for each other and continue to do so to this day.
The team at The Jump Hub have put together a list of the numbers. Check out Johnson vs Bird when it comes to their playing stats. They give a remarkable view of just how similar these players were to each other.
Points per game (PPG) – Bird: 24.3 – Johnson: 19.5
Rebounds per game (RPG) – Bird: 10.0 – Johnson: 7.2
Assists per game (APG) – Bird: 6.3 – Johnson: 11.2
Blocks per game (BPG) – Bird: 0.8 – Johnson: 0.4
Points (P) – Bird: 21,791 – Johnson: 17,707
Rebounds (R) – Bird: 8974 – Johnson: 6,559
Assists (A) – Bird: 5,695 – Johnson: 10,141
Steals (S) – Bird: 1,556 – Johnson: 1,724
Blocks (B) – Bird: 755 – Johnson: 374
Games (G) – Bird: 897 – Johnson: 906
Field goal percentage (FG%) – Bird: .496 – Johnson: .520
3-point percentage (3P%) – Bird: .376 – Johnson: .303
Free-throw percentage (FT%) – Bird: .886 – Johnson: .848
BEST REGULAR SEASON
PPG – Bird: 29.9 (’88) – Johnsons: 23.9 (’87)
RPG – Bird: 11.0 (’83) – Johnson: 9.6 (’82)
APG – Bird: 7.6 (’87) – Johnson: 13.1 (’84)
SPG – Bird: 2.0 (’86) – Johnson: 3.4 (’81)
BPG – Bird: 1.2 (’85) – Johnson: 0.7 (’84)
PPG – Bird: 23.8 – Johnson: 19.5
RPG – Bird: 10.3 – Johnson: 7.7
APG – Bird: 6.5 – Johnson: 12.3
SPG – Bird: 1.8 – Johnson: 1.9
BPG – Bird: 0.9 – Johnson: 0.3
P – Bird: 3,897 – Johnson: 3,701
R – Bird: 1,683 – Johnson: 1,465
A – Bird: 1,062 – Johnson: 2,346
S – Bird: 296 – Johnson: 358
B – Bird: 145 – Johnson: 64
G – Bird: 164 – Johnson: 190
P – Bird: 27.5 (’84) – Johnson: 25.2 (’90)
R – Bird: 14.0 (’81) – Johnson: 13.7 (’81)
A – Bird: 8.8 (’90) – Johnson: 15.2 (’85)
S – Bird: 2.3 (’84) – Johnson: 3.1 (’80)
B – Bird: 1.4 (’82) – Johnson: 1.0 (’81)
There you have it. The tale of 2 remarkable careers that made a genuine difference to the NBA as we know it and arguably saved it from oblivion.
Thanks for reading