Thirty-seven years ago this week, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played each other in the NBA for the first time. Their storied rivalry was arguably the most important in NBA history, and it wasn’t lopsided like other head to head matchups of stars over the years. It actually started in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, the two legends added a new, dynamic chapter to the ongoing rivalry between the Lakers and the Celtics when they first faced off as pros later that year. It was destiny that these superstars-to-be would end up joining the most celebrated championship franchises in professional basketball history, as if the NBA was fixing drafts long before it was cool to say that was a thing.
As for the actual game, it wasn’t even close. The Lakers spanked the Celtics 123-105 on that December evening, led by Johnson’s 23 points. Bird scored a modest 16 points, and as Johnson said after their first game was over, he told Bird, “Good game,” and “just smiled a bit.” Bird, on the other hand, accepted the loss and simply said the Celtics would be “looking for the rematch.”
The rematch came at home on Jan. 13, 1980, and while the score was closer, the result was the same. The Lakers pulled off the win, 100-98, with Johnson only scoring one point. Bird had 14 points and presumably the same sense of disappointment. The Celtics finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record (61-21) and Bird was eventually named Rookie of the Year. However, his team was eliminated by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Lakers then defeated the Sixers in the NBA Finals, and Johnson was named the Finals MVP for the first time in his career.
The Celtics bounced back well the following season, winning their first championship with Bird, but the Showtime Lakers stole the spotlight back by again defeating the Sixers to win the 1982 NBA Championship. In 1984, fans finally got what they wanted, as the basketball gods finally brought the two stars together in the Finals. What we got was a battle for the ages: Showdown ’84! One of the greatest seven-game championship series ever played in any sport, the Celtics eventually won a thrilling Game 7, with Bird emerging as both the regular season and Finals MVP.