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.
But forget about their actual accomplishments and victories for a moment. Look at this amazing footage from Game 4, and especially the intro segment that is like a sports edition of a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous episode.
Today’s billion-dollar NBA has no shortage of celebrity fans, and the players are flashier than ever. But how can you not want to live inside of that Finals promo for the rest of your basketball-loving life? NBA TV should offer broadcasts of today’s games in this vintage style. It would be incredible. Alas, I’m turning into Bill Simmons and getting away from the point.
Game 4 featured, among other highs and lows (including Kevin McHale’s clothesline of Kurt Rambis that altered the entire series), Bird nailing the game-winning shot in overtime over — who else? — Magic Johnson.
For the Celtics, it was business as usual. For the Lakers, it was Groundhog Day. The regular season wins meant nothing. “The Two” out of the “other 80” were pointless, because the Lakers couldn’t beat the Celtics in the Finals. Eight times the Lakers met the Celtics in the Finals, and eight times they were bounced. The 1960s were a particularly rough time for the Lakers, and longtime fans must have been having flashbacks as the clock ticked away in Game 7 of the ’84 Finals.
Ninth time was the charm, though. In ’85, the Celtics once again had the league’s best regular season record, but the Lakers were only a game behind them, and they were hellbent on a rematch, defeating the Suns, Blazers, and Nuggets by a combined 11-2 to get back to the Finals. Then, of course, the Celtics greeted them with a Game 1 victory so lopsided and brutal that it was dubbed the “Memorial Day Massacre.” But as Jack Donaghy once told Liz Lemon, “Sometimes the way back up is down.” The Lakers responded by winning four of the next five to win the franchise’s eight championship (the third with Johnson), and the curse was lifted.
Around the same time, Converse wanted to do the unthinkable and bring these two rivals together for a commercial. Everyone remembers “The Showdown,” a classic series of McDonald’s ads featuring Bird and Jordan playing for a bag of burgers and fries. As that story goes, the two stars simply got together to have a little fun, and it was only mildly competitive behind-the-scenes (Bird reportedly wanted to actually sink his shot from the stands). The Converse ad also featured a game of one-on-one, and things were very tense between Bird and Johnson.
It started with Bird refusing to fly to Los Angeles to film the spot. If he was going to share a court with a guy he hated, it was going to happen on his home court. Literally, the court at his family’s farm. Johnson couldn’t believe he was heading to French Lick, Indiana, and he wanted to get in and out faster than he could lead his Showtime teammates down the court. Then, a funny thing happened: They had a Step Brothers moment.
Back on the court, arguably Johnson’s biggest championship win, at least in terms of his rivalry with Bird, came in 1987. That season marked Johnson’s first as regular season MVP, as he watched Bird win the award in each of the previous seasons. Just like in ’85, the Lakers won the Finals 4-2, but this time Johnson was the series MVP as well. Looking back now, what made this even more emphatic was the Lakers repeating as champions the following season, while Bird never returned to the Finals. He announced his retirement on August 18, 1992.
Their career achievements were remarkably similar, as Johnson won five championships to Bird’s three. Bird’s Celtics made the playoffs 12 times, and Johnson’s Lakers made 13. Both men played in 12 All-Star Games. Johnson was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, and Bird was the ’79-80 Rookie of the Year. They’re both three-time regular season MVPs. Johnson is a three-time Finals MVP and Bird did it twice. They were both selected to nine All-NBA First Teams. If you line them up side-by-side, Johnson certainly has the edge, but they both lose some of their luster if you separate them.
Obviously, Johnson’s retirement was a little different. They both played 13 seasons in the NBA, but Johnson’s was famously interrupted by the revelation that he had contracted HIV, which, at the time, was a death sentence. People were terrified by the mention of AIDS in the early ‘90s, and Johnson’s biggest rival and close friend couldn’t believe it.
When they began their NBA rivalry, they were borderline obsessed with each other. Johnson talked about “The Two” regular season games that mattered, and Bird, in an era long before ESPN.com box scores, rushed to get the daily newspaper. “The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did,” he once said. “I didn’t care about anything else.” And Johnson may have smiled at his rival on the court, but it wasn’t friendly. As James Worthy famously said, Johnson was a guy who “smiles while he humiliates you.”
But over time, as “warriors and competitors and men,” they cared about each other more than anything else, and that shows in the way they talk about each other, in times of both tragedy and happiness. Today’s NBA stars have some good rivalries brewing, like LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant, and even the ass-slapping heat between DeMarcus Cousins and Joel Embiid. But Magic vs. Bird is something we’ll probably never witness again.
After all, these guys were so important to the NBA and especially each other that someone made a Broadway play about them. Not even Kobe and Shaq could inspire that kind of storytelling. Even if “Tell Me How My Ass Tastes” would make a hell of a closing number.