Larry Bird was the “Hick from French Lick,” a fierce but often stoic competitor whose actions on the basketball court spoke louder than his words. Earvin Johnson became a man named “Magic” with a mega-watt smile and the ability to be a showcase in sneakers that stretched the idea of what one man could do with a basketball in his hands.
They weren’t born to be rivals—Bird and Magic were pushed into that role by circumstance and hype, but they were also pushed by the constant comparisons to each other — a fringe benefit that elevated the two to legendary status and dusted off a league that had begun to fall out of favor.
So strong was their mutual fixation that Bird has admitted that he used to obsessively check on Magic’s box scores during the season. According to former Boston Globe columnist Jackie MacMullen, who wrote “When the Game Was Ours” with Bird and Magic, Bird’s 1980 Rookie of the Year win against Magic infuriated and inspired the Lakers guard to light up the 76ers in the finals.
Though he was victorious against Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA Final while at Michigan State, Johnson has revealed that he “sat in the dark a lot” in the summer following the Lakers loss to the Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals.
In the summer of 1985, though, things changed a little for Bird and Magic. Never friendly with each other on the court and virtual strangers off of it (perhaps due to Bird’s avowed distaste for camaraderie between opponents), the two met at Bird’s mom’s house to shoot a Converse commercial and got the chance to get to know each other a little.
Here’s Magic Johnson’s description of that day from an interview that the two did with NPR’s All Things Considered:
“Larry and I had never really sat down and had a conversation. So I’m nervous. You know, I’m nervous. Its like I’m going crazy, like whats going to happen?
And we started shooting the commercial, and we really didn’t say anything to each other. We were just, you know, doing our lines and everything. And the real moment – and I’m sure Larry would agree – was when we went up to the house for lunch. And his mom gave me the biggest hug and hello, and right then, she had me.
And then, Larry and I sat down for lunch, and I tell you, we figured out, you know, were so much alike. Were from the Midwest, we grew up poor, our families is everything to us, basketball is everything to us, you know, those type of things, and so, that changed my whole outlook on Larry Bird.”
Despite that connection, though, nothing changed for Bird when the Celtics and the Lakers met, something that isn’t terribly surprising when you consider that Magic continued to have his number, winning two more titles against the Celtics in 1985 and 1987.
When Magic was forced to retire in 1991 after his HIV diagnosis, though, Bird was the first player to call him — something that meant a great deal to Magic Johnson.
We know now that Magic has flourished in retirement as a businessman (he’s one of the owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers now) and that he made a real contribution on the basketball court again with his 1992 All-Star MVP win, his 1992 “Dream Team” Gold Medal, and his return to the Lakers in 1996.
As for Bird, he hung up his jersey the year after Magic retired. The official reason was that his chronic back injuries had finally taken their toll, but as he later admitted to HBO in the documentary Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, “it wasn’t the same” after he no longer had Magic to compare himself to.
Bird has also had a successful post-basketball career, hanging around the game as a coach and now executive for the Indiana Pacers.
Both Bird and Magic have kept the story of their amazing rivalry alive with numerous media appearances where the two showcase their easy friendship and with projects like “When the Game Was Ours”, the HBO documentary, and even a Broadway play.
All of this, of course, feeds the interest that people have when it comes to famous rivalries like Ali/Frazier or Manning/Brady, but the key takeaway from the story of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson may not be found on the stat sheet or in their list of accomplishments. The key takeaway may be that a true rivalry isn’t an epic and angry war, but a fierce competition based on an underlying thread of mutual respect.