Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in Their Own Words: A Book Review

C Douglas BakerSenior Analyst IDecember 31, 2009

When the Game Was Ours

by Larry Bird and Earvin Magic Johnson, with Jackie

MacMullan Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009

When the Game Was Ours tells the real story behind the rivalry between Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, the two marquee National Basketball Association (NBA) players of the 1980s. 

The rivalry of these two great players revived a moribund NBA. They became the faces of the league, not just through the decade they dominated, but beyond.

As most sports fans know, this rivalry started in college, when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans met Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the NCAA Championship game in 1979. 

Magic’s team won that game, and they went on to be rivals on respective coasts in the NBA—Johnson for the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers and Bird for the blue collar Boston Celtics.

The personality of these two stars couldn’t be more different. Magic is a loquacious, free-spirited, attention-seeker who embraced the limelight. Bird, on the other hand, is a reclusive, private individual who did not like the attention showered on him and avoided the spotlight, but had to accept it as being a star NBA player.

There are several interesting aspects of their careers that I learned from this book.  Even though they would never admit it publicly at the time, each closely followed what the other was doing in the league and constantly wanted to outdo the other. 

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There was a bit of dislike and jealousy between the two rivals, even though they knew very little about each other personally.

As time went on and respect for each other’s games increased, they had the opportunity to meet and work on various projects together. During a filming of a commercial together in Bird’s Indiana hometown, Bird and Magic really connected, and a lifelong friendship ensued. While still rivals, it became a friendly rivalry.

And finally we get to the Dream Team, the USA Basketball entrance into the Olympics.  Magic had always wanted to play with Larry Bird on the same team, and despite their careers winding down—Magic because of his HIV virus, and Bird because of injuries—they had their last true hurrah playing with each other on maybe the greatest basketball team ever assembled.

Throughout the book, you learn how they felt about each other as their careers progressed—how Johnson had to deal with his HIV virus and retirement and unretirement, and how Bird was one of his greatest supporters.

You also see the progression of the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers and how each dealt with their teammates. These two teams became the main rivalry of 1980s, mostly as a result of having two of the greatest players in the league and having played against each other in numerous championships. 

It was interesting to learn how hard Bird was on his teammates and what a trash-talker he was on the court. And for Johnson, he had to deal with a slow transition of being the main focal point of the game, taking the place of the aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The one thing that did surprise me in the book is a little bit of a negative tone. For example, Isaiah Thomas, a formerly good friend of Johnson’s, made some disparaging comments about him after he learned he had HIV.

And Thomas was not well liked by other marquee players in the league either. He was basically frozen out of a chance to be on the Dream Team because nobody wanted him on it. 

Also the argument, while friendly, between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson over which was the greatest basketball player of all time seemed to have a negative undertone to it.

Finally, the most telling moment of the book: Magic Johnson chose Larry Bird to introduce him into the NBA Hall of Fame.

This is a well-written and very interesting account of two of the most important NBA players ever to step on the court. If you are interested in professional basketball and the history of the league, I highly recommend it.

When the Game Was Ours


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