Magic Johnson and Larry Bird: The Rivalry That Transformed the NBA

Doug Merlino@dougmerlinoGuest ColumnistMay 13, 2011

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1985 NBA Finals
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1985 NBA Finals

If the Miami Heat make the Finals, there’s no doubt NBA commissioner David Stern and the executives at ABC and ESPN will burn a little incense to the basketball marketing gods. Nothing is likely to draw bigger ratings than the drama of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh competing for the title in their first season together.

They also can’t help but being a little disappointed that Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers were so easily cashiered by the Dallas Mavericks, leaving a relative lack of star power among the Western Conference contenders.

Since 1984, Stern’s first year as the head of the league, the gold standard for the Finals has been to have teams with big stars and huge personalities to pump up drama and draw viewers—not that much different than the way pro wrestling deliberately manufactures feuds between its stars.

When the matchups don’t raise the pulse—think of the San Antonio Spurs vs. the New Jersey Nets in 2003—the ratings are dismal. Sadly, for all his reliability and consistent play, it’s doubtful that Tim Duncan has ever kept anyone glued to the TV.

This model of basketball as big-time entertainment rode in on the backs of two men, of course: Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. They not only redefined the game for the modern television era but did so while unwittingly shouldering much of the country’s racial baggage.

During the 1979 NCAA Championship Game
During the 1979 NCAA Championship Game

In doing so, they capped a period of basketball’s development and stamped their personalities on a decade. By the time they were done, the game was speeding on from where they’d brought it.

They were a bridge between the old and the new, their impact inseparable from the place both pro basketball and the country were when they emerged into the spotlight three decades ago.

From 1950 to 1980, the NBA had transformed from all-white to majority black, from a stolid half-court game to one played full court, on the run and above the rim. White superstars who could play this style—such as Jerry West, John Havlicek and Pete Maravich—were in short supply.

During the 1970s, after the retirement of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the league fell into the doldrums, failing to land a good television contract and playing to half-full arenas.

Many of the NBA’s travails were attributed to racial factors: It was thought that white fans would not support a “black” league, and the black game was said to be “selfish” and not team-oriented. At the same time, stories spread about widespread cocaine use in the league.

Beyond the court, the aftermath of the civil rights movement was playing out. It turned out that the most straightforward civil rights achievements came in passing the laws that ended direct segregation and discrimination in the South, with landmarks such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Title game action
Title game action

In the 1970s, activists moved to push the movement’s goals ahead outside of the South. They advocated for solutions such as mandatory busing to desegregate urban schools and affirmative action to give blacks access to  jobs from which they’d been traditionally blocked.

There was a ferocious push back to this from whites. Many who could afford it simply fled to the suburbs.

In addition, ideas such as “reverse racism” and complaints about “fairness” began to be talked about among whites—no matter that such notions disregarded the fact that African Americans had been kept from jobs, schooling and decent housing for centuries by both custom and law.

To make matters worse, the manufacturing jobs that had provided the foundation for the American working and middle classes were being hacked away, shipped to foreign countries with cheaper labor or made obsolete by technology.

This was the environment Bird and Magic entered when they stepped onto the national stage in 1979. Both, as it happened, emerged from America’s embattled working classes.

From Blue-Collar Backgrounds to the NCAA Championship

Earvin “Magic” Johnson grew up outside Detroit in Lansing, Mich., one of seven children. His family had moved up from the South in the 1950s to look for jobs in the auto plants. Johnson’s father worked the assembly line night shift at General Motors. To bring in some extra cash, he started a trash hauling business on the side.

The pair celebrate the 30th anniversary of their NCAA title game
The pair celebrate the 30th anniversary of their NCAA title game

Though the family was always stretched for money, Johnson remembered it as an idyllic time. “I grew up in the type of black family people today worry is disappearing,” he wrote. “We had what we needed. Two great parents, food on the table and time for the whole family to be together.”

By seemingly the recounting of everyone who knew him, Johnson was a jovial kid who loved two things: garnering attention and playing basketball. He focused on the game from an early age, hitting the local court at 6 in the morning before elementary school to get in some practice.

In high school, Johnson was bused to a majority-white high school where racial tensions ran high—blacks and whites simply did not associate, except to fight. But Johnson’s easygoing demeanor and basketball skills made him so much of a bridge that the principal often asked him to play peacemaker.

Though Johnson could have taken his pick of college scholarships, he decided to stay home and attend Michigan State.

Larry Bird grew up less than 400 miles away in tiny, rural French Lick, Ind. He was one of six kids in a poor family that was lower down the economic scale than Johnson’s.

Bird’s mother worked as a waitress and a cook. His father, a Korean War veteran, took odd jobs but was often out of work. At times when he did have a job, he went to the bar and drank his paycheck.

A withdrawn, shy kid, Bird found an outlet in basketball. At 13, he visited his aunt in another part of Indiana, got in a pickup game and dominated. The other kids on his team slapped him on the back, told him he was great and asked Bird to keep playing with them. Bird later called it “the day I fell in love with basketball.”

Bird and Magic with Michael Jordan and Karl Malone in the 1992 Olympics
Bird and Magic with Michael Jordan and Karl Malone in the 1992 Olympics

Like Magic, Bird became a heavily recruited high school basketball star. He took a scholarship to play for Bobby Knight at Indiana, but found the adjustment from rural poverty to university jarring.

“I had no money—and I mean no money. I arrived there with $75,” Bird wrote. “I had virtually no clothes.”

After only 24 days, he dropped out and hitchhiked home. When he arrived back in French Lick, his mom refused to speak to him for months.

Bird took a job with the municipality, cutting grass, painting park benches and driving a garbage truck. He also played AAU basketball, destroying competition across Indiana.

The next year, Bird returned to college at Indiana State University, 75 miles away in Terre Haute. He found the down-home atmosphere there suited him.

Michigan State and Indiana State were not college basketball powerhouses. But as they would later do in the NBA, Magic and Bird immediately energized the programs.

In his freshman year, Johnson took a team that had been 10-17 the previous season and led it to a 25-5 record, its first Big Ten championship in two decades and the Elite Eight.

Indiana State had been 12-14 in the two seasons before Bird arrived. For the three years he played there—he had to sit out his first year due to NCAA rules—ISU went 81-13.

In 1979—the end of Johnson’s second year playing for Michigan State and Bird’s third at Indiana State—the pair led their teams to the NCAA championship game. Michigan State won 75-64.

Bird shooting in 1988
Bird shooting in 1988

By that time, Bird and Johnson had become national stories, two phenoms who had seemingly come from nowhere. The game remains the highest-rated in college basketball history.

Johnson was voted Final Four MVP. Bird, who was the College Player of the Year, had an off-game, and the loss gnaws at him to this day.

“It’s the one thing I’ll never get over,” he has said.

The NBA in the 1980s

The Johnson-Bird rivalry might never have taken on the dimensions it did if they had not ended up playing for the league’s two most storied franchises: the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Not only was there the tradition between the two teams, who had battled for championships throughout the 1960s, but there was the added dimension of East Coast-West Coast enmity.

In the 1979-80 NBA season, Bird turned the Celtics around, taking them from a 29-53 record the year before to 61-21. The Celtics eventually lost to Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Magic, meanwhile, joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Lakers and powered them to a 60-22 record and the NBA Finals against the 76ers. With Jabbar out with a sprained ankle for Game 6, Magic started at center and racked up 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, leading the Lakers to a 123-107 win and the championship.

In 2009
In 2009

Bird answered the next season, as the Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets in the Finals.

As people started to catch on that something special was happening in the NBA, the television ratings shot up. Wherever they played, Lakers and Celtics road games started to sell out.

The on-court revival also aligned with other shifts away from the arena.

During Bird and Magic’s second NBA season, Ronald Reagan was elected president. His agenda—though rarely stated in concrete terms—included rolling back political changes that had been instituted after the civil rights movement with the goal of helping African Americans catch up to whites economically.

Many of these had come through the courts and bureaucratic decisions made within government agencies.

The Reagan administration specifically targeted programs such as Affirmative Action, busing and state aid to the poor such as food stamps and welfare. Reagan himself often spoke dismissively of so-called “welfare queens” who sponged off the taxpayers.

Many blacks experienced the rhetoric of the times as a direct racial attack, while many whites—who saw no need for African-Americans to get “unfair advantages”—welcomed the changes. As often happens when a straightforward discussion seems too emotional, complicated or dangerous, these feelings were sublimated into sports and the figures of Bird and Johnson.

Boston, at the time, was viewed across the country as a racist hotbed. In 1974, a federal judge had ordered the local schools to desegregate. As the integration efforts began, whites rioted and pelted buses carrying black schoolchildren with rocks, images that were spread across the country in newspapers and on TV.

Boston, in the early 1980s, was still home to a large white working class. For many, Larry Bird—white, hard-nosed, blue-collar and from rural Indiana—seemed a perfect symbol for this group.

In the 1980s, the Celtics added to that perception by signing other white players such as Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge. This led many to see the team—which in 1950 had been the first to draft a black player, Chuck Cooper; in the 1960s, the first to start five black players; and the first to have a black coach, Bill Russell—as “white,” even though it included black stars such as Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Cedric Maxwell.

In Los Angeles, the Lakers were viewed as “black,” with Magic leading a team including African-American stars such as Kareem, James Worthy and Michael Cooper.

The rhetoric around Magic and Bird shifted to fit these stereotypes: Magic was hailed as a flashy, “naturally gifted” player who ran a wide-open street-ball style offense, while Bird was “slow” and had only succeeded through discipline, hours of practice and innate basketball intelligence.

Racial Signifiers

I was a kid in the 1980s and vividly remember these tropes being parroted by my friends. They are, of course, total nonsense.

If you go to YouTube and watch highlight films of Bird and Magic, the similarities in their games are striking.

Nearly the same height at around 6'9", Bird and Johnson were gifted but not supreme athletes. Instead, they used their court vision, passing abilities and almost clairvoyant foresight of how plays were unfolding to control games. Off the court, both worked tremendously hard to improve their own skills and figure out the weaknesses of opponents.

As the rivalry played out in the epic Finals of 1984, 1985 and 1987—the Celtics won the first, the Lakers the last two—Bird and Magic reached the height of their racial signifying—many white fans sided with the Celtics and black fans with the Lakers.

With five seconds left in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, which Boston went on to win in seven games, Bird intercepted an inbounds pass from the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas and passed it to Dennis Johnson for a game-winning layup. In the aftermath, Thomas complained that if Bird were black, “he’d be just another good guy,” not the superstar he was.

Bird, as usual, gave a terse comment and let it go. “It’s a free country, he can say whatever he wants.”

Bird, for his whole career, never took the racial bait from either side. Coming out of college, he shunned attempts to label him the “Great White Hope.” When asked to comment on racial matters, his general response was to say nothing.

His Celtics teammate Cedric Maxwell remembered feeling antagonistic toward Bird when he joined the team but soon came around when he saw not only how good Bird was but how little he cared about hype.

“Race was never an issue with Larry Bird,” Maxwell said. “He was just a guy who wanted to kick some ass and win.”

Bird later remembered playing pick-up basketball as a teenager against the black employees of a hotel in French Lick. He was looking for competition, and they were the best players around. They accepted him without question, Bird said, and he generally thought that if you could play, race shouldn’t factor.

In fact, in all descriptions of Bird, the main thing that emerges about his personality is a complete focus on the game and winning. He was not the guy to go to if you wanted larger, generalized observations about the state of American race relations.

Johnson, in contrast, excelled as a conciliator. In his memoir, he recalled childhood car trips down South in the summer to visit family. On the way, his father would share stories about growing up under segregation.

Johnson listened and took his dad’s lessons to heart. When he was in the South in 1990, Johnson wrote, an older white man in a restaurant called him “boy.”

Johnson’s reaction to that insult seems to sum up his overall approach. “I held my temper as I recalled what my father always said—that we shouldn’t forget these people had come a long, long way.”

In essence, the NBA had hit gold. It had two tremendous players who played astounding basketball, elevated the levels their teams played at and also embodied the drama of American race relations, but did nothing to stir up animosity themselves. The two, in fact, had the deepest respect for each other.

Pro Basketball Transforms

In 1984, David Stern took over as NBA commissioner. He immediately expanded the league’s marketing and merchandising efforts, which would eventually extend to pushing for custom arenas that could deliver new sources of revenue such as luxury boxes.

By then, weekend television doubleheaders always featured the Lakers and the Celtics against whomever they happened to be playing. This was extremely frustrating if, like me, you sometimes wanted to see other teams play. Magic and Bird were also fixtures on the highlight reels of ESPN’s SportsCenter, which had launched in 1979, on the heels of their NCAA finals duel.

For a few years, the league was essentially Bird, Magic and a few hundred supporting players. This era peaked in the 1987 NBA Finals and then started to roll back, pushed by the arrival of a new superstar and the erosion of Bird and Magic’s physical abilities.

For around the last six years of his career until his retirement in 1992, Bird was increasingly hampered by a bad back. Bird’s Celtics never made it back to the Finals after 1987.

Magic, in the meantime, led the Lakers to a repeat championship in 1988, defeating the Pistons. The next year, in the same matchup, the Lakers lost in four games. The Lakers made it to the Finals again in 1991 but fell 4-1 to Michael Jordan’s ascendant Chicago Bulls.

In November 1991, Johnson delivered the shocking news that he had contracted HIV and was immediately retiring from the NBA.

In 1992, Bird and Magic united for a celebratory lap on the Olympic Dream Team, joining Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and a raft of other superstars (11 of the 12 players on the team—sorry, Christian Laettner—were elected to the Hall of Fame).

The team annihilated its opposition, cruising to victory by an average of 44 points. The only thing resembling drama, in fact, came when Michael Jordan said he would not wear the team’s red, white and blue warm-up suit on the medal stand because it included a Reebok, not a Nike, logo. At the last minute, a compromise was found. Jordan covered up the Reebok insignia with an American flag.

“I don’t believe in endorsing my competition,” Jordan said.

The intense team rivalry of Magic and Bird’s day had been replaced by allegiance to the corporate dollar; the competition was now a rival shoe company.

The fact was that Magic and Bird, through their will to win, team play and the racial undertones of their rivalry, carried the NBA into the fat middle of the American mainstream in the mid-1980s.

By 1992, though, that was old news. The league was moving on.

To learn about Doug Merlino's e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here.

Further Reading and Viewing:

Magic Johnson tells his story in My Life, written with William Novak. 

Larry Bird does the same in Drive: The Story of My Life, with Bob Ryan.

In more recent When the Game Was Ours, by both Bird and Magic with Jackie MacMullan, the pair revisit some of the high and low points of their relationship, from the 1979 NCAA championship to Johnson’s 1991 HIV diagnosis.

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, an excellent documentary by HBO sports, features interviews with both men as well as a look at the racial climate of the 1980s.

Doug Merlino is the author of The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White.Visit his blog. Follow him on  Twitter. This is the seventh of eight parts, with new installments every Friday. Read Part 1,  Part 2 and Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6 and Merlino’s interview with Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first black player.