(Reprinted courtesy of the 2001 NBA All-Star Program
I'm so old, kids, that I remember an All-Star Game where Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Joe Bird had to practically apologize for showing up. It was 21 years ago, Magic and Larry were rookies, and by midseason the backlash had hit. Magic Johnson as a starter for the Western Conference?
"A travesty," one coach sniffed, and the league's players agreed.
As for Bird, the fans and the players said he was good, but not good enough to be in the starting lineup. Take a seat on the bench, Larry Not-Yet Legend. Tough league, man. Hey, maybe it was all that money the two new guys were making. Bird was raking in $600,000 that season and Johnson $650,000, and can you imagine two rookies getting that much dough just to play basketball? Crazy.
I was a rookie myself, with a slightly smaller contract. I was a beat writer covering the Lakers, and I was bedazzled by the whole All-Star spectacle. It was a thrill just loitering in the hotel lobby in Washington, D.C., watching the stars arrive.
If you were big then, you showed up with your basic superstar package – entourage, fur coat, aura and nickname: Ice, World B., Tiny, Big Fella, Big E, Dr. J. It was great fun. But I was feeling a little bit like Magic and Larry must have been feeling – like I didn't belong. An imposter.
The NBA establishment was making it clear that while Johnson and Bird had a lot of potential, they weren't as good as their media hype and fan frenzy would indicate. And since I had helped created Magic's legend with my stories in the Los Angeles Times, maybe I was part of the problem. Back in training camp I started to worry about getting too caught up in Magic's magic. I asked Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn if I was going overboard.
"Absolutely not!" snapped Hearn. "I've been in the league 20 years and I've never seen anything like this kid."
Still, when players and coaches called Magic's place in the starting lineup a joke, I felt like a carnival barker. The fans had voted Johnson to the starting lineup, but The New York Times took a poll of NBA players, and they disagreed. Of the 109 Western Conference players who voted, only 10 put Magic on their starting five, and he was the seventh highest vote-getter among Western guards. Of the nine Lakers who voted, only three rated their point guard as being worthy of his spot in the lineup.
Celtics coach Bill Fitch called it "a travesty…Magic is a good enough kid, but some of those people must have thought they were voting for Dennis Johnson when they voted for Earvin Johnson."
Ah, so Florida didn't invent the concept of voter confusion.
The fan-selected starting backcourt for the West was Magic and Lloyd "World B." Free. The payers much preferred Sonics backcourt partners Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams.
"[Magic] does not belong in the game above those other players," said Hawks coach Hubie Brown, quiet as a foghorn even in his pre-TV days. Magic tried to shrug it off. "If that's how they pick ‘em," he said, "what can I say?"
Bird was catching less flak, but it was agreed that he wasn't starting-lineup material either. He might have been leading his Celtics to the greatest one-season turnaround in NBA history, but he didn't rate with starting forwards Julius Erving and John Drew (fans' picks), or Erving and Dan Roundfield (players' picks).
The funny thing is, when it came down to jock-tightening time in that 1980 All-Star Game in Landover, Md., the two over-hyped rookies were both on the court, running the show. Apparently they convinced someone that they were ready for primetime.
Johnson and Bird didn't get together that weekend to compare notes. Their friendship was still a few years down the road. They had an unfriendly rivalry from their NCAA title-game showdown the previous season, when Johnson's Michigan State team beat Bird and Indiana State. Being a Laker and Celtic now, they were bitter rivals on a team level and on a personal level. Plus, they were completely opposite personalities – the hick and the hotdog. They kept a frosty distance.
But they played that All-Star Game as if they were twin brothers on opposite teams. It was a terrific game. The East won in overtime, but George (Ice) Gervin scored 34 for the West and was named MVP. The West trailed by 17 early in the fourth quarter, but rallied. Paul Westphal sent the game into OT with a jump shot, assist Magic Johnson.
Bird put the East ahead for good with a jump shot in OT, then sealed the win with the first three-point shot in NBA All-Star history. Magic played 24 minutes and had 12 points and four assists. Bird played 23 minutes and collected six rebounds and seven assists. They both played with an enthusiasm that even the skeptics would soon have to admit was more than just French pastry.
Later that season, Lakers forward Jim Chones would say, "I'll tell you, I've never laughed so hard during important parts of games as I have this season. Magic's always keepin' you loose."
And Bird, especially on that three-point shot, showed that he didn't care what the conventional NBA game was, he had his own ideas on how to ball.
That game was a quite breakthrough. For the next decade, Magic and Bird would be All-Star starters almost every game, and the word "travesty" never came up again. I never heard Magic or Larry refer to that '80 game as an important rite of passage, but I know they both left their first All-Star Weekend with a little more respect from the league.
And I flew out of D.C. feeling like maybe I wasn't a starry-eyed rube reporter, after all. When it came to spotting greatness, I was just a little bit ahead of my time.