Magic, Bird Rekindle Old Lakers vs. Celtics Rivalry

From the jump hook to the “Memorial Day Massacre,” Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are walking ESPN Classic highlight reels.

Although neither Hall-of-Famer is afraid to talk about their once heated battles, there is nothing but respect these days between the two all-time greats as the Lakers and Celtics prepare to reprise their rivalry in this year’s NBA Finals.

“Every great franchise must go through down times,” said Magic. “Both franchises went through down times, but now they’re back.

“It’s great for the league, it’s great for basketball,” said Bird of the teams’ simultaneous returns to power.

While Johnson and Bird were two of the most transcendent players of their generation, the former Laker said that he was completely oblivious at the time as to the monumental impact he and Larry would have on today’s game.

“We probably both didn’t know that we would jumpstart the NBA to what it is today and that we would be able to play for two storied and historical franchises like Boston and LA.,” said Johnson.

Technically speaking, 21 years have passed since the Lakers and Celtics last met in the Finals, but Magic and Bird remember their captivating matchups as if it were yesterday.

“It was great to be in that hated rivalry for so many years,” said Magic, revealing that even though fans in Boston and L.A. despised each other, the players on the court always held the utmost respect for one another.

“He knows how to make other players better,” said Magic of Bird. “Today, nobody has surpassed him when it comes to that.”

While the former players certainly fill several chapters of the NBA history book, they’re quick to point out that their individual matchup paled in comparison to the original competition between Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain that paved the way for the league’s oldest rivalry.

“It’s hard to call it a rivalry when you don’t win,” said Johnson of the early Celtics domination over L.A. “Year after year, the Celtics kept beating the Lakers. I think that it was an incredible series, but Bill Russell kept winning. I always admired Bill and Wilt, but Bill would always get the best of him.”

For that reason alone, Magic said that finally beating the mighty Celtics in the 1985 NBA Finals—the first time the Lakers had done so in nine tries—stands as his greatest accomplishment on the basketball floor.

Timeless battles aside, both legends are eager for the attention to shift to this year’s modern-day update of the storied rivalry.

“This is their stage,” said Magic. “It’s Kobe’s stage, it’s KG’ stage, it’s Pierce’s stage, Ray Allen’s stage, it’s Gasol’s stage, and they will take advantage of it.”

With Bryant the only member of that group with previous championship experience, Bird said that, “It’ll be interesting to see how they perform. There’s going be a lot of pressure on them.”

Although Magic proudly wore the purple and gold and Bird, the signature Boston green, both players agree on one thing: Lakers vs. Celtics is about as good as it gets in sports.

“Even though names have changed, players and coaches, when you think about most fans round the world, if you ask them what two teams they want to see in the finals, they’d pick these two teams,” said Magic.

“Every games means something; there’s going to be a lot of highs and a lot of lows,” said Bird.

While the two old rivals turned friends’ emotions have simmered somewhat in the two-plus decades since Boston and L.A. last met on the NBA’s biggest stage, there’s no doubt about who’ll they’ll be rooting for when the Finals tip off this Thursday.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/ NBAE/ Getty Images