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Steve Aschbruner

The first of Magic Johnson's and Larry Bird's 37 NBA clashes was on Dec. 28, 1979.
Joan Alden/Getty Images

Magic vs. Larry, NBA style, began 30 years ago today

Posted Mar 25 2010 3:39PM

It all began in college with the game that drove March mad, a nudge into sports insanity we were reminded of nonstop last spring as another of its big, fat, round anniversaries came and went.

The rivalry that sprang from it, that burned through 13 NBA seasons and three Finals showdowns, was played out across 37 zero-sum games that managed to define and enlarge both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. It's almost impossible now to think of one without the other, the white guy in green, the black guy in gold, wispy blond 'stache vs. smiling goatee, precisely the right players in the right places at the right time. As renowned as they'd become for making teammates better, each made the other better too, an acknowledgement that's easy now but would have been met back then with a shrug, a sneer, a glare or a shove.

Which is pretty much how it went 30 years ago Monday night when the two Hall of Famers clashed for the first time as pros.

Uh oh: Lakers 123, Celtics 105.

You'd like to remember it as a time capsule sort of game, the first classic in a series of nothing but classics, played on one coast or the other, in the regular season and postseason. Yet you can't because it was a Lakers runaway, so bad that Boston coach Bill Fitch accused his guys of playing "dumb.''

You'd like to think that it was as good as, or maybe even a little better than, the clashes that absolutely everyone paid attention to a few years later, in the Finals in 1984 or '85 or '87. Like catching the Beatles at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, back when only the cool kids had caught on. Only it wasn't, not with the Celtics trailing 61-52 at halftime, a deficit that would double soon enough.

You'd like to recall a particular Hollywood moment from that Friday night game, Dec. 28, 1979 at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif., after which Magic winked at Larry and said: "You complete me.'' And Larry responded, "You had me at hello.'' Or maybe as they strolled off the court together, the Lakers star saying, "Larry, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.'' But they said no such things.

Look, they didn't even exchange words late in the fourth quarter when Bird, his Celtics hopelessly behind, put himself between Johnson and the basket for a bone-jarring collision. The two rookies glared at each other, according to the New York Times' game account. "He just looked at me and I looked at him,'' Bird said.

The funny thing is, that memory stuck with Bird more than anything else from that night -- other than the miserable loss it hung on the Celtics two games into their five-game, post-Christmas, Western Conference trip.

"There had been talk about it in Boston for a few days, so I was ready for it,'' Bird said by phone last week from the office he keeps as the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations. "I knew that if I had a chance to knock him on his ass, I was taking it.''

They are true friends now, dropping their guard during a 1984 commercial shoot, grown men who have known life's triumphs and tragedies. But if Bird chuckled, recalling the early friction some three decades later, I didn't hear it.

Magic and Larry on Larry Bird Night in Boston in 1993

Both men were rookies and, looking back now, so very young. Bird, who false-started his college career at Indiana before transferring to Indiana State, had turned 23 on Dec. 7. Johnson, who had left Michigan State after his sophomore year and that NCAA championship game over Bird's Sycamores, was just 20. They were lugging heavy expectations from their respective teams, from the league, from fans both East and West. Yet they were, in many ways, still getting their pro legs under them.

"I was just feeling my way around then,'' Bird said. "This was a West Coast trip, so it was all new to me. It was very exciting to be heading out there for the games, and I remember Dave Cowens telling me -- just like it was yesterday -- that we needed to be in shape because we were going to be running. In Boston, we played a halfcourt, slow-it-down type of game, but at that time, you had teams like Phoenix and Denver playing fast, and if you didn't run against the Lakers, you didn't have a chance to beat them. You could slow 'em down late in games sometimes, but not for the whole game.

You knew when you went to L.A. that it was different. You'd see our fans who couldn't go to games in Boston. You'd see a lot of green in their building.''

Maybe they'd notice that in time. In the moment, though, it was all Bird and Johnson could do to stay fresh enough, and limber enough, for what admittedly was more highly anticipated than your average winter NBA game. The Celtics were in L.A. for the middle of three games in three nights -- the league's schedule-makers did things like that back then, with commercial air travel further intensifying the grind -- working their way up the coast from the Clippers in San Diego the night before to the Warriors in Oakland the night after. The Lakers already were playing their third in as many nights, having just split back-to-back road games at Kansas City Wednesday (lost) and Utah Thursday (won).

It didn't allow for much game-planning or any specific practice, but the history between the franchises -- overlaid with these two exciting rookies -- made the Friday night game stand out. The Celtics were 28-8 (compared to 29-53 the previous season), the Lakers were 26-13. The date had been circled in red for both, and so many NBA fans, the moment the schedule came out. Soon, every season would be like that: The Two and the Other 80.

"It was highly anticipated because both of us were having pretty good seasons, but we hadn't met each other yet,'' Johnson said, taking a break from his Christmas broadcast work with ABC/ESPN for a brief phone chat. "He and I were looking forward to [facing] each other, too, and the fans across the nation were looking forward to it.''

In time, Magic vs. Bird would rank alongside Chamberlain vs. Russell as the greatest individual rivalry in NBA history. But going in, the Lakers vs. Celtics team rivalry transcended the new guys.

"We came in with those two unbelievable franchises and we knew what was at stake,'' Johnson said. "We understood how many times they met for the NBA championship, and unfortunately, the Lakers had never won [in those matchups]. The fans let us know, and the other players. And then you've got Red Auebach sitting over there for Larry, and Jerry West to remind me.''

The NBA wanted it badly, too. Remember, this was back in the tape-delayed, viewer-neglected playoff telecast days for a league painted -- in broad strokes -- as too black, too lacking in defense, with too long of a schedule and too much showing up on police blotters. Attendance was down, ratings were down, ad revenue was down. Finally, with two of its cornerstone franchises reinvigorated, the NBA had something to build on. The anticipation of what was touted either as a rematch of the NCAA title game or Round 1 between two new, budding heavyweights made this the Lakers' first regular-season sellout (17,505) in 21 months, and only their fifth since the start of the 1977-78 season.

"A special game,'' Johnson called it, playing along. Fitch labeled it a "glamour game,'' while Bird called all the hype stupid. Afterward, he hadn't changed his view: "The NBA has got to do it to get publicity, and I think they're blowing it out of proportion,'' Bird said.

Think maybe the result had something to do with his orneriness? Bird was hampered by foul trouble in the first half and pestered defensively by L.A. forward Jamaal Wilkes for most of the night (Bird and Johnson, playing different positions, almost never guarded each other). The Lakers erased Boston's early lead and never were seriously threatened again, using a 12-2 run deep in the third quarter to push the score to 105-87.

Johnson led the Lakers with 23 points and had eight rebounds, six assists, four steals, seven turnovers ... and plenty of help. Wilkes scored 22 points, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grabbed 18 rebounds and backcourt mate Norm Nixon led with eight assists. Boston's Cedric Maxwell had 19 points and 16 boards, Cowens had nine assists and Bird wound up with 16 points, four rebounds, three assists, four steals and two turnovers in 40 minutes.

"Tomorrow we'll forget about this game,'' Bird said in the visitors' locker room. "We'll be so far away from here. ... In a few days we'll be home, and we won't even know what night we played the Lakers.''

Except that 30 years later, because of all that followed, we know exactly what night they first played.

It was one of 37 such meetings -- 19 in the Finals, 18 in the regular season -- for Bird and Johnson, games that stood apart from the eight others in which one or both were hurt. The outcome set a tone -- the Lakers won 22 times in their "series,'' the Celtics 15. L.A. took two of their three championship match-ups.

"I had some great players I played with, Hall of Fame players,'' Bird said. "He had great players, Hall of Fame players. It usually came down to how we each played. If I had a bad shooting game and he played well, they usually won. If I was on a roll, we usually won.''

Even after Bird ran away with the 1980 Rookie of the Year award -- the Celtics finished 61-21 to the Lakers' 60-22, yet Bird won by a 63-3 margin -- Johnson one-upped that by etching one of the most amazing performances in Finals history. Subbing at center for Abdul-Jabbar (sprained ankle) in Game 6 at Philadelphia, the 20-year-old scored 42 points with 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals to win the series' MVP award and bring the first of five NBA titles in the '80s back to Los Angeles.

That made it three head-to-head victories for Magic over Bird -- the NCAA clash, the first meeting in L.A. and a 100-98 triumph in Boston on Jan. 13, 1980 -- and two championships in 14 months. Bird was watching, of course, and Magic knew that Bird was watching. And Bird knew that Magic knew that ... you get the picture.

"After he won that first year,'' Bird told me, "I thought, 'Jesus Christ, I better start winnin' something.' ''

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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