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Larry Bird, Magic Johnson lifted the NBA with heated rivalry

Dec. 28 marks 40th anniversary of duo's first matchup, ongoing quest for titles

Back when Rod Thorn — NBA lifer as a player, coach, and team and league executive — was working as the Chicago Bulls general manager, he was famously shrewd enough to have Michael Jordan drop into his team’s lap at No. 3 in the 1984 Draft.

Five years earlier, Thorn proved similarly clever in assessing a pair of league newcomers, lavishing faint praise on a couple of college kids.

“If they don’t turn out to be great,” Thorn predicted before the 1979-80 season, “they will be better than mundane. Neither will be a bust.”

Both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson indeed proved to be better than mundane. And lo these many years later, we can say definitively that neither was anything close to a bust.

Bird and Johnson proved to be two of the greatest players in NBA history. Candidates, if not shoo-ins, for any serious Mt. Rushmore lineup. The pair of superstars helped carry the league from its rocky mid-to-late 1970s to a global, multibillion dollar industry with popularity, cultural influences and franchise valuations soaring into the ‘90s and beyond.

They also came to embody one of the famous and heated rivalries in sports, an individual matchup heightening the stakes of the longstanding Celtics-Lakers feud. Put it up there with Ali-Frazier, Yankees-Red Sox, predecessors Chamberlain and Russell, Packers-Bears, Borg-McEnroe and Buckeyes-Wolverines.

It all started four decades ago. On Dec. 28, 1979, Bird and Johnson met for the first of 37 NBA matchups (regular season and playoffs) when the former’s Boston Celtics played the latter’s Los Angeles Lakers.

They already had goosed men’s college basketball in March of that year, when the two became household names in Michigan State’s NCAA tournament victory over Indiana State. That game, with Johnson’s deeper, more tested Spartans team prevailing in Salt Lake City over Bird’s Sycamores, ranks as the most watched title game in Final Four history, before or since.

There was no assurance that the two players — and the dynamic and charisma between them — would have a similar effect on the pro game. Until they did, beyond all expectations, starting almost immediately as rookies.

“I thought that first year was what made their NBA careers,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who was a senior at Proviso East High just outside Chicago during Bird’s and Johnson’s debut NBA season.

“Bird wins the Rookie of the Year that year. [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar has [an injury in the championship round]. Magic has the big game, wins the MVP of the Finals. I don’t know how they could have scripted that better. That was the start of it.”

Said Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, who watched that 1979 championship battle on a small black-and-white TV at the prep school (Worcester Academy) he was attending: “They became the two centerpiece guys of the Eastern and Western Conference, and that rivalry was really the story of the league for the next 8-to-10 years. Things happen for a reason.”

The NBA, circa 1979

A pause, for context. The NBA was a vastly different place back then, in quantity, in quality and in the minds of the sports public. Among other distinguishing traits:

  • There were only 22 teams, split unevenly between four divisions. Cleveland, Detroit and Indiana shared the Central Division for that 1979-80 season with Atlanta, Houston and San Antonio, while Chicago and Milwaukee competed out West in a Midwest Division featuring Denver, Kansas City and Utah, newly relocated from New Orleans.
  • Dallas, preparing to enter the league in 1980, had paid an expansion fee of $12 million. By contrast, in 2004, Charlotte paid $300 million to bring back the Hornets.
  • The NBA struggled with declining attendance figures and diminished TV ratings; some Finals games were carried on a tape-delayed basis because they couldn’t compete for eyeballs with the CBS network’s primetime lineup. The current (all live) deal with with Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and ESPN/ABC runs through 2024-25.
  • The most dominant player in the league, Abdul-Jabbar, had been in Los Angeles for four seasons. He was still racking up All-Star appearances and MVP trophies, but he hadn’t come close to the team success achieved earlier in his career in Milwaukee.
  • Three years after throwing open its doors to four franchises and a flood of talented players from the once-rival American Basketball Association, the NBA finally was adopting the 3-point shot for 1979-80.

It got more than it could have imagined when the two college stars turned what could have been a heated one-off NCAA battle into a long-running dramatic series.

Inheriting the rivalry

Bird and Johnson were as compelling in their similarities as they were in their differences. And vice versa.

One had an unusual name but the other already had a flashy nickname, dating back to the flair he’d shown in high school. Bird was the self-described “Hick from French Lick [Ind.],” while Johnson grew up in East Lansing, Mich. And in a country perpetually reckoning with race, one was white, the other black.

They both stood about 6-foot-9 and — unlike a lot of NBA stars at that time — seemed driven by two basketball passions: passing the ball and winning. They played below the rim and lacked dazzling athletic ability. Yet they had similar court vision, competitiveness and an ability to slow down the game, in ways that elevated not just themselves but their teammates’ performances.

Bird, nearly three years older than Johnson, had gone through the Draft before he even finished college. An aborted stint at Indiana University had started his college clock, so by the time he transferred to Indiana State and was prepping for his final season, he qualified as a “junior-eligible” (four years removed from high school).

The teams near the top of the 1978 draft knew they could not entice Bird to leave school early — he had promised his mother he’d graduate. Nor were they willing to wait a year and risk losing his rights entirely if he re-submitted in 1979. The Indiana Pacers, in particular, owned the No. 1 pick, but traded it to Portland in a deal that dropped them to No. 3 … and still wouldn’t gamble.

“That would have been a helluva thing, the Pacers getting Bird as a local guy,” said longtime NBA columnist and analyst Peter Vecsey. “My God, wait a freaking year.”

That’s what Boston’s Red Auerbach did at No. 6. He took Bird in one of the slickest personnel maneuvers since, well, Auerbach’s deal with St. Louis in 1956 to acquire and sign Bill Russell.

Johnson’s arrival in L.A. had its own unusual back story. The Lakers in 1978-79 had finished 47-35, tied for the league’s sixth-best record. They should have been in no position to draft the Michigan State phenom — except for a compensation package of draft picks they got from the New Orleans after the Jazz signed veteran guard Gail Goodrich in July 1976.

New Orleans’ 26-56 record was the league’s worst by the spring of ’79 — remember, the franchise was about to move to Salt Lake City — so the Lakers went into the traditional coin flip in those pre-lottery days. They edged out Chicago, who settled for David Greenwood at No. 2 (but could have selected Sidney Moncrief, Bill Laimbeer or Bill Cartwright, a big man the Bulls eventually needed to win alongside Michael Jordan).

That’s how Bird went East to Boston and Johnson went West to L.A., each quickly becoming identified with those markets and their teams’ style of play.

“If you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, it was absolutely the best places for both guys” said former Bucks and Celtics guard Quinn Buckner, a longtime Pacers commentator. “By personality — blue-collar, Boston. L.A., Showtime. It couldn’t have been done any better. When Magic got out there, he changed the dynamic of the team. And Larry did the same with the Celtics.”

Opening night (Oct. 12, 1979)

Even separated by three time zones and 3,000 miles, the bond — a cantankerous one at that — between the two future legends was evident. At least to them.

“I knew that whatever team he played for and whatever team I played for were going to be battling for whatever’s there,” Bird said years later.

Both faced in-house challenges first. Johnson, for instance, had a salty Spencer Haywood on the Lakers roster, the veteran not keen on heeding floor directions from a 20-year-old. Then there was Norm Nixon, the point guard whose position Johnson would be usurping.

For Bird, skeptical veterans such as Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe were sent packing almost as soon as he outplayed them in training camp. That left teammate Cedric Maxwell, who by his own admission was yapping and needed convincing that “this white boy” could play.

Said Bird: “It didn’t take long to get him quiet.”

The Celtics were up first, opening at Boston Garden against a Houston team featuring eventual Hall of Famers Moses Malone and Rick Barry. Bird logged 28 minutes, shot 6-for-12 and finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in a 114-106 victory. Maxwell scored 22 points and, of special interest, their teammate Chris Ford took and made the first 3-pointer in NBA history that night.

Three hours later, in San Diego, Johnson officially went to work for the first time as a Laker. His numbers were impressive – 26 points, 8 boards, 4 assists, 4 blocks – but he left an indelible impression at the very end. That’s when Abdul-Jabbar dropped in a hook shot for a 103-102 victory, sending the rookie into the surprised team captain’s arms.

Abdul-Jabbar’s first thought: We’ve got 81 more to go, rook. But Johnson’s enthusiasm was exactly what the been-there, done-it-all big man needed, starting a partnership that would re-define him even as it defined Johnson.

1st meeting (Dec. 28, 1979)

The Lakers were playing their third game in three nights when Boston got to the Forum for the post-Christmas clash. L.A. had just played at Kansas City and at Utah.

The Celtics were only slightly better off, sandwiching in the Lakers during a back-to-back-to-back stretch that had them in San Diego and Golden State on their five-game West Coast swing. It was Boston’s 37th game of the season and the Lakers’ 40th; they began the night at 28-8 and 26-13, respectively.

A decade earlier, the rivalry between the two franchises was raw, with Boston winning all seven of their Finals showdowns between 1959 and 1969. From Russell and John Havlicek to Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, some of the greatest players in league annals had participated, with only one side collecting rings.

Bird acknowledged he was as intrigued about playing in the same game as Abdul-Jabbar as he was with seeing his old nemesis Johnson. But the media had done their work, pumping excitement into this matchup. Then-NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien spoke of a “playoff atmosphere” for a date that became the Lakers’ first sellout in nearly a season-and-a-half.

For L.A. fans, it was all they expected and more: A 123-105 cruise for the home team, with Johnson (23 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists) outplaying Bird (16-4-3 with 4 steals).

“Tomorrow we’ll forget about this game,” Bird told reporters afterward, perhaps trying to convince himself. “We’ll be so far away from here. You’ve gotta keep moving. In a few days we’ll be home, and we won’t even know what night we played the Lakers.”

There was a moment in the fourth quarter, at least, when there was no mistaking who was playing whom – Johnson drove into the lane and got knocked down by Bird. Some words and glares were exchanged before the two were pushed apart.

“That was on me,” Bird said last week. “He was my competition.”

Sixteen nights later, the Celtics and their rookie star knew precisely whom they were playing.

2nd meeting (Jan. 13, 1980)

By the time they met at Boston Garden for the first of many rematches, Boston had surpassed its victory total (29) from the season before, sitting at 32-10. The Lakers were 30-15, a two-game improvement over the pace for their 45-game mark in 1978-79.

The Sunday matinee received the full budding-rivalry treatment on CBS, with a broadcast crew of Brent Musberger and Hot Rod Hundley. Video of the game, while labeled incorrectly as the “first” meeting, can be found on the Internet.

“Nice to watch two highly touted rookies come into the league who feature passing,” Musberger said early in the telecast. “Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, unselfish athletes.”

He added: “Larry Bird with something to prove. He felt he was put down a little bit after that earlier loss this season to the Lakers in Los Angeles.”

Of Johnson, who was hobbled by a groin injury and lasted just 21 minutes, making one free throw and missing two shots, Musberger said: “Obviously he is slowed. … He was very badly bruised. Extremely painful. He was not at full strength at Detroit [Friday], and he’s not at full strength again today. But he’s extremely intelligent for a 20-year-old.”

Nixon dished nine assists while handling much of the playmaking for the Lakers, who won again. Abdul-Jabbar gave a vintage 33-point, 12-rebound performance. Dave Cowens had 22 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists to lead the Celtics. Bird finished with 14 points and 12 boards, while being hounded by young Michael Cooper, who would pester him defensively for years.

At one point in the third quarter, Bird blocked a dunk attempt by Abdul-Jabbar. Midway through the fourth, he sparked a Celtics rally that tied it 91-91. It was 98-98 with 21 seconds remaining, until Nixon got fouled on Los Angeles’ final possession and hit both free throws with three seconds left. Cowens’ shot at the buzzer from the left wing missed, and Johnson’s team again had beaten Bird’s.

‘The other 80’

Johnson often spoke of the hold his rivalry with Bird, and their respective squads, had on him: each summer when the NBA schedule was released, he said, he would circle the two Boston-L.A. games. That relegated everything else on the Lakers’ schedule to “the other 80.”

Well, Johnson and his team did well in those other 80 the first year, going 22-5 after the All-Star break to finish 13 games ahead of the pre-Magic edition. And then they really picked up the pace in the playoffs. The Lakers ousted Phoenix and defending champion Seattle in five games each before hooking up with Philadelphia in the Finals.

Boston’s 61-21 record marked a 32-game improvement over the previous season and the franchise’s second-best mark since Russell retired (68-14 in 1973). The Celtics swept Houston in the first round, then got bumped off by Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and the rest of the 76ers in the East finals.

Bird finished at 21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 4.5 apg, with 1.7 steals and 40.6 accuracy from the arc (on a now-modest 143 attempts). As the catalyst for Boston’s turnaround as a team, he was voted the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, with Johnson finishing second. The young Lakers guard had averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists.

While the order of finish wasn’t a surprise, but the final tally was: Bird 63, Johnson 3. Bird also wound up fourth in MVP balloting.

As Johnson later remembered, he learned of Bird’s landslide ROY victory between Game 5 and Game 6 of the Finals. Most other NBA fans simply recall that gap for the news that Abdul-Jabbar, with a badly injured ankle, would not travel to Philadelphia with his team leading 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.

That’s when Johnson nominated himself to take the veteran center’s spot in the opening tipoff. In fact, the Lakers’ irrepressible rookie logged minutes at all five positions that night. He finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in 47 minutes to nail down the Lakers’ first title since 1972, and was named Finals MVP three months before he turned 21.

Turns out, Johnson was motivated by that Rookie vote count.

“Even though I won the championship, I still wanted to win Rookie of the Year too,” he said in HBO’s 2010 documentary on the pair, “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.”

Said Bird: “When he won that championship, I was pissed. I wanted one.”

The next 35

Bird would get his — the first of three championships for him — 12 months later when Boston beat Houston in six games. He and the Celtics would win again in 1984 and 1986. That ’84 title came in the first head-to-head Finals clash with Johnson and the Lakers, the most satisfying triumph of his career.

The Lakers countered against Boston in the 1985 Finals, though. Then took the rubber match in 1987.

Overall, after the two rookie meetings, they faced each other 35 more times — 16 in the regular season, 19 games in the Finals. Johnson missed five more games with injuries — after the Jan. 13, 1980 meeting, for instance, they didn’t play again until Valentine’s Day 1982. Bird went missing from two, and there was one more in February 1989 when both were sidelined.

Johnson averaged 19.4, 6.8 rebounds and 11.5 assists while winning 11 of their 18 regular-season contests. Bird was at 21.7, 10.9 and 6.2. Both players then upped their games in the playoffs: Johnson’s 20.7/7.5/13.5 to Bird’s 25.3/11.1/4.6. The Lakers won 11 of the 19 Finals games for a 2-1 edge in rings.

One team or the other won eight of nine Finals from 1980 through 1988. Either Bird or Johnson (three each) won six of the NBA’s seven MVP awards from 1984 through 1990. And as anticipated and exhilarating as their actual matchups were, either in winter or spring, just having the potential for that for a decade or so — while each led a marquee franchise in dramatically different styles — helped carry the NBA to new heights.

Neither claims the credit that often is proffered for “saving” the NBA. What they will accept is how popular they made it for NBA stars to pass, setting up teammates rather than looking for their own points. And how pure their competition was, laser-focused on each other time and again on the league’s biggest stage.

But it’s important to look at other factors in the NBA’s ‘80s turnaround: the infusion of ABA talent; David Stern’s rise to the commissioner’s office; subsequent NBA stars entering the league like Kevin McHale, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy and Dominique Wilkins, followed by Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley.

“It wasn’t overnight,” said Vecsey. “[The ABA] can’t be overlooked. Guys who came in, Julius [Erving], Artis Gilmore, David Thompson, George Gervin, Dan Issel, Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone – I mean, what the hell?! All at one time. That, to me, was the start of a new league.

“All the ABA guys came into the NBA saying, ‘What is this slow [stuff]?’ And they amped it up. So now you’ve got two superstars, big names, white-black, Lakers-Celtics, everything people talk about. But it took a lot of stars aligning. There were so many things ‘wrong’ with the league back then, it took more than two guys.”

Consider: The NBA signed a new network TV deal before the 1982-83 season. Yet there still were playoff games shown on a tape-delayed basis until 1986.

Eddie Johnson, who played 16 NBA seasons (1982-99) talked recently of Stern’s impact on the “NBA Today” show he co-hosts on Sirius XM satellite radio. “When David Stern had it, especially [early], there were about five or six teams ready to go under. Including the team I was playing for, the Kansas City Kings. He had to try to change that mindset. And what he did, he entrusted two individuals: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. He entrusted them to take the league and get it attention, and take it to a higher level.

“It was not easy to do in that day and age of the NBA, when there were so many negative things going on.”

Bird and Johnson drew positive motivations from each other. The mere idea that the other guy might be gaining an edge or widening his lead goaded each to get better, dream bigger, chase harder. Even after a 1995 sneaker commercial tipped their relationship toward a friendship.

Bird talked for years after they were done of stalking Johnson via box scores. “I had to have him there for some reason,” he said. “Like a crutch, somebody I could compare myself to.”

Said Johnson: “That’s why we hated each other. We knew we were mirrors of each other.”

Mirrors that glared at each other on NBA courts for the first time, 40 years ago.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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