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Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson: How Their Bitter Rivalry Turned Into A Great Friendship

Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson: How Their Bitter Rivalry Turned Into A Great Friendship

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird went together like bread and butter in the 1980s. At the end of their careers, these two were clearly close friends.

Magic and Bird's friendship remains strong even to this day, which is a great thing to see. But what if I told you at one point these two basketball juggernauts despised each other?


1979 NCAA Championship Game

Larry Bird's college career was taking off at Indiana State after Bird almost quit college after originally attempting to go to Indiana University.

As a senior at Indiana State, Bird led his school to a 33–0 record.

Magic Johnson was also having success in college at Michigan State. In his senior year, Magic led his school to a 26–6 record that was good enough to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Both Bird and Magic would lead their schools to the national championship game, a matchup that would begin their historic rivalry.

The 1979 NCAA Championship Game was and still is the most-watched NCAA game in history, and the viewers got to witness Magic Johnson's Michigan State get their first win over a top-ranked team when they defeated Indiana State 75–64.


NBA Rookie Rivalry

The Los Angeles Lakers earned the first pick of the 1979 NBA Draft by winning a coin flip against the Chicago Bulls. The Lakers received the pick from an earlier trade with the New Orleans Jazz.

The Lakers would go on to select Magic Johnson with that first pick, setting up a team to dominate the decade.

Larry Bird was not a part of the 1979 NBA Draft, instead, Bird was selected 6th overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1978 NBA Draft.

Bird, however, decided to return for his senior year, which led to the showdown against Magic in the NCAA Championship game.

Bird would declare for the NBA after his senior year, so Bird would officially become a rookie in the NBA the same year as Magic. This would set up their new rivalry in the NBA to see who was the best rookie.

If you look at their individual play, Bird won the matchup as best rookie. Bird, in fact, would win the Rookie of the Year Award.

When it came to the overall best season as a rookie, Magic clearly won this as his Lakers not only won the NBA title, but Magic won Finals MVP behind his incredible Game 6 performance of 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block.


NBA Finals Showdowns

The Lakers and Celtics would play in every NBA Finals during the 1980s, winning the title an incredible eight times.

Now, these two teams would meet in the NBA Finals three times, in 84, 85, and 87.

The first matchup saw Bird's Celtics come out on top, with a 4-3 series victory.

The Lakers stole Game 1 in Boston, which had fans in “Bean Town” nervous, but an overtime win in Game 2 had the Celtic faithful feeling a little better.

The teams would split the pair of games in LA before each team holding home-court through games 5 through 7.

Game 5 would be the hottest game on record, as it was 97 degrees and the Boston Garden was not air-conditioned.

Game 7 was also hot (91 degrees) and the Celtics would avail 111-102 with Bird being named Finals MVP.

Bird would get his revenge for Magic defeating him in college. Bird was at the top of his game, winning the MVP three consecutive seasons (84, 85, 86).

In 1985, Magic would get his chance at revenge, and he would be ready. The 1985 NBA Finals would be the first Finals to adapt the 2–3–2 format, which would stay the regular Finals format until 2011.

The Celtics held home-court advantage for the second consecutive Finals, and after Game 1, many fans believed the Celtics were a sure bet to repeat.

The Celtics dominated Game 1 by winning 148-114. This game would be dubbed the “Memorial Day Massacre”. The Lakers, even though they were down, they were not out.

The Lakers would bounce back by winning 4 of the next 5 games to take the series 4-2. This marked the first time the Lakers had defeated the Celtics in an NBA Finals.

Two years later in 1987, the Bird led Celtics would face off against the Magic led Lakers for the last time in the NBA Finals.

This time, the Lakers had home-court advantage and the Lakers would win all three games in LA. The one game the Lakers would win in Boston was the famous “baby hook shot” game by Magic Johnson.

The Lakers won the series 4-2, and this was Magic's fourth title in the 80s. Magic would win one more against the Detroit Pistons in 1988.

Bird won three titles in the 80s, making him and Magic the ultimate winners of the decade. But with their heated rivalry, was their love or hate between the two ballplayers?


A Love-Hate Relationship

In 2010, Magic and Bird, along with Jackie MacMillan released their book titled, When the Game Was Ours, and the book detailed Magic and Bird's relationship.

“We're so competitive anyway that there was a dislike there,” Magic said about his early relationship with Bird. “I even hated him more because I knew he could beat me.”

Not only did Bird and Magic have that showdown in college, the fact that they joined two teams in the NBA that were already bitter rivals, set up this hatred for one another.

“We did it in a way where we caught the imagination of everyone in America,” Bird said. “People wanted to see us play against one another… If you like competition you want to play against the best, and that's what we wanted to do.”

When Bird was playing, he admitted the only player he kept track of was Magic Johnson.

“I really didn’t care what anyone else did,” Bird said. “I always checked what Magic was doing because I knew he was a special player. I was always trying to keep up with things he’s done.”

Magic had the exact same feeling toward Bird when he played.

“I really liked the fact that we came in [the NBA] together because it gave a sense of shooting for the stars,” Johnson said. “I knew that I had to play every single night to keep up with Larry Bird over here on the East [Coast].”

There was a strong sense of hate between the two. They both wanted to keep that “edge” against each other. Then, the 1986 Converse commercial happened.

The filming of this commercial is what made Magic and Bird friends. They realized, even though they seemed to be completely different, they were also very similar in certain ways.

After they shot the first part of the commercial, it was time for lunch, and Magic was headed to his trailer until Bird invited him to his home.

Magic agreed, and at Bird's house, he was greeted with a hug from Bird's mother.

“His mom greeted me on the porch,” Johnson said. “It was a ‘Mom Bird’ hug like my mom would hug me. I got to know Larry the man that day, and he got to know Earvin.”

This newfound friendship would become so strong that it's still going on today.


The Announcement

Magic Johnson tested positive for HIV after the 1991 NBA season. This essentially ended his career (other than his Olympics games and his short 1996 comeback).

One of the first people Magic called about his diagnosis was Bird, and the news struck him hard.

“Man, that really hit me. It really hit me hard,” Bird said. “That was the first time in my life I played in a game that I didn’t want to play (vs. Atlanta). I didn’t have anything that night.”

This emotion by Bird showed the world how close these two really were, and it was touching to see.

We, as NBA fans, are grateful to be able to see this friendship still today, that Magic has continued to live a happy and healthy life, and that both have had success since their playing days. 

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