March 26th, 1979, Salt Lake City Utah, the stage was set for the finals of the NCAA tournament, one that featured two competitors handpicked by God to compete against each other. It is the highest rated NCAA finals game in history and was a precursor to a decade-long rivalry that would dominate the NBA. It was Michigan State vs. Indiana State. It was the first time the Earvin “Magic” Johnson faced Larry Joe Bird, and on the grandest stage of College hoops no less. However, before they became known as two of the greatest basketball players of all time, they had a game to win, and only one was ready for it, ready from the moment of his Birth.
Earvin Johnson was born in Lancing Michigan, August 14th, 1959. As a child, Johnson was always working on his game. He was a vibrant, charismatic ball of talent and during his varsity debut, earned himself a nickname from a local reporter blown away with what he was saw. That name was Magic. Magic had a lot of friends and loved to be loved, getting hugs, shaking hands, and talking to people (and he still does). Johnson won the state title his senior year of high school and when it came time for Magic to choose a college, he went to a place where the love would be assured, going to Michigan State University, in Lancing.
However, for as bright and fun-loving as Magic was, Larry was the opposite. Born December 7th, 1956 in French Hick Indiana, Larry was a shy, timid, boy. There was a story that while in high school Bird took an F on an English presentation because he did not want to stand up and talk in front of his classmates. All this changed when Larry got on the court, he became a monster, and always had a chip on his shoulder. He came from a small city and no one took him seriously, but his talent was enough for Indiana University to come calling but, this didn’t last long as Larry left after less than a month.
He went back to French Lick and ultimately ended up at Indiana State University as their head coach did not give up on Larry. The two lead their colleges to the finals and in the biggest game of their lives, Magic prevailed. MSU won 75-64 and the next year Johnson won an NBA title, beating the 76ers in 6 games. Magic was a winner in high school, college, and the NBA and he was up two nothing on Bird.
In the NBA, during their rookie year, Johnson had something Bird wanted, and Bird had something wanted. Magic had one of the great performances in game 6 of the 1980 NBA finals, scoring 42 points 15 rebounds and 7 assists, leading the Lakers to a championship. Little did Bird know, he fueled his performance. Earlier that day, the rookie of the year was announced and Larry Bird won. What bothered Magic was that the voting was not even close. Larry won in a landslide. Magic went out to prove that he should have been rookie of the year. Meanwhile, Larry was watching Magic achieve what he wanted the most, a championship.
The next season, Bird was able to win a title. On the pro-level, they were tied one to one. The two would meet up three times in the 1980s, the first was in 1984. The Lakers won the first game, and then Boston won game two. This went to seven games and resulted in the Celtics winning the title. It was the first time that Bird had defeated Magic. He got him. This lit a fire under Magic once again, and in 1985 Johnson and the Lakers got the rematch that they wanted. At first, it looked as though it was going to be a repeat of last season, as in game one the Celtics blew out the Lakers in what became known as the Memorial Day massacre.
However, the Lakers turned things around were won in 6 games. It was also the first time that the Lakers had beaten Boston in the Garden. Now, head-to-head Bird and Magic were tied one to one and in 1987, they would meet for the third and final time. And in game 4, Magic would deliver one of the most iconic plays in NBA history. He caught the inbound pass, and McHale switched on him, Johnson gave him a shake and froze him, Johnson drove by him and shot a baby sky hook that went down. With two seconds left, Bird had one last shot. He walked Worthy up to around half court, broke to the corner, caught it and shot. It was straight as an arrow. Dead on. And it missed. The Lakers would then go on to win the title in 1987, getting even Bird to admit that Magic was the best player that he had ever seen. Los Angeles would go on to win the title in 1988 and become the first repeat champions in a long time. Bird was breaking down and played until 1992 and Magic retired in 1991 due to the HIV virus he had obtained. It was the end of an era.
Bird and Magic, Magic and Bird. They were the ones that saved the NBA. When they came into the NBA, the finals were on tape delay, the league was losing money, and it looked as though the NBA was about to fail. Yet, with Bird and Magic, the NBA got stars that could carry the league forward. It also was a great story that could be sold. It was a simple tale, a shy against dynamic, black vs. white, an easy dichotomy for the people to understand. The league would do anything to push this story forward, for instance on primetime games, the first game featured Boston and the next Los Angeles. This plan worked and Bird and Magic saved the league. They were two halves of the same coin, and they were also the same player; team oriented stars that wanted to get their teammates involved and it was never about getting their numbers it was about getting wins. They combined the substance of the 60s with the style of the 70s to create a new product that was enjoyable to watch.
Their impact was felt in 1992 as the two of them were reunited in 1992 on the Dream Team, going to Barcelona and winning the gold. It was the first time they played together since 1978 where the two of them were on the US team. They were rock stars, everyone wanted pictures, autographs and so on.
March 26th, 1979, the stage was set for the prolog of what would be the biggest rivalry in NBA history. Bird and Magic saved the league bringing a new team-oriented style to the league and dominating the 80s winning 8 championships between the two teams. It was a tale that everyone could understand. The shy boy from French Lick and the smiling kid from Lancing saved the NBA.