When I was in junior high school, that yin and yang was Bird & Magic. Magic (Johnson) and (Larry) Bird. These were the respective icons for the team that I loved (and still love), the Los Angeles Lakers, and the team that I hated (and now, begrudgingly respect), the Boston Celtics.
My personal connection runs a bit deeper, inasmuch as the Lakers drafting of Magic happened to coincide with my first writing “gig,” writing sports stories for my junior high school newspaper, the Madison Journal.
Showtime, as that era came to be known in Laker-land was literally the galvanizing moment when I transitioned from casual fan (dating back to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joining the Lakers in the 1975-76 season) to diehard, so the time, place and events of the HBO documentary are well-imprinted in my brain.
As the beautifully told ‘Magic & Bird – A Courtship of Rivals’ shows, prior to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson putting their stamp on the game, the NBA was of borderline national interest and on the cusp of relevance. It was a time when the game was perceived as “too black,” searching for an identity following the NBA-ABA merger, and reeling from prolonged scandals pertaining to cocaine/drug abuse (which touched all sports leagues, most notably baseball) .
The story of Magic versus Bird was perfect, right of out Hollywood Casting. The extrovert black player, who has just won the NCAA championship (by beating Larry Bird’s Indiana State team, no less), heads to the glamour of Los Angeles, flanked by arguably the greatest player in the game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Meanwhile, the more introverted, but street-wise and mentally tough, Larry Bird is the great white hope (literally speaking), leading one of the most sacred of sports teams, the Boston Celtics, who had fallen on hard times, but to prominence.
East Coast versus West Coast. Street fighters versus the elegance and mastery of Showtime. Mr. Outgoing versus Mr. Stoic. Eight total NBA championships between them (5 for Magic, 3 for Bird) when all was said and done.
The documentary shows how these men went from rivals to friends, how their career arcs literally saved the NBA, and set the stage for Michael Jordan to take it to the next level. It captures Magic finding out he had HIV, what looked like a death sentence at the time, and retiring from the game as a result (a day that I remember vividly).
But most of all, it is a reminder of how the game has changed, how unlike today's stars needing to get their touches and shots, Magic and Bird could literally shape the game with 15 shots, usually scoring 20+ points, dishing 10 assists and grabbing 12 rebounds in the process. There was never a minute with either of these guys where you wondered if Me came before Team.
It's full of magical moments, laughter, sadness and the inevitability of bodies breaking down when you commit to being the best there is. If you like basketball, and the narratives that sports generates, don’t miss ‘Magic & Bird – A Courtship of Rivals,’ now playing on HBO.