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One of NBA's greatest rivalries unfolds on big screen

The title is more significant than you might think.

The HBO Sports documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (premiering Saturday at 8-9:30 p.m. ET) really is about two men and the relationship between them. The film covers a lot of ground and gets in all the necessary game analysis. It's always fun to watch a rookie Magic Johnson clinch the 1980 title, or be reminded of just how unmistakably rugged Larry Bird and the Celtics were at their peak. The pre-NBA clips of the two, especially in high school, are the stuff hoops fans live for.

But that's not the kind of narrative Courtship is after.

At the heart of Courtship of Rivals is its attempt to paint a psychological portrait of each man. For all the immortal game footage, it's present-day interviews with the two superstars that pack the most emotional punch. The Bird that emerges -- at once dark, calm, combative and open -- may be the most nuanced look we've ever seen of Larry Legend.

Johnson's convoluted Magic/Ervin distinction makes more sense to him (and Arsenio Hall) than it likely will any viewer. But it's a far cry from the slick, smiling pitchman. Both emerge as tragic, or at least tormented, figures; even Magic's HIV announcement takes on new poignancy.

Courtship of Rivals hits all the right historical notes and then some, even examining the Larry Bird culture wars as a function of Reagan-era politics. In passing, it brings up perspectives you'd love to hear more about: that Magic and Bird are more similar than is regularly acknowledged, or the two ushered in a new era by finally synthesizing NBA strategy with ABA flare.

Yet, by presenting the Greatest Basketball Story Ever Told as a struggle, and then bond, between two strong personalities, you end up realizing that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson made history -- not the other way around.

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