Larry Bird and Magic Johnson
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are forever linked as rivals on the court and saviors of the NBA's box-office appeal and TV ratings. This gallery chronicles their careers.
Johnson transformed the point guard position to suit his all-around skills. He put the "Showtime'' in the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, making their fast break as effective and feared as the Green Bay Packers' power sweep as coached by Vince Lombardi.
Their rivalry was born in the Midwest during the 1978-79 college basketball season, with Johnson's Michigan State team beat Bird's Indiana State club 75-64 for the NCAA men's championship. Both headed to the NBA that spring, Bird already bound to Boston after being drafted as a junior eligible in '78 and Johnson to the Lakers thanks to a coin flip won against Chicago (the Bulls wound up with David Greenwood).
Johnson and Bird turned out to be one-man home makeover shows for the NBA's two marquee franchises. The Celtics shot from 29 victories to 61 in 1979-80 and Bird was voted Rookie of the Year. But Johnson topped him again, helping the Lakers from 47 victories to 60, then being named MVP of the Finals. He capped his Magical season with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, subbing at center for injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the clinching Game 6 at Philadelphia.
Both players made it cool again to pass the ball. Bird was a prototype "point forward,'' averaging at least 5.5 assists, and as many as 7.6, in 11 of his 13 seasons. Because of the way he involved teammates, Boston icon Red Auerbach once said: ``If I had to start a team, the one guy in all of history I would take would be Larry Bird.'' OK, so Auerbach -- the guy who drafted Bird -- basically was patting himself on the back. But the cigar-chomping Celtics architect also landed Bill Russell back in 1956.
Johnson averaged an NBA-best 12.3 assists in 13 seasons, one of only two men to stay in double figures across his full career (Utah's John Stockton, at 10.1, is second). He also had 138 triple-doubles, second only to Oscar Robertson, and was like a fighter pilot in full control of his weaponry whenever he took an outlet pass. Said Bird: "I had never seen a man who was 6-9 handle the ball like he did, pass the ball, take it to the rim, and he could rebound. He was a one-man fast break.''
Bird and Johnson were famous mostly for winning when it counted; their teams divvied up eight of the nine NBA championships from 1980-1988. But Bird's individual excellence, and cut-throat competitive drive, produced some classic All-Star memories, too. He won the first three Long Distance Shootouts, didn't bother to take off his warm-up jacket for one of them and showed up one Saturday with a question for his fellow participants: "Who's finishing second?''
Three months earlier, in November 1991, Johnson had stunned America by announcing his retirement due to the HIV virus, presumed at the time to be a death sentence. By February, he had been voted in by fans to start the All-Star Game anyway, so Johnson -- in what many figured would be an emotional and dramatic public farewell -- scored 25 points with nine assists in a 153-113 West victory. "When the weekend was going on, you had a feeling that something very special was happening,'' Golden State's Chris Mullin said years later. "It turned into a storybook.''
By the summer of 1992, Bird (done in by a bad back) and Johnson (aside from a joyless, 32-game comeback in 1995-96) were essentially done as active NBA players. But they still were basketball royalty and served as co-captains of the first and best "Dream Team,'' the U.S. Olympic squad that boosted basketball's status globally. Insiders say the rivalry and expectations of Bird and Johnson, compounded by the talents of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and the rest, turned the team's behind-closed-doors scrimmages into some of the most intense pickup games ever. "The greatest basketball I've ever seen,'' Johnson said.
Despite Johnson's ominous, ''I-remember-exactly-where-I-was-when- I-heard-the-news'' retirement announcement, he has survived and thrived since his playing days. His comeback was short-lived and he was a bust (5-11) in a stint as Lakers coach. But he is a vice president with the franchise now, is part of TNT's popular NBA studio show and has had his greatest impact as an entrepreneur, rejuvenating urban neighborhoods with the development of movie theaters and shopping complexes.
Bird beat Johnson into basketball's Hall of Fame, getting inducted in 1998, then serving as Johnson's presenter in 2002. The two men combined for eight NBA titles, six MVP awards and 24 All-Star selections -- without ever winning a single scoring title. Bird went 147-67 in three seasons as Indiana's head coach, earning the Coach of the Year award in 1998, and now is the Pacers' president of basketball operations. He one-upped Johnson in one other category, too, by never hosting a late-night talk show.
Bill Walton once summed up the appeal of Bird and Johnson this way: "They were really the same player. They were really the same person. It was the perfect symbiotic relationship. Each one wanted to win. Each one had to win. And, because of each other, they were able to reach heights that they couldn't have reached without the other one. It's a perfect reflection of the best-of-the-best responding to the ultimate challenge.''