Magic vs. Bird: Reliving Basketball's Most Storied Rivalry 40 Years Later

In 1979, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird faced off for the first time in the NBA. SI examines the rivalry between the basketball hall of famers and how they changed the landscape of the NBA.
Author:
Publish date:

Forty years ago tomorrow night in Inglewood, the Forum played host to what Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe called “the single most-awaited game in Laker history”—which, given the franchise’s star-laden past, was saying something. Larry Bird and his Boston Celtics were in town to play Magic Johnson and the Lakers, the first time the two would go head-to-head since their battle in the NCAA title game nine months earlier.

The from-the-hip hot take has long been that the Magic-Bird rivalry saved the NBA. And while from-the-hip hot takes seldom tell the whole story, there’s more than a little meat to this one. “If Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did not save the NBA, they most certainly performed CPR on it,” wrote SI’s Jack McCallum in 1992, on the occasion of the rivalry’s end.

There’s plenty of hand-wringing now about how the NBA’s TV ratings are tanking, but until TNT starts pre-empting games in favor of old episodes of Rizzoli and Isles, the current landscape will have nothing on the grim situation that awaited Magic and Bird when they entered the league. How bleak was the league’s position in 1979? Just before his rookie season started, Bird told SI, “I can see why fans don’t like to watch pro basketball. I don’t, either. It’s not exciting.” When the guy SI calls “the Designated Savior of professional basketball” shows such open disdain for your sport, you’ve got serious issues.

To its credit, the league knew there was trouble. Not long before the Bird diss the NBA decided to hire an outside PR firm at a cost of half-a-million dollars—a hefty bit of coin given that the league’s PR budget was just $125,000. But it was must-spend money. In February of 1979, SI ran a story under the headline "there’s an ill wind blowing for the NBA". It pointed out that attendance in the biggest markets (New York, L.A., Chicago and Philadelphia) was down from the previous season by a quarter. Lakers coach Jerry West lamented, “People I talk to around Los Angeles all tell me that there isn’t a great deal of interest in either the Lakers or the NBA.”

Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock

Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock

Indeed, as Bird and the C’s came to town, the Los Angeles Times ran an ad in the sports section touting the game: “Magic” Johnson tries to cage Boston’s Larry Bird, it read, with a notice that the game was sold out and a reminder that good seats were available for the game two nights later against the Suns. In fact, the Celtics game was the first sellout for the Lakers since March of 1978, a span of 21 months—during which the team had no competition (the Clippers were playing in San Diego, and were abysmal), a better-than-solid record (47–35 in the 1978­­­­–79 season) and arguably the best player in the league (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

The schedule makers didn’t do much to help things—the most anticipated game of the season was scheduled on a Friday night between Christmas and New Year’s at 10:30 on the east coast, too late for the next day’s Globe to carry anything other than the score. There was no national TV coverage, but even if there had been, it’s unlikely people would have tuned in. Many affiliates didn’t bother carrying games. Atlanta, one of the league’s larger markets, had stopped showing national broadcasts five years earlier. Ratings were off by 26% from the previous season, and even then the numbers had been comically bad. In the fall of 1978, Variety published the ratings for the 730 shows that appeared in prime time from September 1, 1977 through August 31, 1978. Of the top five, four were sporting events, with the Super Bowl on top of the list. To find an NBA game, the deciding sixth game of the Finals, you had to go well past the halfway point of the list; tied for 442nd place with Peter Lundy and the Medicine Hat Stallion, a TV movie starring teen heartthrob Leif Garrett. (From a 1978 TV listing: “A 15-year-old pony express rider must outrun Indians and endure battle fatigue, rough trails and the elements to carry the mail from Nebraska to the west coast.”)

At least that Finals game had been shown live in prime time. Tape delay games were the norm, and during the 1976 NBA Finals, Game 3 in Phoenix had tipped off, at the insistence of CBS, at 10:30 local time on a Sunday morning so the network wouldn’t miss any of the final round of the PGA’s Memorial Open. As SI noted, “CBS has been properly criticized for treating its telecasts as little more than a bridge between a refrigerator race and a golf tournament.” In reality, though, the only people actually complaining were members of the Arizona clergy, one of whom wrote a letter to the Suns asking the team to issue a public statement of regret and a vow that such scheduling would never happen again. There were serious rumblings that CBS would drop the NBA mid-contract.

On very rare occasions, basketball games could produce buzz—the 1979 NCAA title game being the most obvious example. Never mind that it was a ho-hum game: Bird missed 14 of his 21 shots and Magic’s Michigan State won by 11. The ratings were astronomical: a 24.1 rating and a 38 share, meaning that two out of every five televisions in use were tuned to the game. The NCAA title game had never approached those kinds of numbers before, and it hasn’t since.

A few months later, New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica wrote a piece that was syndicated to several papers, including the Charlotte Observer, in which it ran under the headline NBA’s playoffs begin, but does anyone care? (For what it’s worth, his byline in the paper was Ron Lupica.) He wrote: “Hopefully this will be the last NBA season to be covered with such tedium and disgust. Players like Larry Bird and ‘Magic’ Johnson … can begin to change things next season. But for now, the NBA playoffs, once so special, are nothing more than a sideshow for a faltering circus. The circus will still be playing in June. By then, no one outside of two cities will care.”

The appeal of Magic and Bird was obvious—or rather, their individual appeals were. Johnson oozed charisma, an outsized personality in an outsized point guard’s body. He was all smiles and spectacular passes, the ideal player around which to build the Showtime brand. Bird, on the other hand had been a garbageman after bombing out of Indiana, where he barely lasted a month and never so much as spoke to Bob Knight. He resurfaced at Indiana State, the self-described hick from French Lick. The fact that he was white was not insignificant. In the February 1979 SI story, Nuggets GM Carl Scheer addressed the league’s racial image: “This is something we must no longer whisper about. It’s definitely a problem and we, the owners, created it. People see our players as being overpaid and underworked, and the majority of them are black.” Those sentiments were echoed by Paul Silas, the president of the NBA Players Association (and an African-American): “It is a fact that white people in general look disfavorably upon blacks who are making astronomical amounts of money if it appears they are not working hard for that money.”

In Johnson, the league had its flashiest player. In Bird it had a Great White Hope. The only thing better than the two of them entering the league together was the two of them entering the league together for the NBA’s two most storied franchises. That took some doing.

Bird was eligible for the 1978 draft. Under the rules of the day, he had the option of signing with the team who drafted him, or he could return to Indiana State. If he did that, his rights would remain with the team that picked him until the 1979 draft, at which point he was eligible to be selected again. That gave Bird tremendous leverage, especially when he made it known he was going to play his senior season with the Sycamores. The Pacers had the first pick in ’78 but couldn’t convince Bird to sign in pre-draft negotiations and weren’t prepared to wait for him, so they sent the pick to Portland. Bird went unpicked until the sixth pick, which the Celtics had due to the fact they were coming off their worst season since 1950. As promised Bird returned to school, and after his senior season his agent negotiated a deal that made him the fifth highest-paid player in the league.

That made Johnson the obvious top pick, which the Lakers owned thanks to some bad moves by the New Orleans Jazz and a little good luck. In the summer of 1976, the Jazz signed free agent guard Gail Goodrich from the Lakers. Never mind that he was 33 and on the way down. New Orleans was required to give L.A. compensation, and the teams agreed on a 1979 first-round pick. By that point, Goodrich had played his last game and the Jazz, at 26–56, had the worst record in the East. That meant they were in a coin flip with the worst team in the West, the Bulls. Chicago polled its fans, who decided to call heads. For the 10th time in 11 seasons, the toss came up tails.

***

For the first two months of the 1979–80 season, Bird and Magic lived up to the hype. They drew fans on the road and led their teams’ renaissances. Boston came to LA with a 28–8 record, the best in basketball. At 26–13, the Lakers were the West’s top team, fighting through a bizarre early-season coaching change. In early November, the team was 9–4 and first-year coach Jack McKinney had his first day off. He decided to spend it playing tennis with assistant Paul Westhead. McKinney, then 44, was riding his son’s bike to the court when the gears locked and he went over the handlebars. An ambulance attendant said, “There’s no way this guy is going to make it.” He did, but he was in and out of a coma for three weeks. Westhead took over on an interim basis, but McKinney would never coach the team again.

Los Angeles continued to thrive under Westhead. The night before they hosted the Celtics, they easily beat the Jazz in Utah. After the game, several players were asked about Boston.

“It’s just another game,” said guard Norm Nixon.

“It’s just another game,” said forward Jamal Wilkes.

“I’ll be sky-high for the game,” Magic said.

The afternoon before the game, Bird met the press at the Forum. “I’m sure [fans] are tired of hearing about me and Magic, but I think we’re the two guys that can help it,” Bird said. “Since our teams are doing so well right now, you gotta do as much as possible to help the NBA out.”

A few hours later, it finally happened. The dawn of the NBA’s greatest individual rivalry. Magic and Bird, Part 2.

It was pretty boring.

L.A. had an eight-point halftime lead and gradually pulled away, winning 123–105. Bird had just 16 points. Magic had 23, but many came after the outcome had been decided. The two went chest-to-chest after a hard foul by Bird in the fourth quarter, but nothing came of it. There was very little talk between the two—not that there ever was. “About the only time we talked on the floor was on a switch,” Bird told Ryan in SI years later. “He’d be on me, and I’d say, ‘Hey, I got a little one.’”

Charles Sykes/AP/Shutterstock

Charles Sykes/AP/Shutterstock

As much as the rivalry came to define an era, it wasn’t nearly as pervasive on the court as those who lived through it might remember. The two were often mentioned in the same breath, they sold shoes together, they wrote a book together and even became the subject of a Broadway play. They more or less stalked each other. “When the new schedule would come out each year, I’d grab it and circle the Boston games,” Magic told SI later. “To me it was The Two and the other 80. During the season I’d check out Larry’s line first thing. If he had a triple double, I knew what I’d want that night. But what would get me would be his big ones—say, when he had 20 rebounds. I'd say, ‘I’d better get me 20 assists tonight.’”

Bird did the same. “The first thing I would do every morning during the season was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else.”

But they only met 18 times in the regular season and 19 times in three NBA Finals. Thirty-seven games. That’s it. (Magic’s Lakers won 22.)

What was the impact of those 37 games? It’s easy to look at what followed that game in the Forum and attribute it to the pair. Attendance jumped 42% from 1979 to ’89, easily the biggest gain among the big four sports. From’79 to ’84, the NBA’s TV ratings rose, something none of the other major leagues could say. (In 1985 CBS, which had nearly dropped basketball in the midst of an $11 million a year deal, re-upped for $173 million over four years.) Of course, there were other reasons we are where we are today—with a Lakers-Clippers game being the most watched prime time show on Christmas—not the least of which was a guy who plied his trade in Chicago.

There’s plenty of credit to go around—especially when you remember how gloomy the league’s future looked four decades ago.