For the last 12 years, Larry Joe Bird and Earvin (Magic) Johnson have engaged in a dance more intricate than a minuet, more wonderful than a waltz and more curious than the lambada. Despite being born 310 miles, one color barrier and 2 Vi years apart, despite playing different positions, despite suiting up at opposite ends of a continent, they have whirled along in a two-step all their own, a left-right, left-right of alternating titles and trophies that has propelled the NBA into prosperity and their own games to mystical heights. They have glared at each other, befriended each other, needed each other. Now, as the games, the years and the ice packs pile up, a question arises: Is this the last opportunity for them to go cheek to cheek for the title?
In the particular choreography of the playoffs the two are able to meet only when it matters most—in the NBA Finals. Last year, neither Bird's Boston Celtics nor Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers made it there for the first time since these players both entered the league in 1979, and thoughts of one last fling for them began to fade. But this season both clubs seem poised for formidable runs. With a new complement of fresh legs, the Celtics are back in fast-breaking form and through Sunday had the second-best record (54-21) in the Eastern Conference. With an improved half-court defense and an endless variety of post-up options, the Lakers have built the second-best record (55-21) in the Western Conference.
"The team that scares me the most in the West is the Lakers, because Magic can beat you in so many ways," says guard Danny Ainge of the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles's most formidable obstacle in its conference. "And the team I'd least like to play in the East is Boston, because of its blend of experience and youth."
Think about them together again. Bird standing at the top of the key, directing the flow of events with the imperious-ness of a traffic cop on Congress Street and then flicking a pass off his hip to a cutter for a layup; Johnson pounding the ball at full bore, head bobbing like a running back sprung free, penetrating into the lane for a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't assist. They have squared off in one NCAA title game (in 1979), 19 NBA championship games (in '83-84, '84-85 and '86-87) and 16 regular-season pro games. The bottom line in head-to-head competition, as each is acutely aware, reads: three rings for Johnson, one ring for Bird. (In NBA MVP hardware they're even, with three trophies apiece.) What will the final totals be? Or, more important, how soon will they be written?
April 14, 1991
The 6'9" Johnson, the game's greatest point guard, is 31; the 6'9" Bird, the game's most complete forward, is 34. Johnson can still high-step in the open court despite tendinitis in his knees; Bird labors stoically despite the pain caused by a swollen disc. Johnson recently complained of fatigue born of too many minutes; Bird has missed 16 games this season—including a 102-98 loss at Orlando last Saturday—because of recurring back woes. Johnson will probably face a 50-win team in the opening round of the playoffs; Bird will probably have to elbow past the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls—assuming the Celts avoid a major upset in the first round. Johnson has three years left on his contract; Bird has one. Their paths to another meeting in the finals are tortuous; their time is short.
"I think this is it," says one Western Conference general manager. "If they don't make it this year, it won't happen. One or both of them will retire before the Lakers or the Celtics make it to the Finals after this year. I just don't know if the Lakers are good enough. The Celtics are a different story. Bird is the key to their putting it all together."
Houston Rocket coach Don Chancy demurs. "I wouldn't put myself on the line to say this would be the last year they could meet in the Finals," he says. "If you continue to put them with good players, their intelligence will get them over."
The principals approach the prospect of another go-round in characteristically different ways. Bird's blue eyes flick across his shoe tops, and the words tumble out without reflective pause: "I haven't really thought about it. You get a chance to play against Magic, and you always want to beat him, but things change. You get a little bit older, you get injuries. You get mentally prepared to play them type of games. I hope it happens."
Johnson's brown eyes crackle with a combination of a competitor's fire and an entrepreneur's zeal: "I hope we will have that magical time again, because the world wants to see it. Not just us two and the two cities we play for. The world wants to see it one more time."
What the world has witnessed so far is a rivalry between two legends who have never guarded each other. The epic 76ers-Celtics series of the late 1960s revolved around two centers, Philly's Wilt Chamberlain and Boston's Bill Russell, in what must be viewed as the league's most heated head-to-head feud. Johnson and Bird rekindled that kind of rivalry not by going memo a memo but by elevating their respective teams to transcendent levels. Their passing skills brought everyone on the court into play, and their creativity with the ball brought every moment alive. The drama they created on the court overshadowed the roles played by future Hall of Fame cast members such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and James Worthy; it reduced Hollywood superfan Jack Nicholson to a character actor; it turned Celtics president Red Auerbach's cigar into a second-rate prop.
"The part I like best is that they added real basketball, they got the big money and remained true to the game," says New Jersey Nets coach Bill Fitch. "And they've got that great star quality about them. Magic walks into a room and lights it up with his smile. Bird walks in and gives you a little Mark Twain."
In a sense, Bird and Johnson have mostly had their uncommonness in common. When rockaby slams were putting people to bed on the nightly highlights, the two hardly ever dunked. Their all-around play brought the triple-double into everyday parlance, and their court sense spawned a generation of teamwork. Only Johnson has a Bird's-eye vision of the floor, and only Bird has neared mastery of Magic's no-look legerdemain. By watching Johnson, Bird has learned to throw a backdoor pass by a defender's ear at the second he swivels his head. By watching Bird, Johnson has honed his post-up moves, his notions of team defense and his confidence in his left hand.
"You know how you always wanted somebody who thinks like you, plays like you, wants to work like you, wants to improve like you?" Johnson says. "That's Larry and me." Says Bird, "Magic plays the game the way I always wanted to play the game. If I'd grown up where he did [in East Lansing, Mich.] and I had been on the playgrounds when he was, I'd say we'd be best friends. And deep down, I've always felt that way."
Bird and Johnson treat each other now like genial senior senators who are planted by circumstance on opposite sides of the aisle. Two years ago, Bird asked Magic to write the foreword to his best-selling autobiography, Drive. Johnson's esteem for Bird is so high that he at first refused to pose for this magazine's Feb. 18 cover, which depicted a dream U.S. Olympic team of pros for 1992 that did not include Bird. Only when Magic learned that Bird, because of his age, was not interested in playing in Barcelona did he participate in the photo shoot.
In their formative years they eyed each other as coldly as fractious politicians. When they entered the pros, in 1979, the NBA was a sagging league in a soft economy. Its regular-season ratings on CBS-TV had dropped 26% in a year; its average attendance was 10,822; its average player salary was $148,000. But then Johnson, a 19-year-old sophomore, led Michigan State past Indiana State and Bird 75-64 in the '79 NCAA finals. Magic was drafted No. 1 and signed by the Lakers. Bird, picked the year before, accepted a contract with the Celtics, and the NBA's marquee teams and the league itself suddenly got a life-saving transfusion.
Johnson was almost overwhelmed by the attention his arrival in the NBA attracted. "I'm the most businessed 19-year-old in the country," he said. Bird, then 22, assessed the marketers' machinations for what they were. "They got to," he said. "Ain't got nobody else they can lean on."
Bird and Johnson, of course, proved to be worthy of all the fanfare. They instantly began getting championship trophies for their teams and MVP awards for themselves. Attendance, now 15,690 a game, soared. Salaries, now $925,000 a player, soared. TV ratings soared: Of the four most watched NBA telecasts ever, three were playoff games between Bird's Celtics and Johnson's Lakers. And everyone argued: Who is better? With the game on the line, who would you rather have? While that debate may have kept fans together talking far into the night, it only served to keep Bird and Johnson apart. "It was reported in the papers that they didn't like each other," says Magic's agent, Lon Rosen, "and they started to believe it themselves."
When their deep freeze thawed it was with microwave speed. In the summer of 1984, shortly after Bird had avenged Indiana State's loss by averaging 27.4 points and 14.0 rebounds in Boston's seven-game conquest of L.A. in the NBA Finals, Converse shoes brought them together for a TV commercial shoot at Bird's home in French Lick, Ind. In no time they were talking easily in Bird's living room, riding three-wheelers around his property and laughing so hard they could barely film the spot. In style, they had seemed much different: Bird the apparently reticent hick from French Lick; Johnson the gregarious producer of Showtime. But in substance, they saw themselves as small-town guys with homespun values.
"Before, we wouldn't say nothing, we'd just be glaring at each other, wouldn't even shake each other's hands," Johnson says. "But now we'll talk a little bit on the court: 'I got you that time,' 'What you doing on me? You can't stop this,' 'You're too big to be out here.' Little stuff like that. It's fun." Off the court, Magic muses about a summer fantasy camp at which he and Bird would double-team high rollers. Bird would loosen them up on the golf course,-and then Johnson would pick their brains for judicious deals. "In one sense we're different," Bird says. "He wants to make $100 million. I only want to make $50 million."
But even while they were becoming close friends, they remained perfect foils. In Game 6 of the 1985 Finals, Magic closed out Boston with a triple-double in a 111-100 victory that ended 25 years of Laker futility against the Celtics. They last faced off for the title in '87, when both were at the height of their powers. With Boston behind two games to one and trailing 104-103 in Game 4, Bird coolly buried a three-pointer with 12 seconds left. After an L.A. free throw made it 106-105, Johnson got the ball back and with two ticks on the clock swished what he called a "junior, junior, junior skyhook" to give the Lakers a 107-106 lead. Bird's last-gasp, off-balance 22-footer arced at the basket but banged off the back rim. L.A. went on to win the title in six games.
"It's like the ultimate, beating Boston and Larry," Magic says. "It's special, and it's always going to be special. When we're old playing checkers and I kick his ass, it's going to be special then, too."
Johnson is still sleek at 220 pounds, a mere five above his playing weight as a rookie. He has won the MVP award the past two seasons, and his numbers this year show little decline: Through Sunday, he had averaged 19.8 points a game, 12.6 assists, 7.0 rebounds. He is able to run his team better than ever, and the floor almost as well. In all likelihood he will break Oscar Robertson's career assist record of 9,887 this week. "When it's crunch time, he'll make the great pass or shot, or get fouled," Seattle SuperSonic guard Nate McMillan said. "In that respect, he hasn't changed. Maybe over 82 games he doesn't play at the same level he once did, but when it's the playoffs, he's still the toughest guy you can face."
Bird remains tough, too, but his body has worn down. While Johnson sees himself playing "two or three" more years and then evaluating his situation, he envisions Bird retiring next year when his contract is up. Bird has not announced his plans. He hurt his back last summer, and while the injury is not necessarily career threatening, its effect is obvious. On long plane rides he wears a back brace; when he is out of the lineup during a game, he lies prone in front of the Boston bench; after he plays he settles into his locker-room seat with the deliberateness of a forklift operator lowering fragile cargo. He can still bury the key shot (a team-high 19.4 points a game), make the bold pass (7.2 assists) or snatch the big rebound (7.0 boards). But Bird says he can count 15 players in the league who operate at a higher level, night in and night out, than he does. The phrase "takes its toll" comes up often in his conversation.
"He wants to be Larry Bird again, but his body won't let him," Johnson says. "It shows on his face after he misses a shot he knows he should have made, after things he knew he could do before and can't do now. He's never going to admit it—he's a no-excuse guy. He's in pain, but he's such a damn warrior he's not going to give in no matter what. The back could go out tomorrow, and he'd still be out there, because that's all he knows. That's why I've got to give him the utmost respect. When the chips are down, he's going to be out there whether he's walking around dragging one leg."
Twelve seasons have passed. The three-point shot, the illegal-defense rule, the salary cap have come; disco, vogueing and slam-dancing have gone. This constant remains: the unparalleled ability of Bird and Johnson to take their teams as far as they can go. And maybe, if we're lucky, they'll run smack into each other this June for one last dance.