Tuesday, June 9, 1987. Steamy, Sultry, creaking, clamorous Boston Garden. Game 4, NBA Finals. It is Year 26 of the great Boston Celtic-Los Angeles Laker rivalry. Woven into the tapestry of the confrontation between the teams is the thread of a long-running duel between two individuals, for this is also Year 9 of the Bird and Magic Show.
Larry Bird, 6'9", undeniably white. Earvin (Magic) Johnson, 6'9", undeniably black. Does this matter? Hell, yes. It is part of the fun. "It's, hard to look at a white man and see black," Magic will say later, "but when I looked at Larry, that's what I saw. I saw myself." And what was it that Laker center Mychal Thompson said? "Magic and Larry are the co-kings of this league. You might say they're the salt and pepper of this league, because they spice it up."
It is very late in this crucial game. The Lakers lead the series two games to one. They have come from 16 points behind with 17 minutes to play and lead by one, 104-103, with 29 seconds remaining. The Celtics have the ball.
Bird is about to spice up this game.
December 14, 1992
The ball goes from Dennis Johnson to Robert Parish to Danny Ainge and, finally, to Bird, who is stationed in the deep left corner. No sooner does the ball touch his hands than it is launched skyward. Swish. Three-pointer. Celtics lead 106-104.
"You've got balls, taking that shot," says Earl Strom, the referee who has seen it all and seen them all.
"There are a lot of players in this league who play the game, but only a few who play in the final six minutes," says Magic. "It's a different game then. Shots that guys will take in the rest of the game, they won't take here. Only a few will. Larry will."
Now there are 12 long seconds left before the buzzer. Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is fouled. He makes the first free throw, but when he misses the second, neither Parish nor Kevin McHale can control what might be the game-clinching rebound for Boston. The ball goes out of bounds. Los Angeles is alive with seven seconds left.
It is Magic Johnson's turn to spice up the game.
Taking a pass, Magic drives from left to right across the lane, and now he is in the air 15 feet from the basket, where he is confronted by the Celtics' hallowed Big Three—Bird, McHale and Parish. He launches a 1955-style hook shot out of the Bob Houbregs playbook. The ball flies true and sweet and directly into the hole. Lakers lead 107-106. But there are two seconds to play.
After a timeout Boston inbounds the ball from near half court. Bird gets it in almost exactly the same spot as he did during the Celtics' previous possession. The crowd roars. Bird cocks and fires. "I was floating to the left when I took it," Bird will say later. "But I was sure it was on target. It was either short, long or in the hole." It is...a bit long. Lakers—and Magic—win.
"The thing between us was that neither team could ever relax," says Magic today. "You never felt the game was over. That night was a great example. Even after Larry missed, we were afraid to move. It was like...we won? With individuals like us, and with two cities going crazy—not just two cities, but the world—there will never be another rivalry like it again."
From Dec. 28, 1979, to Feb. 16, 1992, the Lakers and the Celtics played 45 games: 26 in the regular season and 19 in the playoffs. There were five games in which Bird played but Magic didn't, including one last season after Magic retired upon discovering that he was HIV-positive. There were two in which Magic played and an injured Bird didn't. And there was one game—Feb. 19, 1989—that was Magic-less and Bird-less, as will be all future Boston-Los Angeles games, both men having firmly called it quits before this season began.
In the other 37 games—31 of which I was privileged to witness—the Lakers beat the Celtics 22 times. The teams met three times for the NBA championship, and L.A. won twice. And so the ultimate bragging rights fall to Magic. Says Bird, "I can still see him in my head, coming up court, faking right, faking left, then pulling it back and laying it in. Still pisses me off."
Magic and Bird met in the summer of 1978 as teammates on a college all-star team that toured Europe. Each saw something of himself in the other, and the reason was simple: Passing was an obsession for them both. In March '79 they were thrown together again, in the most anticipated NCAA championship game ever, Michigan State and Magic versus Indiana State and Bird. They were the two best college basketball players in the country, though neither was very fast nor much of a leaper. Each was his team's best thinker and source of inspiration, but there the similarities ended. Magic, from the big school famous for its sports teams, was outgoing and perpetually smiling, the media's darling. Bird, from the little school with no reputation for athletics, was introverted and suspicious of the press. Magic seemed to be everybody's friend; Bird picked his friends carefully.
Bird offered this pregame assessment: "Passing means so much in basketball. The way I look at it, I'm a scorer and Johnson's a passer." Magic was more expansive: "I'm a fan of Larry Bird's, and I love to look at what he can do with the ball. Only thing is, I just can't get caught looking at him tonight."
With Magic being Magic and with the Spartans' 2-3 zone harassing Bird into 7-for-21 shooting, Michigan State dominated the game—perhaps even more than the 75-64 score suggests. "I thought we'd win, because we hadn't lost all year," Bird says now, "but after about 35 minutes I knew they had the better team. I've never looked back on that game. The best team won."
The contest got the highest television ratings of any NCAA championship game—before or after. With that as a backdrop, Magic took his act to Los Angeles and Bird went to Boston. In the pros theirs became a bicoastal rivalry, even a cultural rivalry.
Magic became the embodiment of Showtime with his behind-the-back wizardry, his look-away passes and his million-dollar smile. In L.A. he was the right man in the right place at the right time. Bird became the favorite of knowledgeable Celtic fans mostly because of the effort he expended. Bostonians applauded him as much for diving to the floor as for dropping in three-pointers or throwing no-look passes. There was always the notion that he could have moonlighted as a middle linebacker.
The two first met as professionals on Magic's home floor at the Forum on Dec. 28, 1979. Each had already transformed his team. In their previous season the Celtics had won only 29 games, but by the time they arrived in L.A. with Bird, they'd already won 28. The Lakers, who had finished third in the Pacific Division the previous season, were only a game out of first with a 26-13 record. The Forum had been sold out for weeks. Each team had already filled arenas—Boston, the San Diego Sports Arena; L.A., the Salt Palace, in Salt Lake City—that were not ordinarily teeming with humanity.
The Lakers won 123-105, with Magic (23 points, eight rebounds, six assists) prevailing in the statistical battle against Bird (16, three, three). Not that they were one-on-one rivals—then or ever. They were never directly matched up. Bird was a forward. Magic was a guard. They might occasionally meet as the result of a defensive switch, or cross paths if one of them was back defending against a fast break, but they never guarded each other. "About the only time we talked on the floor was on a switch," Bird says. "He'd be on me, and I'd say, 'Hey, I got a little one.' "
"Always," confirms Magic. "He'd say, 'Bring it here. I've got this little one on me.' "
This was not Russell versus Chamberlain, a nose-to-nose, navel-to-navel war. Bird and Magic's battle instead took on a can-you-top-this flavor. "He got me real good one time," Magic says with a laugh. "I was back on a fast break, and somebody kicked the ball out to him, so I had to run to get Larry on the wing. Larry says, 'What arc you running out here for? You know it's too late.' And he buries it in my face."
During their first three seasons as pros, the rivalry was, in fact, a disappointment, primarily because Magic wasn't healthy. A knee injury and later a sprained ankle kept him on the sidelines for three of his first five games against the Celtics, and he was a shell of himself in another, during which he limped around for 20 minutes. So it was that Magic was a spectator on Feb. 11, 1981, when Bird put on one of the best performances in Forum history. The Celtics looked like no-hopers before the game. They had lost in overtime the night before in Seattle and were delayed getting to L.A., arriving at their hotel only five hours before tip-off. Moreover, Boston playmaker Tiny Archibald was out with a leg injury. Magic or no Magic, this one looked like a Laker lock.
But Bird didn't think so. Says Magic, "Before the game Larry came over to me and said, 'Earvin'—he never calls me Magic—'sit back and enjoy the show.' "
Bird was transcendent. He had 36 points, 21 rebounds, five steals and three blocks. He made 15 of 17 shots. He broke up three L.A. fast breaks. And when it was over, Jerry West walked into the Celtic locker room and said admiringly, "Bird was always two thoughts ahead of everyone else."
At the beginning the rivalry between Bird and Magic was somewhat obscured by the fact that there was already a longstanding Boston-L.A. rivalry, going back to the days of Russell and Baylor, Havlicek and West. And there were other marquee players on the floor: Abdul-Jabbar, McHale, Parish, Jamaal Wilkes. There was also the Lakers' Michael Cooper, a player Bird respected second only to Magic. "No one guarded me better than Michael Cooper," he says.
The Lakers won the NBA championship in 1980. Then the Celtics won it by defeating the Houston Rockets in the Finals in '81. L.A. won again in '82 and lost in the Finals to the Philadelphia 76ers in '83. So it wasn't until '84, Bird and Magic's fifth season in the league, that the Celtic-Laker rivalry returned to the ultimate venue, the NBA Finals. This series occurred one year into the commissionership of David Stern, and it was a marketing dream for a league on the rise. "When you have the Number 1 and 2 teams meeting in a championship, that's terrific," said Stern. "And when you have the tradition of Boston and L.A. and the great stars these two teams have, it's almost more than we should be permitted to hope for."
Laker coach Pat Riley had often dismissed regular-season games as "meaningless" because their outcomes so often turned on the vagaries of schedule, travel and injuries. True enough, but Celtic and Laker players and coaches acknowledged that each working day they checked out how the rival on the other coast had done the night before. "I only meant that nothing happening between us in the regular season affected the playoffs," says Riley. "Believe me, I would grab the paper in the morning and see how they did. I'd say, 'Ah, Indiana got 'em last night.' "
"When the new schedule would come out each year," says Magic, "I'd grab it and circle the Boston games. 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.' "
"The first thing I would do every morning during the season," Bird says, "was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn't care about anything else." In the 1984 NBA Finals, Bird checked out Magic up close for seven exhilarating afternoons and nights in what would be one of Bird's sweetest triumphs.
What a strange and wonderful series it was. The Lakers won the opener 115-109 at Boston Garden, and Bird was a shaken man when the game was over. "That's the best fast break I've seen since I've been in the league," he said. "We're a good running team, but we're not as good as they are."
L.A. should have won Game 2. The Lakers were leading by two points late in the fourth quarter when Celtic Gerald Henderson stole an errant pass by L.A.'s James Worthy and scored to tie the game. Magic inexplicably dribbled out the last eight seconds of regulation time, and Boston prevailed 124-121 in overtime.
In Game 3, at the Forum, the Lakers destroyed the Celtics 137-104, with Magic getting 21 assists, and set off an explosion in Bird's head. "We played like sissies," he fumed. Asked what was needed to change things, Bird said, "Twelve heart transplants."
Bird did the surgery for Game 4, which remains one of his favorites. Trailing by five with less than a minute to go in regulation, Boston forced the game into overtime, aided by a stolen Magic pass and two missed Magic free throws. With the score tied at 123 in OT, Bird posted up Cooper. "I turned to shoot and Cooper fell down," Bird recalls. "Then Magic came running at me, and I said to myself, 'Oh,——.' " Bird put a little extra arc on his shot, and the ball swished cleanly for the game-winner to tie the series.
Basketball was never meant to be played in 97° heat, but that was the temperature in the un-air-conditioned Garden when the series shifted back to Boston on the night of June 8. The atmosphere was so stifling that the Lakers brought their own supply of oxygen. Referee Hugh Evans left the game at the half, suffering from dehydration. Forward M.L. Carr cooled his Celtic teammates with a small battery-operated fan. "It was the most bizarre game of my career," says Riley. "Surreal. If I ever felt like I was in hell, that was it."
But Bird thought the conditions were ideal. "Hell, what's the fuss?" he said. "We used to play in conditions like that back home all summer. The heat just loosened me up." Bird loosened up for 34 points and 17 rebounds as Boston won 121-103.
The Lakers tied the series at home in Game 6. And so, in the last 2-2-1-1-1 series format in NBA history, everyone packed up and flew 3,000 miles back to Boston for Game 7.
"It was the strangest pregame I ever remember," says Bird. "M.L. Carr was walking around with goggles on. Danny Ainge had a stethoscope. He walked up to each of us to see if we had a heart. Cedric Maxwell just said, 'Jump on my back, boys. It's my turn.' We were so loose. I think if we had lost, Red [Auerbach] would have killed us."
Maxwell delivered on his promise, scoring 24 points and stealing the headlines as Boston won 111-102. Bird and Magic were now tied in head-to-head championship confrontations.
They would never be even again. Magic's talents were peaking, and he was assuming more and more of the offensive burden for the Lakers. In 1984-85 he scored 37 points to outdo Bird's 33 as the Lakers won the second L.A.-Boston meeting of the season 117-111. That was a prelude to the Finals rematch in the spring.
The Celtics won the first game of that series 148-114, but the humbled Lakers rallied around their captain, Abdul-Jabbar, to win Game 2, in Boston. After the teams split Games 3 and 4, Kareem had 36 points and Magic contributed 26 points and 17 assists as L.A. took control of the playoffs with a 120-111 victory at the Forum. The Lakers regained the championship in Boston, beating the Celtics 111-100 with series MVP Abdul-Jabbar scoring 29 and Magic turning in a triple double of 14 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists.
The next season was a triumph for Bird and a frustration for Magic. Boston had 67 regular-season victories and then won the championship by defeating Houston in six games. Bird was now even with Magic where it counted most: Each had won three championships in his seven years in the league. The Lakers had been upset by the Rockets in the Western Conference finals, and Riley speculated aloud that perhaps Los Angeles fans should start lowering their sights.
That judgment turned out to be premature, for the 1986-87 Lakers turned out to be one of the best teams of all time. Magic, unquestionably the league's best player, won the first of his three MVP awards. "For overall contributions, nobody else was close," said Bird. He would know; he had three regular-season MVP titles of his own.
Among Magic's sweet triumphs in the 1986-87 season was the victory that snapped a 38-game Celtic winning streak at Boston Garden. Even more spectacular was a February meeting between the two teams in Los Angeles. Entering the game, the Celtics and the Lakers had identical records (37-12). L.A. rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit behind Magic's heroics (39 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists) to sweep the season series. "I don't remember many regular-season games," Riley says, "but I remember that one. I can still see Magic coming out of a spin for a key three-point play and then running by our bench with a big grin."
The Lakers were prohibitive favorites in the 1987 Finals, both because they were so good and because the Celtics were plagued by injuries and lacked depth. And, indeed, it turned out to be a Magic show from start to finish. He began with 29 points and 13 assists in L.A.'s opening-game victory and followed that with 22 points and 20 assists as the Lakers went up 2-0. He added 32 points in Game 3, even though the Celtics pulled out a victory. Then came that epic fourth game.
The hook shot that won the game was Magic's newest trick. He had been working on it with Abdul-Jabbar and called it his "junior, junior skyhook." One of the hallmarks of the Magic-Bird rivalry was the way each expanded his game over the years. Magic added a hook and lengthened the range on his set shot—he was one of the few modern players not to shoot a jumper—to three-point land. Bird became a far better post-up player and perfected his lefthand dribble. The college performances of Magic and Bird that had seemed so extraordinary were almost primitive by comparison.
Boston, playing on pride, salvaged the fifth game and sent the teams back to L.A., where Magic capped off his year with 16 points and 19 assists as the Lakers won the title in six games. "He's the best player in the game," said Riley, and no one could argue, least of all Bird, the New England regional president of the Magic Johnson Fan Club. "Magic plays basketball the way you should play the game," he said. "He's the greatest all-around team player in basketball."
The two would never meet at the summit again. L.A. successfully defended its title in 1988 against the Detroit Pistons, while Boston began a slow decline. But there was one more dazzling duel. In Boston Garden on Dec. 12, 1987, Bird threw in 35 points, to go with eight rebounds and nine assists, and led the Celtics to a 114-113 edge with two seconds left. That was just enough time for Magic to take an in-bounds pass and sink an off-the-wrong-foot, 22-foot banker to win the game. "I must say, they gave him the right nickname," said Abdul-Jabbar.
For the rivalry, though, that was the beginning of the end. A series of injuries began to rob Bird of his greatness. He missed virtually all of 1988-89 while recuperating from heel surgery, and he tasted only one more victory in direct competition with Magic. On Feb. 15, 1991, Bird put together a modest triple double (11-11-11) in the Forum as the Celtics beat the Lakers 98-85. The next time the two would be on the playing floor together would be as 1992 Olympic teammates.
"People who saw our games against each other saw some of the best basketball ever played," Magic says. "That's why the Olympics meant so much to me. I had always fantasized about us playing together. For it to happen meant more to me than anything else I've ever done."
Their spiritual bond had become unbreakable. Each could do things only the other could truly appreciate. "It's what Michael Jordan is missing now," Magic says. "He knows he has no one to measure himself against. Larry and I always had each other. Athletes live to get so up that they can't sleep for two or three days before a competition. Nobody did that to me except Larry Bird. The only time in my life I've ever been scared about a game was the NCAA final and those Celtic games. After God and my father, I respect Larry Bird more than anyone."
Bird says, "I have always looked up to him because he knows how to win. I've always put him a step ahead of me. But we think the same way about basketball."
"Maybe it's appropriate that they go out together after all," says Riley. "Why not? They'll always be linked. They were just smarter than the other players in the league. Spiritually. Mentally. I think of four words to describe them: Respect. Dignity. Integrity. Trust. That's over and above the skills."
Those skills are preserved on videotape for all time. Bird with an arcing step-back jumper a foot behind the three-point line. Magic driving the lane and leaving a perfect drop pass for Abdul-Jabbar. Bird, in the air for a jumper, suddenly snapping off a bullet past one defender's ear and another's flailing hand and hitting McHale underneath the basket for an easy two. Magic snatching a rebound in traffic and going coast to coast, splitting the final two defenders as only he could.
They were the only members of an exclusive fraternity. "We weren't about stats," says Magic. "We were about winning."