From the beginning, my professional career was defined by two
superstars: Larry and Magic. This is true of any writer who
covered pro basketball in the '80s, because there was nothing
more compelling than the Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston
Celtics, Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird.
Beyond Magic's baby hook and Larry's killer threes, I wanted to
know it all. Was it true that the two barely spoke during their
early years in the NBA, eyeing each other with mutual mistrust?
Was it true that the filming of a Converse commercial at Bird's
French Lick, Ind., home in the summer of 1984 finally cemented
the friendship? Over time I came to know both men and to
appreciate their respect for each other.
Larry and Magic revived the NBA with their talent, their court
sense, their commitment and, most of all, with their personal
competition. Their triumphs and their travails, their epic
battles for championship crowns, read like a novel you could not
put down. And yet I often felt as though I'd picked up their
story one chapter into the book. After all, this glorious
rivalry had debuted in March 1979, when Magic's Michigan State
Spartans and Larry's Indiana State Sycamores battled in Salt
Lake City for the NCAA championship, and I was not there.
I was a college student then, not yet a journalist, and there is
something I must confess: I didn't even watch that game on
television. Forgive me, but instead of watching Magic and Bird
battle for the national title, I went bowling. In the interest
of full disclosure, there was a guy involved--the wrong guy, as
it turned out. How was I to know I was skipping out on a game
featuring the two men who would save professional basketball?
November 29, 1999
The buildup to this particular NCAA championship was
unprecedented, and it was the matchup between the two stars that
dominated the headlines. A large contingent of media, thirsty
for details, repeatedly asked both Magic and Larry, as well as
their teammates, the same question: Who's better? This
infuriated Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, who felt certain
the press was trying to trap his players into saying something
inflammatory about Bird.
Larry played in the title game with a broken left thumb,
although he was loath, both then and now, to use that as an
excuse for shooting 7 of 21 from the floor. The real culprit was
Michigan State's 2-3 matchup zone, which assigned a player to
trail Bird step-for-step. Whenever he received a pass or tried
to dribble the ball, another Spartans player would shade over
for the double-team. Bird had never seen such intense defensive
pressure, and it showed. He could count on one hand the open
looks he had, and the frustration was etched on his face that
The Sycamores could not employ a similar tactic to stifle Magic
because he too had great passing skills as well as talented
offensive teammates such as Greg Kelser. Magic, at 6'9", easily
handled Indiana State's attempts to pressure him, finishing with
24 points and seven rebounds, and Kelser's play was vital. He
and Magic had helped build a 16-point lead in the second half
before Kelser briefly went to the bench with four fouls. Bird,
aware that this was the Sycamores' last gasp, coaxed his
teammates into making one more run, but Indiana State would not
get closer than six points the rest of the way. By then Kelser
was back in the game, adding the exclamation point on the 75-64
Spartans victory by slamming in a dunk off a no-look,
over-the-shoulder, half-court lob from Magic in the final
seconds. When the buzzer sounded, a jubilant Magic cut down the
nets while a disconsolate Bird sat on the bench, face buried in
a towel, crying softly.
In later years, when I queried both men about this historic
night, it was the little things they remembered. Magic confided
that he'd had almost as much fun the day before the big game
impersonating Larry in practice, shooting from all over the
floor and daring his teammates to stop him. Bird, a career 89%
free throw shooter in the pros, said the thing that most gnawed
at him for years was that he hit just 5 of 8 from the line that
night. But by the time Bird was well established with the
Celtics, he could talk about the loss to Michigan State with
some objectivity. "We could have played them 10 times," he
admitted, "and they probably would have beaten us eight."
Wouldn't it be nice to have 10 more chances to watch Magic and
Larry in the duel that captured the imagination of the entire
country that night? Well, almost the entire country. All I want
is one more chance to soak in the game that made history and
created one of the most fascinating rivalries in sports.
Funny thing. I haven't been bowling since.
Bird could count on one hand the open looks he had, and the
frustration was etched on his face.