Messi vs Ronaldo. Manning vs Brady. Ali vs Frazier. Russell vs Chamberlain. When reading these names it is easy to see that they make up some of the greatest player rivalries of all time. There is nothing better in sports. Two competitors, both eager to take the other one out. Both eager to prove who is greater, as they attempt to separate themselves and their legacies.
One particular rivalry has always stood out, however. A rivalry in which neither player could quite get out of the shadow of the other. A rivalry in which two men's paths continued to cross, whether they liked it or not. It is the greatest competitive story between two athletes, so much so, that if it were written in a book, it would be deemed a New York Times Best-Seller. This is the story of Larry Joe Bird and Earvin Johnson Jr.
How can two players be so different, but so similar as well? Let's start with Larry "Legend" Bird. Bird was raised in small French Lick, Indiana. Population: a little over 1,700 people. That's today's numbers. Imagine what they were when Bird was growing up in the '60s and '70s. Bird would star at local Springs Valley High School, where he would average an astounding 31 points, 21 rebounds and 4 assists as a senior. After turning down an offer to play for legendary coach Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers, Bird instead attended local Indiana State, as he wanted to stay closer to home.
Earvin Johnson was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan where he attended predominantly white Everett High School. Johnson was a star almost immediately. In a game as a 15-year-old sophomore, Johnson would score 38 points, grab 18 rebounds and hand out 16 assists. After the game, a sports writer for the Lansing State Journal nicknamed him "Magic", and the name stuck. Two years later, Earvin "Magic" Johnson would go on to average 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds as a senior, all while leading Everett to the state title. After high school, Magic chose to attend local Michigan State University, and coach Jud Heathcote.
It was almost too good to be true, but no one knew it yet. In the 1978-79 collegiate basketball season, senior Larry Bird (28.6 points, 14.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists) was deemed the best player, winning every major award (Rupp, Naismith, Wooden) while also leading Indiana State to a school record 33-0, and a berth in the 1979 national championship in Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, sophomore Magic Johnson (17.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.4 assists) and the MSU Spartans were making noise, leading the nation in SRS, and winning a Big Ten title on their way to the national championship against Indiana State.
Magic and Bird would meet each other for the first time on March 26, 1979 on the biggest stage NCAA basketball could offer. Magic's Spartans vs Bird's Sycamores for the national title. The two competitors squared off in Salt Lake City, but ultimately the better team in the Spartans prevailed, winning 75-64. Magic finished with 24 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, winning the tournament's Most Valuable Player Award while Bird had one of his worst shooting nights of the season, shooting 7-21 and scoring 19 points. The game was historic, bringing in a TV rating of 24.1, and over 35.1 million viewers, the most watched college basketball game ever.
Almost three months later to the day, Magic Johnson was selected first overall in the 1979 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. Bird, had been selected a year earlier by the Boston Celtics, but chose to stay in college for the 1978-79 season. Boston still held the rights to Bird, and he and Magic would make their professional debuts in the 1979-80 season. Their impacts were immediately felt. Bird would win rookie of the year, after turning Boston around (29-53 in 1979, 61-20 in 1980), and leading them all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Magic, on the other hand, had joined the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and would help to lead the Lakers to 60 wins, and a trip to the Finals, their first in 7 years. Standing in their path was Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. In Game 5, with the series tied at 2-2, Kareem suffered a series ending ankle sprain and would have to exit the game. The Lakers would end up capturing the game, but would be without Kareem in Philadelphia for Game 6. The night would belong to Magic, as he showed the basketball world he would be a force to be reckoned with with for years to come. In Game 6, he would score 42 points, grab 15 rebounds and hand out 7 assists en route to a Lakers championship and Finals MVP. Magic is the first and only rookie to win the award.
A year later, Boston would reclaim their throne as basketball's best franchise. Bird was spectacular in the 1981 postseason and provided some memorable moments. In the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals, Boston was matched up with Philadelphia, the team who had knocked them out the year prior. Through 4 games, Philly took a 3-1 series lead. But Bird and the Celtics would respond in a big way. They would come back to beat the 76ers behind Bird who scored 32 points in Game 5, 25 points in Game 6 and 23 points in Game 7, a one-point victory.
In the 1981 Finals against Houston, Bird averaged over 15 points and 15 rebounds for the series, as Boston would win the championship in six games. Bird grabbed 21 rebounds in Game 1, and then did it again in Game 2 against the league's best rebounder in Moses Malone. Bird and Magic had now won championships, but would have to wait three more years before they would face each other.
In 1982, the Lakers once again grabbed the title and Magic earned his second Finals MVP, but both the Celtics and the Lakers failed to win the title in 1983. The stage would finally be set in 1984, when the Celtics and Lakers both won their conferences and advanced to the Finals. Bird and Magic were now well established, with Magic winning his second straight assists title (13.1 assists/game), and Bird winning his first regular season MVP.
Bird and Magic would fight in a dramatic tooth and nail series and took it all the way to a seventh game. In Game 7 in Boston, the Celtics would run away with it behind Bird's 20 points and 12 rebounds. Bird was named the Finals MVP (27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds) while Magic was being criticized for choking in crucial games down the stretch in the series, specifically in games 2 and 4 when he had late turnovers.
1985 saw Bird and Magic have more success as they certified themselves as the best players in the NBA. Bird (28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists) won his second straight regular season MVP, and had once again led Boston to the best record. Magic, now having lost two straight Finals, was eager to reclaim his place, averaging over 18 points, 6 rebounds and over 12 assists per game.
The Celtics and the Lakers easily breezed their way through the competition on their way for a Finals rematch in 1985. In the Finals, it would be the Lakers' turn. After a humiliating 34-point defeat in Game 1 at the hands of the Celtics, the Lakers would take care of series in six games. Magic for the series averaged 18.3 points and 14.0 assists on his way to his third championship.
Magic and Bird would face one last time in 1987. In 1986, Bird won his third straight MVP, all while leading the Celtics to 67 wins and their third championship of the decade. In the Finals, however, they defeated the Rockets, as the Lakers failed to make the Finals. Now in 1987, Magic and Bird could settle the score. Each had won 3 championships, and were 1-1 against each other.
In the Finals, Magic would once again come up big. In a memorable Game 4, with the series at 2-1 in favor of LA, Bird would hit a 3-pointer to take the lead with 12 seconds left to play. A few seconds later, Magic would hit the most memorable shot of his career, a skyhook in the paint to retake the lead with 2 seconds left. Magic and the Lakers would end up winning in six games, using their youth to their advantage as opposed to the aging Celtics. Magic, who had won the regular season MVP in 1987, captured the Finals MVP as well. He averaged over 26 points and 13 assists while Bird averaged over 24 points and 10 rebounds. After the Finals, Bird called Magic the greatest player he had ever seen.
Over the following years, Bird and Magic would continue to dominate. Bird continued to be among the league's premiere scorers, while Magic would capture two more MVPs in 1989 and 1990, and one more championship in 1988.
Unfortuately, Bird and Magic would both be robbed of longer careers. For the last six years of his career, Bird would have persistent back pain, and had to continually take medication for it. He would ultimately retire in 1992 at the age of 35. Magic on the other hand announced he had contracted the HIV virus in 1991, and had to leave the game at the age of 31. He would come back in 1996 for 32 games, before officially hanging it up.
While Bird and Magic were the ultimate competitors, here is what makes them the best player rivalry in all of sports. They played in such a similar way, and changed the game because of it. Both stand at exactly 6'9, and could both score AND pass at will. Not to mention they played for the Lakers and the Celtics respectively, the best team rivalry in basketball.
Magic changed the way the NBA looked at the point guard, as it was no longer a position designated to the little man. Magic running the floor at his height and showing off with flashy passes was a sight to behold, and something the rest of the league couldn't stop. Bird was equally a great passer, and played out of position as well, at small forward. While many think of Bird as primarily a scorer and a great shooter, it is important to remember Bird's intelligence in other aspects of the game, as he could also put up over 10 assists in a game. And that is what made Bird and Magic so special. They placed team first, and won because of it.
Bird and Magic while they were both triple double machines, often times proved that they were equally as gifted in one aspect of the game as the other. As mentioned earlier, Bird could pass just as well as Magic. But, Magic could score just as well as Bird. It often times depended on what they were more willing to do. Once Kareem started to get older, Magic boosted his scoring numbers to over 20 per game in 3 of his last 5 seasons before initially retiring.
And this is why I cannot decide on who the more superior player was. Just read these career averages. Magic: 13 seasons, 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists. Bird: 13 seasons, 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists. Both played with a team first mentality, could do just about everything on the court, and loved to win.
More similarities? Take a look at these statistics and you decide.
Magic Johnson: 13 seasons, 17,707 points, 6,559 rebounds, 10,141 assists, 52% shooting percentage, 12x All Star, 3x MVP, 3x Finals MVP, 5x NBA Champion, 10x All-NBA Team Member, Olympic Gold Medal Winner (Barcelona-1992)
Larry Bird: 13 seasons, 21,791 points, 8,974 rebounds, 5,695 assists, 49% shooting percentage, 12x All Star, 3x MVP, 2x Finals MVP, 3x NBA Champion, 10x All-NBA Team Member, Olympic Gold Medal Winner (Barcelona-1992), Rookie of the Year