Magic Johnson and Larry Bird transformed basketball at two different levels of the sport. The rivalry began in college as the two squared off in the 1979 NCAA Championship. The game would serve as the tipping point for the growth of college basketball.
As SB Nation details, the Celtics drafted Bird in 1978, even though he would not be eligible to play until 1979. Bird wanted to be the first person in his family to graduate college, and went back to Indiana State for his senior season.
It is difficult to understand just how big of an impact the two players had on growing the NBA. When Johnson and Bird entered the league, the NBA showed the finals on tape delay. Former ESPN columnist Andy Katz described the NBA climate at the time.
Remember this as well: When Magic and Bird entered the league in 1979, the NBA Finals were broadcast on a tape-delayed basis. You had to stay up until 11:30 p.m. to watch Brent Musberger call the play-by-game. The league was riddled with drug problems and attendance was sagging.
Bird and Johnson did not just change basketball, they changed each other. A bitter rivalry would turn into a friendship that remains decades later.
Here’s why NBA fans should be thanking Bird and Johnson for paving the way for the thriving league we know today.
1. Johnson Led Michigan State to a National Title Over Bird’s Indiana State in 1979
Indiana State entered the 1979 NCAA title game undefeated, but would receive their only loss of the season in the game that mattered most. Michigan State defeated an Indiana State team that had won 33 straight games.
Johnson finished with 24 points and seven rebounds. Bird may have lost the title, but it was not because of a lack of trying. He had 19 points and 13 rebounds in a losing effort.
The sting from the loss never left Bird. Decades later, Bird admitted to FOX Sports that it was the worst loss he ever had in his career.
“That was the toughest defeat I’ve ever taken,” Bird told FOX Sports. “That was hard, and it’s still hard. We were not expected to get there, and then to get there and have that one opportunity, and then not play well, it’s disappointing.”
2. The Bird-Magic Matchup Helped the 1979 National Title Game Set a Record for the Highest-Rated Basketball Game Ever
Bird and Johnson’s rivalry not only changed the NBA, but created the college basketball industry fans know today. Rarely does a rivalry transform one league let alone two “leagues” the way their rivalry carried over from college into the pros.
According to M Live, the 1979 title games featuring Johnson’s Michigan State against Bird’s Indiana State team set a record with a 24.1 television rating. It’s not only the highest rated college basketball game, but also tops any NBA game rating ever. The NBC broadcast had an estimated 35.1 million viewers.
To put it in perspective, the 2017 championship between North Carolina and Gonzaga had a 14.5 rating. According to The Washington Post, the NCAA tournament had a 40-team field at the time of the 1979 championship. The field has expanded several times to get to its current status of 68 teams, and the Bird-Magic game helped the television dollars rise astronomically.
There would be no March Madness, at least not to the level we know today, without Bird and Johnson serving as a catalyst for the surge in popularity.
3. Magic Won 5 Championships With the Lakers, While Bird Won 3 Championships With the Celtics
Johnson is one of the most decorated players in NBA history. He won his first title during his rookie season as the Lakers topped the 76ers.
Bird caught Johnson in 1981 as the Celtics defeated the Rockets for his first title. He averaged 15.3 points, 15.3 rebounds and seven assists in the 1981 finals.
The Lakers again topped the Sixers in 1982 as Johnson got his second ring.
Johnson and Bird squared off in their first finals in 1984. Bird and the Celtics won the series in seven games. Bird averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds in the series. Johnson averaged 18 points, 13.6 assists and 7.7 rebounds in a losing effort.
The Celtics-Lakers rivalry kicked into high gear in 1985 as Johnson got revenge against Bird to win his third title.
Johnson averaged 18.3 points, 14 assists, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 steals during the finals. Bird averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, five assists and 1.8 steals in the series.
Bird bounced back in 1986 to win his third and final ring against the Rockets. He nearly averaged a triple-double in the series. Bird averaged 24 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.5 assists and 2.7 steals in the finals.
The two squared off again in the 1987 finals. Los Angeles was victorious as Johnson got his fourth ring. Johnson was much more aggressive on offense averaging 26.2 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds and 2.3 steals. Bird put up stellar numbers as well with 24.2 points, 10 rebounds and 5.5 assists.
Johnson earned his fifth and final ring in 1988 against the Pistons.
4. Bird & Magic’s Relationship Transformed From Enemies to Friends During a Converse Commercial Filmed in French Lick, Indiana
Converse wanted to shoot a commercial featuring Johnson and Bird. The catch was Bird did not want to shoot the commercial in Los Angeles, and would only do the commercial if it was shot in his hometown of French Lick, Indiana.
The two players were not looking forward to interacting, but things changed during the commercial. Bird and Johnson began to see each other as people rather than just competitors. The dynamics of their relationship began to change as Bird’s mother prepared lunch for them to eat together.
“He met Ervin at Lunch…I was just so happy to finally be Ervin with him…we just became two relaxed guys talking,” Johnson admitted on HBO’s Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.
“Ervin was a good dude. I like Ervin a lot better than Magic,” Bird joked to HBO.
5. Bird Compared Hearing Magic Had HIV With His Father’s Suicide
According to NPR, Johnson called Bird on November 7, 1991 to tell him about his HIV diagnoses. According to The New York Times, Bird later compared the call to the feeling he had after he learned of his father’s suicide. Bird’s dad committed suicide when he was still in high school.
Despite feeling helpless, Bird knew that Johnson had what it took to fight for his health.
“It was probably one of the worst feelings you could ever imagine,” Bird told NPR. “It was very difficult. We played against each other for a long time. At that time, HIV was known to be a death sentence. But for some reason, when he told me he was going to be fine, I believed him because everything he’s ever said had really come to be true, as far as winning and winning championships. So I felt a little bit better. But still — I was a gamer, I loved game day; I couldn’t wait to get down to the gym. But when I got that call that’s the one time I can honestly say I didn’t feel like playing.”