In this week’s edition, we make up for our customary slacking on the Sports with a Sports Feature that focuses on the legendary Basketball Rivalry between icons Magic Johnson and Larry Bird…A Rivalry which transformed the NBA into what we know it as today.
Much like the ‘Underdogs’ Feature, we’ll post on some of the most significant Rivalries in Sports, Business, Politics, Music, Religion etc from time to time.
Peep the first piece which is an extract from the book: ‘The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James’.
The Magic Johnson & Larry Bird Rivalry
Earvin “Magic” Johnson grew up outside Detroit in Lansing, Mich., one of seven children. His family had moved up from the South in the 1950s to look for jobs in the auto plants. Johnson’s father worked the assembly line night shift at General Motors. To bring in some extra cash, he started a trash hauling business on the side.
Larry Bird grew up less than 400 miles away in tiny, rural French Lick, Ind. He was one of six kids in a poor family that was lower down the economic scale than Johnson’s.
Bird’s mother worked as a waitress and a cook. His father, a Korean War veteran, took odd jobs but was often out of work. At times when he did have a job, he went to the bar and drank his paycheck.
From 1950 to 1980, the NBA had transformed from all-white to majority black, from a stolid half-court game to one played full court, on the run and above the rim. White superstars who could play this style—such as Jerry West, John Havlicek and Pete Maravich—were in short supply.
Beyond the Basketball Court, the aftermath of the Civil rights movement was playing out. It turned out that the most straightforward Civil rights achievements came in passing the laws that ended direct segregation and discrimination in the South, with landmarks such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
To make matters worse, the manufacturing jobs that had provided the foundation for the American working and middle classes were being hacked away, shipped to foreign countries with cheaper labor or made obsolete by technology.
This was the environment Bird and Magic entered when they stepped onto the national stage in 1979. Both, as it happened, emerged from America’s embattled working classes.
Following successful College Basketball careers in which they faced-off against each other, and re-ignited interest in the College Basketball scene, both Magic and Bird transitioned to the NBA.
Transforming The NBA
The model of basketball as big-time entertainment rode in on the backs of these two men, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. They not only redefined the game for the modern television era but did so while unwittingly shouldering much of America’s racial baggage.
The Johnson-Bird rivalry might never have taken on the dimensions it did if they had not ended up playing for the league’s two most storied franchises: the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Not only was there the tradition between the two teams, who had battled for championships throughout the 1960s, but there was the added dimension of East Coast-West Coast enmity.
In essence, the NBA had hit gold. It had two tremendous players who played astounding basketball, elevated the levels their teams played at and also embodied the drama of American race relations, but did nothing to stir up animosity themselves. The two, in fact, had the deepest respect for each other.
However, the bombshell dropped by Magic Kohnson in November 1991, that he had contracted HIV led to his early retirement from the game. Bird, after enduring a Back injury for some time also soon retired.
The Legacy of both men is that they elevated Basketball through their pursuit of individual perfection and unrelenting desire to win…They also remind us that the ‘will to win’ resides equally within us regardless of Race.
Despite their competitiveness, they were also exemplary Sportsmen who showed each other mutual respect on and off the Court.
Check out our documentary of the week on the Rivalry on the Home Page. Hope we’ve made up for slacking on the Sports.
Links & Credits
Magic Johnson Legacy: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/08/sports/sports-of-the-times-magic-johnson-s-legacy.html