HBO Sports Documentaries has produced yet another must-see remembrance on the times and environment that MBA stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson traversed in their time as worldwide figures.
The documentary highlights the unfortunate fact that much of America focused on our differences instead of our commonalities. Racism and the great divide in White and Black America takes center stage in this basketball historical recountance.
The story illustrates how two simple basketball players got caught up in the East coast versus West coast, the Boston versus Los Angeles NBA history, White versus Black, and Showtime versus blue collar basketball.
Bird and Magic unknowingly were thrust into the position of revitalizing the NBA in the 1980s and smack dab in middle of this country’s serious race problem.
After the golden age of the 1960 and 1970s, the 1980s had some in America thinking that the league was too Black. African Americans were dominating the league and too many in America did not like that. The NBA was losing sponsors and had no prime time television contracts and was being scorned by the media, too. Then here comes Magic and Bird with their I-just-want-to- play-basketball-and-win attitudes. All the racial and cultural differences that came to the national stage and tried to separate them were far from what either one of them was thinking or projecting.
When Magic came to Los Angeles he said in his initial press conference, “I just want to win.”
When Bird came to Boston, in his initial press conference, he relayed that all he wanted to do was win, too.
Thrust together by fate, Magic’s Michigan State team defeating Bird’s Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, which is still the top rated televised NCAA Final ever.
In victory Magic said, “I knew it was gonna haunt him (Bird) forever ’cause we were going to see each other a lot.”
Bird said, “It still hurts today. I wanted to win that game so bad. We had won 33 straight and losing was not in our plans.”
HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg did what he’s been doing — producing documentaries that flow deep into the players and the times in which they played their game.
I coached at Johnson’s Basketball Camps for ten years and I got to know him and see his preparation for winning. At the camps we sat around and talked about his and Bird’s battles and how much he disliked the Celtics.
When Bird and the Celtics beat Johnson’s Lakers in their first meeting in the NBA, the next year at the camp Johnson was not as jovial and happy. There was an edge to him even then.
I’m not saying he did not work with the kids and give all he had to teach the campers the fundamentals of basketball. But in talks with the coaches at the camp and in down time he was still mad that the Lakers had lost to Boston and Bird.
“That was a long year for me,” Johnson told me. “I could not put that loss out my mind.”
The beauty of the Bird-Magic feud was that they both could dominate a game while only taking 15 shots, but dishing 10 assist and grabbing close to 10 rebounds. Their attitude of passing took the NBA community by storm and uplifted the entire league.
The HBO special delves into Magic’s womanizing as he took on the Los Angeles Hollywood scene. It also covers the suicide of Bird’s father, Joe Bird, and how that worked on his personality.
I knew that Bird had a bad back, but the extent of his terrible back injury came to light. True to the “Hick from French Lick” persona, he hurt his back shoveling gravel while building a driveway at his mother’s home.
The documentary was painfully honest in dealing with Bird’s father’s death and Johnson’s revelation that he had HIV in 1991 and had to retire.
But the story was not over as both Bird and Johnson in the twilight of their careers played together in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics where they made history as the first NBA players to play in the Olympics. Their participation in the games led to the world bonding with the NBA and today’s league that has multiple foreign players in it.
Bird and Magic are like sun and snow, completely opposite, but as Bird said, “We got this connection that’s never going to be broken. I mean, right to our graves. They’ll be talking about this a hundred years from now.”
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.