During the height of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the mid-eighties, it wasn't unusual for one of the Boston players to arrive at practice and comment on the gaudy numbers that Los Angeles guard Earvin "Magic'' Johnson had pinned on some hapless NBA opponent the night before. When Chris Ford (and later Danny Ainge) queried their teammate Larry Bird with, "Did you see what Magic did last night?", Bird would shrug and feign indifference, leaving his teammates to surmise, "I guess Larry doesn't care.''
How wrong they were. If there was one thing that surprised me most in co-authoring When the Game Was Ours with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, it was how envious -- okay, upgrade that to jealous -- these two superstars were of each other. Both checked the box scores each morning to see how their rival had fared, but that was only a small part of their obsessive need to chart their dueling milestones.
Consider the 1980 NBA Finals, when both were rookies and Magic's Los Angeles Lakers were playing the Philadelphia 76ers for the championship. LA's Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle and was ruled out of Game 6 with the Lakers holding a 3-2 lead in the series. Magic, sensing an opportunity, dominated the game, submitting 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists in 47 out of a possible 48 minutes. The well-documented performance was one of the most remarkable in NBA history, yet only a precious few knew what served as one of the key motivating factors for him that day.
Prior to Game 6, Johnson learned he had lost out to Bird in the Rookie of the Year voting. This was not shocking, since Bird was the offensive epicenter of a young Celtics team, while Magic deferred to Kareem in most critical situations. Yet when Magic inquired whether the voting was close, the results were like a direct kick to his gut: Larry had won by an overwhelming 63-3 margin.
Though he concealed his disappointment publicly, Magic was incensed. His anger was further fueled in a conversation with his father, who expressed his outrage over the lopsided vote in a lengthy diatribe over the telephone. "They want to see who the top rookie is?" Magic seethed. "Well, watch what I do in Game 6 against the Sixers.''
Bird did just that from a local eatery in downtown Boston. In 1980, the NBA Finals were shown on tape delay, but Larry's friend arranged for a live feed into the restaurant. As Bird watched his nemesis make play after play, he became more and more agitated. Magic had already won an NCAA championship the previous spring by knocking off Bird and his Indiana State Sycamores, and now Johnson was going to beat him to an NBA title as well. Bird left the restaurant consumed with jealousy. When he arrived home, he told his girlfriend Dinah Mattingly, "Man, I've got to win something.'' According to Larry's mental scoreboard, he was down 2-0 to Magic, and those were unbearable results.
The mental scoreboard of each player was constantly changing. Bird finally won his first championship the following season, in 1981, but the Celtics beat the Houston Rockets in the Finals, not his desired opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers. The chance to play Magic head-to-head was delayed until 1984, with both players acutely aware that the winner would secure the mental upper hand in this increasingly testy individual and team competition.
The Celtics prevailed in 7 games, with the clincher secured on the hallowed parquet floor in Boston Garden, and Bird named the Finals MVP. Because there were no charter flights back then to whisk teams back home that same night, Magic was trapped in a Boston hotel room, forced to watch throngs of Celtics fans celebrating in the streets. His close friends Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre spent the evening with him trying to cheer him up, but Magic was inconsolable. The worst part, he later conceded, was not losing to the Celtics. It was losing to Larry Bird. When Aguirre and Thomas finally left, he flopped on his hotel bed and cried.
As he made his way to the downtown bar where his team was celebrating, Bird grinned at the incessant chants of "Beat LA.'' Once he was safely ensconced among his teammates, Bird slung his arm around guard Quinn Buckner and declared, "I got him. I finally got him.''
There was no need for anyone to ask who Larry was talking about. Every Celtics player in the bar already knew.