Winning Time and the Magic-Bird Rivalry That Saved the NBA

In modern American sports, it seems that two of the five professional leagues have reigned supreme. Baseball, as represented by the American and National Leagues of the MLB, is still often deemed the National Pastime, even though in terms of popularity it has not really been dominant since the 1960s. There is no clear timeline for when this started, but the common consensus that the NFL and its pigskin shenanigans has been the top U.S. sport since at least the time Broadway Joe Namath wagged his finger at the Colts after winning his guarantee in Super Bowl III in 1969.

For decades, the US has been all about the NFL, but in the 1980s it was a different story. by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash

For much of the 1970s, the NFL continued said dominance thanks to the efforts of Mean Joe Greene and the Steelers, Roger Staubach and the Cowboys, and the then-heroics of Bills running back OJ Simpson. The NBA, meanwhile, was something of an upstart, popular in urban areas due to the ubiquity of basketball courts and street-ball but lacking in national recognition. Part of this was due to a lack of drama; in 13 years, one team, the Boston Celtics, had won 11 Championships. While other competitors such as the Los Angeles (formerly Minneapolis) Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers boasted enormous talent, thanks to the efforts of owner Red Auerbach and players such as Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, the Celtics had a near-monopoly on the game.

The cold northeastern city of Boston produced the NBA´s first dynasty Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

Before the Celtics´ rise, which not coincidentally corresponded with the arrival of the stoic giant Russell, the Lakers of Minneapolis were an initial dynasty during the sport´s fledgling 1950s. During the 1960s and early 70s, however, the Lakers won just a single championship, despite the hall-of-fame careers of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and the brief tenure of Russell´s larger-than-life rival Wilt Chamberlain.

By the mid-70s, the Celtics´ chokehold on the game had withered, but overall the league seemed splintered. Flashy would-be superstars like Pete ¨The Pistol¨ Maravich appeared to under-achieve, while the red-and-white blue-colored ABA threatened the NBA, with superstars such as Julius ¨Dr. J¨ Erving proving to be more of a draw. The formerly mighty Lakers, meanwhile, were floundering following the end of Baylor´s and West´s careers, even as they obtained UCLA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) from the Milwaukee Bucks, inarguably the greatest center following the retirement of Russell and Chamberlain.

While baseball was a shadow of its former glory but still popular on the coasts and the NFL was in a golden era, its arguable that the high-flying play of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito for the Boston Bruins or the notorious Broad Street Bully Flyers of Philadelphia, both in the previously under-appreciated NHL, were getting more press. The NBA was in a lost decade, but in 1979 the title game between Indiana and Michigan State was a harbinger for the glories of a new age that saw the league arguably overtake any other sport for the popularity crown.

In the 1970s, hockey and the Bruins were more popular than the NBA and its Celtics by Matthew Fournier on Unsplash

It can be debated that between say, 1980 and the 1996 release of the movie Space Jam, it was basketball that truly was the king, not just in terms of sports, but in the media. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the key players of Indiana State and Michigan State, respectively, became stars unlike almost any other previously, leading to the pronounced superstardom of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O´Neal during the 90s, icons who transcended the game and became multimedia heroes.

The new, much-debated HBO series Winning Time focuses its lens on a transitional period, in which Dr. Jerry Buss, the then-new Lakers owner, along with rookie Magic and eventual coach Pat Riley took a moribund franchise and started a whole new dynasty for the showtime 80s. The glitzy Lakers with their Laker girls cheerleaders clearly defined an era, but they could not have done it without the last true gasp of long-term excellence for the Celtics.

How Magic and Bird, Boston and L.A., Changed Everything

The excitement generated by the 1979 title game was higher than any college hoops game since the days of Alcindor and UCLA head coach John Wooden more than a decade previously. Before Presidents and your mother made their own Final Four brackets, college basketball was just a blip on the radar. This title game between two relatively small universities in the Midwest changed all that, led by two budding stars that could not have been more different; the forever-smiling, uber-charismatic Earvin ¨Magic¨Johnson and the intense yet soft-spoken ¨Hick from French Lick¨ Larry Bird. Ironically, it was not a great game; Michigan led almost the entire time, and while now three decades after each player´s respective retirement the debate rages about who was the better player, Johnson undoubtedly played better during their initial matchup. Yet it was clear to onlookers that each player would blossom into NBA greats, and it was fitting that Johnson and Bird were snatched up by the longtime coastal rival Lakers and Celtics.

As indicated by the Winning Time series, while one could argue either way that Bird or Magic were the better, more complete athlete, the Lakers ultimately had the upper-hand in terms of postseason success. The L.A. squad won 5 championships between 1979 and 1989, compared to the Celtics´ three, and their glamorous showoff image, complete with the aforementioned Laker girls and the suave suits of coach Riley, were ultimately better suited to the gaudy go-go 80s than the working class, blue-collar image transmitted by Bird and his right-hand man Kevin McHale.

The Showtime Lakers became known for the glamorous cheerleaders by Jamar Crable on Unsplash

There was admittedly a racial component to the rivalry; while during the Celtics´ 60s heyday a majority white team was the rule, not the exception, the 1980s marks the last time a NBA team known mostly for its white superstars would have such success. Los Angeles´ triumph on the backs of Magic, Kareem and James Worthy helped represent the mainstream acceptance of virtually all-black teams, while the Celtics were beginning to seem outdated. The overall superiority of the Showtime Lakers also can be seen as a shift in dynamics for the two teams. While both teams have achieved an astounding 17 NBA Final wins throughout their histories (although in the case of the Lakers, 5 of these were in Minneapolis), the Celtics have only won one since 1986. Conversely, the Lakers have won a total of 6 rings since the Showtime days.

The inter-team, cross-coastal rivalry was as intense as any sport or any era before or since, but it was truly the Magic-Bird matchup that was positively transcendent. It is arguable that there has never been such an intense, well-publicized competition among two players in any sport; sure, over the years there has been Ted Williams vs. Joe DiMaggio in the MLB, or in this century Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning in the NFL, but no pair of peers has been as scrutinized or were so frequently pitted in head-to-head championship matchups.

This rivalry of course did wonders for the game, making every Celtics-Lakers match a must-watch and rapidly increasing the visibility of the sport, not just nationally but internationally. This newfound worldwide exposure of a sport that was previously confined to the streets of Philly, Brooklyn or Beantown helped lead to the unprecedented worldwide fame of Michael Jordan, who despite quickly emerging as peerless performer in the mid-80s would not achieve postseason success until after Bird and Magic stepped down.

By the end of the decade, the two teams´ contender statuses seemed to be winding down. Between 1979 and 1988, it was practically an inevitability that one of the two would be the champions, but as the 80s gave way to the 90s, Isaiah Thomas and the ¨Bad Boy¨ Detroit Pistons won back-to-back championships. In 1991, the Lakers faced the Bulls, led by the player who finally eclipsed Bird and Magic´s hold on the game, Michael Jordan; Jordan would win the first of 6 NBA finals, while the Lakers would have to wait until the arrival of then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson and the dynamic duo of Shaq and Kobe Bryant to head back on top.

Behind the scenes, dating as far back as the 1979 NCAA championship game, there has been much speculation about what these two players from the heart of America really thought about this intense fame and the manufactured-seeming bad blood.

Initially, partly fueled by the pre-existing feud between their teams, both Johnson and Bird disliked each other, mostly because of the mere fact that each one of them knew that they were such even-matched opponents. As both teams became perennial contenders in the first half of the 80s, this competition grew even more heated.

The iconic sneakers helped break the ice between two heated rivals Photo by Oscar Gutierrez on Unsplash

Capitalizing on their fame and rivalry, Converse shoes aired a commercial in 1985 featuring both players that ironically helped break the ice and ease the tension between them. Still, the competitive spirit continued on as both teams led the league. By the early 90s, however, both icons suddenly had to leave the game they revitalized and defined, as Jordan and the Bulls became the new dynasty of the last decade of the 20th Century. Bird retired early due to back problems while Johnson had the diagnosis heard around the world in 1991 when he admitted publicly to contracting HIV. The latter has said that following his acknowledgement of his affliction, Bird came to his side showing tremendous solidarity. Today, both maintain a friendship some three decades after they saved a sport and defined the decade as much as Michael Jackson or Ronald Reagan.

Jordan, the Dream Team- and the End of an Era

The Olympics´ belated acceptance of NBA players signaled a new era by Alex Smith on Unsplash

The last hurrah as it were for Bird and Magic was in 1992, when for the first time NBA players competed at the Olympic Games. By that point, MJ and his Chicago squad had already taken over the game, but it was inconceivable to put together a so-called ¨Dream Team¨ of NBA greats without Magic and Bird, so there they were along with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone. These players would become the icons of the ´90s, but their success could not be fathomable without the footwork of their predecessors and the rivalry that gripped a nation.

Bird and Magic will live on as the names of new Conference Finals awards by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

By the turn of the millennium, flashy new stars such as the diminutive Allen Iverson, the previously noted late great Bryant and the soft-spoken but incredibly talented Tim Duncan helped lead an era in which the NBA maintained its popularity yet continued on as a runner-up to the lucrative and all-powerful NFL. It is difficult to imagine the NBA returning to the smashing success of the Bird-Magic era, while the singularity of these two athletes lives on in the newly unleashed Eastern and Conference Finals MVP trophies named after two greats who redefined postseason basketball.

The late icon was the biggest L.A. hero since Magic by Olivier Collet on Unsplash



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