When The Game Was ‘Theirs’
Dissecting Magic and Larry’s new book.
by Todd Spehr
Larry and Magic. Magic and Larry. Just go ahead and try to think of one without the other. Separated only by skin color and personality, bonded by, among other things, the need for team play and a most unhealthy appetite for winning, Bird and Johnson are historically entwined — basketball kindred spirits of the highest order.
Appropriately, some 30 years after ambushing the national conscience, 25 years after trading haymakers in the ’84 Finals, and – can it be? – 17 years since they last entered an NBA season together, Larry and Magic have teamed up with Jackie MacMullan to compile a book – When The Game Was Ours – that’s layered with envy, unapologetic openness, love, and most noticeably, respect.
Right off the bat, the title couldn’t be more fitting. The game, for an extended period during an insanely competitive era, really was theirs.
If the NBA landscape of the 80s were thought of in terms of a tennis match, Bird and Johnson took turns returning volleys, or in this case, league dominance. That’s captured in the book. It was a rivalry that was unique in that these two never guarded each other, yet they shared a mutual obsession for outdoing the other; boxscores were digested the morning after, each seeking the lines of the other, the only time either was distracted from the standings. Really, they were so alike, so gifted, and so bent on making the game a celebration of team, that when Bird or Magic openly admits the fear one had for the other, it’s probably because they were afraid of themselves. That “obsession” is captured in the book. The fact Johnson and Bird were above all that plagued the League when they entered – race issues, drug problems, an uncaring and disinterested public, me-first stars – is perhaps their most enduring legacy as a duo. That’s captured in the book. And mutual respect. Oh yeah, that is captured in the book.
The contents of When The Game Was Ours was perhaps sacrificed just a tad when excerpts were made public in the lead up to its recent launch, excerpts that revealed Magic’s candid thoughts on his relationship with Isiah Thomas, the ’85 All-Star “freeze,” and Thomas’ exclusion from the Dream Team. Honestly, the book is so much more – set out geographically, tying together a relationship that ironically started and ended seeing Bird and Johnson as teammates.
Both Larry and Magic dealt with jealous teammates when they were in college. Magic endured the wrath of getting Paul Westhead canned. A socially awkward and uncomfortable Bird, shamed by a roommate who had more clothes in his closet and daunted by a student body that was 180 degrees from him, bolted from Indiana University and potentially threw away his chance for a better life. Magic contracted a virus that many felt would lead to an untimely death. Bird’s dad felt worthless and killed himself. Both dabbled with failure; both enjoyed delirious highs at the profession they were born to do. If you think Bird and Magic were pictures of perfection then this book reveals the contrary; the oft-forgotten fact that these two were hardened, shaped by pivotal and sometimes cruel instances, won’t be lost on the reader.
If I were to draw anything definitive from the book, it’s that the rivalry’s foundation was forever altering: Curiosity, hate, envy, unhealthy competitiveness, acknowledgment of greatness, appreciation for the other, pride, love, and now, eternal respect. Both Magic and Bird are acutely aware of their status and their link – their affection for the other goes beyond that of an opposing player, even that of former teammates, for they nurtured a lagging league, revived it, and left it, fittingly, when the game was exceedingly healthy. That alone makes this book worth reading.
Props to MacMullan for not only having these two share their story on such a platform, but to the originality of the idea. I openly wondered if these two and their powers had been sufficiently discussed, but perhaps fittingly, the only thing left to do was to tell their story. Together. Is there any other way?