The Greatest Story Ever Told

by February 10, 2011

The NBA’s two most decorated franchises, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, form what is arguably the greatest rivalry in sports. With the two teams set to meet tonight, we figured now would be a good time to revisit this feature from SLAM 116.–Ed.

by Michael Bradley

College basketball history dates back to the early 1900s, when guys in ridiculous shorts tried to put a laced ball into the basket and then headed to midcourt for a jump ball after every successful two-pointer. It continued through the Iba, Rupp and Wooden eras as something of a regional concern, a growing phenomenon with peaks and valleys of popularity. Ebbs and flows. But modern college ball has a definitive starting point: The opening tip of the 1979 National Championship game, when Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores locked horns with Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans.

Thus began the Madness, and the game has exploded since. Or at least the Tournament has. Whatever. It’s all because of Magic and Bird. Bird and Magic. The two players turned a nation on to college hoops and then saved the NBA. That’s right, saved the thing.

See, you don’t remember what it was like. The ’70s were a dark time for the L. The Celtics had faded. The Lakers had lost it. Portland, Washington, Seattle, Golden State. They were crowned champions, but they weren’t enough to attract any real attention. The NBA was a big mess of bad hair, no defense, off-court shenanigans and apathetic fans. The Finals weren’t even always shown in prime time, and many Playoff games were tape-delayed. As if anybody cared.

By the time Magic and Bird finished the ’80s, everybody cared about pro ball. The two players turned their personal rivalry into a drama that compelled hoop fans throughout the country and brought new guests to the party. Their two games each season were absolute must-see TV, and even the two players understood how much they meant. “When the new schedule would come out each year, I’d grab it and circle the Boston games,” Magic said once. “To me it was The Two and the other 80.”

Bird anticipated those matchups but was on the Magic Watch the rest of the season, too. “The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did,” Bird famously said. “I didn’t care about anything else.”

On the surface, the whole thing didn’t make sense. Bird was a white farm boy from the Indiana hinterlands. Magic was an African-American city kid from Michigan. They had as much in common as Carrie Underwood and Kanye West. But it worked, because charisma doesn’t know money or color or background. If you have it, you have it. Bird and Magic had it. When they played, even though their teams featured plenty of Hall of Fame talent, you watched them first. They rarely guarded each other, but they were clearly the focal points of their teams. Magic at the point, pounding the ball and making no-look passes. Bird on the wing or underneath, hitting every kind of shot and making clutch plays look routine. These guys played the best basketball anyone had seen, period. And when they squared off three times in NBA Finals series, it was as if the gods had decided to convene a pickup game.

The first Finals meeting was an epic struggle, a seven-game war in ’84 that featured trash talk, psychobabble, the “junior, junior hook shot,” a sweltering gym and a Boston title. Bird was the MVP, just as he had been during the regular season. Fans were delirious. Not since Russell and Chamberlain hooked up was basketball this riveting.

They staged an encore in ’85 and again in ’87, both Laker wins. Showtime versus the Celtic Mystique. East against West. If you locked a gang of Hollywood screenwriters behind closed doors for a decade, they couldn’t have created a purer, more entertaining basketball story. Bird and Magic brought the game to a level that went beyond the bouncing ball. They gave it personality and drama, setting the stage for today’s “story behind the story” approach to covering sports. The difference was, for all the subplots and juicy sidebars, this was about the ball. The two men answered the questions and provided the sound bytes, but the media did not make their legacies. Those came from what they did on the court. Imagine, in one decade, two players who are among the five best to ever play the game, dominating the landscape. Sure, the Celtics usually had to get through Philly to reach L.A., and Houston occasionally impeded the Lakers’ progress. Those were nuisances, and, truth be told, everybody always wanted to see the Lakers and Celtics play for it all, because that meant the top actors would be on the biggest stage.

What had begun in college, in what remains the highest-rated championship game in history, continued through a remarkable decade of NBA history. Bird and Magic saved the League. Their story is one of sport’s greatest legends. And it won’t be duplicated.