For Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the ‘Real Dislike’ for Each Other Began in 1982
The rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson began in 1979. Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores faced Magic’s Michigan State Spartans in the 1979 NCAA men’s championship game. It carried over into the NBA the following season when Bird headed to the Boston Celtics and Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers. Their entrance into the league rekindled a rivalry between the two teams that peaked in the 1960s.
The Bird vs. Magic and Celtics vs. Lakers rivalries played out through the 1980s. It was two competitive individuals leading a pair of competitive teams that had no love for each other. Although the NBA rivalry began during the 1979-80 season, the “real dislike” for each other didn’t occur until 1982.
Is the Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson rivalry the best ever?
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are often credited for getting the NBA to where it is today. Back in the 1970s, the league had an image problem. When the two came into the league, that quickly changed.
All eyes were on the two stars. Bird made the Boston Celtics relevant again. In the year before he got to Boston, the Celtics won 29 games. In his first NBA season, Bird convincingly won Rookie of the Year honors and led the Celtics to an NBA-best 61 victories.
Johnson helped guide the Los Angeles Lakers to the first of their five championships in the decade. He was named MVP of the 19080 NBA Finals. Both rookies made instant impacts and added to their legacy each year thereafter.
In each year of the decade, either Bird’s Celtics or Magic’s Lakers reached the championship. They faced each other three times in the NBA Finals. Bird and the Celtics won the first meeting in 1984, rallying to pull out the series in seven games.
The following year, the Lakers got their revenge. LA became the first visiting team to clinch a championship on Boston’s home court. The Lakers bounced back and knocked off the Celtics in six games. In 1987, they met for the third time, with the Lakers coming out on top.
With Bird and Magic in the spotlight, the NBA grew. TV deals soared. The game became a global one.
The heated rivalry didn’t become a hated one until 1982, according to Magic
Both Bird and Magic admitted that during their playing days, each one had his eye on the other. They each checked out the other’s box scores nightly. They were obsessed with winning and knew they’d eventually face each other for a championship.
The teams never liked each other. The battles were always heated. There was no love lost when the Celtics and Lakers met.
Bird and Magic had been going at each other for a couple of years before they faced off in the 1982 All-Star Game. There, Bird was named MVP after scoring 12 of the final 15 points in a 120-118 East win.
According to Jackie MacMullan’s book When the Game Was Ours. Bird barely acknowledged Magic during All-Star Weekend. MacMullan wrote that Bird’s focus “was on dismantling the Lakers, not fraternizing with them.”
Magic joked with plenty of players on the East squad, but when Bird walked down the corridor, there was a silent nod and nothing else.
“At that point, there was a real dislike on both sides,” Magic said, per MacMullan.
Magic became annoyed with all the attention Bird received. He admitted he was frustrated because Bird had the green light to shoot with the Celtics, while Magic was more of a playmaker.
“Did I resent the attention he got for that?” Magic asked. “Of course. Shoot, I had some game, too. But people don’t count assists the way they do points. There was nothing I could do about it.”