The Bird vs. Magic one has been going on for years. It likely started right after their epic 1979 NCAA national title game. Maybe it began as the two showed signs of saving the NBA and rekindling the Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers rivalry. The debate was alive and well during their peak years as coaches and GMs voiced their opinions. Some were quite interesting.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were recently honored by the NBA
As the NBA postseason heats up, Bird and Magic were again in the spotlight. On Thursday, the league announced there will be new postseason awards named after the two stars. The two played a significant role in taking the NBA up a notch or two in the 1980s. They brought their personal rivalry into the league which helped restart the Celtics/Lakers rivalry that dominated the decade.
“Larry and Magic defining the ’80s and having that bicoastal relationship representing their conferences like no other two people have,” said Christopher Arena, the NBA’s head of on-court and brand partnerships, per ESPN. “We just thought it was a perfect symmetry as you percolate up to the NBA Finals and you potentially win that Bill Russell Trophy, and obviously the winningest player we have in our history.”
One standout player from the Eastern Conference Finals will be named the Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP. In the Western Conference, the award is named after Magic.
The league also announced two other postseason awards will be handed out. The Eastern Conference championship trophy will be named after Cousy, a former Celtics point guard. The Western Conference champion will get the Oscar Robertson trophy.
Magic and Bird were both three-time MVPs. They combined for eight championships, with Magic owning five. Both are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and are considered by many as top-10 players of all time.
The Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson debate hit its peak during their first NBA Finals meeting in 1984
The Bird vs. Magic rivalry took a giant leap in 1984 when the two stars faced off against each other for the first of three times in the NBA Finals. The great debate also kicked up a notch with coaches and general managers weighing in with their thoughts on the two future Hall of Famers.
Bill Fitch, then the Houston Rockets coach who had coached Bird in Boston in the early part of the decade, said he didn’t know of any player better than Bird. He named two, outside of Bird, who were better players than Johnson.
“They’re both great players, but it’s harder to find a Larry Bird than a Magic Johnson,” said Fitch to Sports Illustrated in 1984. “It’s tougher to do the things Larry does at forward than it is to do what Magic does at guard. I still say (Jerry) West and Robertson were better than Magic, but there aren’t many players better than Bird.”
West, then the general manager of the Lakers, even seemed to lean toward Bird.
“Bird whets your appetite for the game,” he said. “He’s such a great passer, and he doesn’t make mistakes. Magic handles the ball more, and he makes more mistakes because he has it more. We’re all fond of different kinds of books, different types of movies. The one that best approaches the kind of game I would recommend a young player model himself after is Bird. He’s a genius on the basketball floor.”
If the Lakers and Celtics traded Bird straight up for Magic, one unnamed head coach at the time, said there would be a clear winner.
“If Bird played for the Lakers,” said the coach, who worked in both conferences, “they would be 75-7 (every year).”
James Worthy discusses the impact Bird and Magic had on the NBA
For the record, Bird put Magic ahead of himself in a 1992 Sports Illustrated article.
“I have always looked up to him because he knows how to win,” Bird said of Johnson. “I’ve always put him a step ahead of me. But we think the same way about basketball.”
In December, James Worthy, a former teammate of Johnson’s, spoke about the impact both players had on the league.
“When Bird and Magic came into the league,” Worthy said, via All Basketball TV, “Commissioner (David) Stern realized that was a magical rivalry right there. Bird on the East Coast, blue collar, versus Magic on the West Coast, which was showtime, fastbreak. People ddn’t really accept that style yet.
“Commissioner Stern saw that. He also consummated a huge television contract with CBS at the time. The NBA started to emerge, and it had these two players — Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
“My rookie year, we played the Celtics four times in preseason. They were like playoff games. I didn’t really understand it. It was crazy. It felt like a boxing match in October. That’s when it started to build up again.”
While there’s no clear cut answer on the better player between the two. Johnson had the perfect response before the 1984 NBA Finals.
“Me and Larry’s just different from everybody else,” he said.