During the 1980s, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers took center stage in the NBA. There wasn’t a year in the decade when either the Celtics or Lakers didn’t reach the NBA Finals. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson captured the hearts of NBA fans. Magic vs. Bird was must-see TV.
The two came into the NBA together after sweeping the nation during their epic battle in the 1979 NCAA championship game. Since then, Magic vs. Bird was always a hot topic. Who was better? Who was the more complete player? While he didn’t specifically answer those questions, Julius Erving, the Philadelphia 76ers legend, summed up Johnson perfectly with one sentence back then.
Magic vs. Bird saved the NBA
The NBA got a significant boost when Johnson and Bird came into the NBA for the 1979-80 season. Johnson was the No. 1 overall pick by the Lakers in 1979. Bird had been selected by the Celtics the previous year but elected to play out his senior year at Indiana State. The Celtics held his rights for a year, and he signed the richest deal for a rookie just before the ’79 draft.
In the 1970s, drugs ran rampant in the NBA. Former Utah Jazz general manager Frank Layden pointed that out when his team traded for Bernard King, who played just 19 games with the Jazz before undergoing treatment for substance abuse.
“There is not a team in the league you can confidently say does not have a drug problem,” Layden told The Washington Post in 1980. “Every team could benefit from a rehabilitation program. I had two (drug) cases out of 11 players last year. We need a place to send these people (for help).”
When Magic and Bird burst onto the scene, the league’s image changed. Hype was there. Television deals exploded. Marketing expanded.
The duo revived the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry from the Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain days. They also continued their personal rivalry that saw them square off in the championship round three times.
Julius Erving had the perfect way to sum up Magic
Throughout the 1980s, all eyes were on Magic and Bird. They constantly drew comparisons with their leadership and their success on the court.
Bird was a three-time champion and won three straight MVPs from 1984 to 1986. Magic also was a three-time MVP, but he captured five championships. Both were elite passers. Bird was the better scorer. Magic, a 6-foot-9 point guard, was a matchup nightmare.
Ask 20 people who they’d rather have between the two, the votes would probably be split right down the middle. Bill Fitch, who coached Bird during his first title in 1981, said he’d prefer Bird as a clutch player.
“If the game is on the line and my life depended on it,” Fitch told Sports Illustrated in 1984, “I’d say give it to Bird.”
Former Phoenix Suns coach John McLeod leaned toward Magic.
“Magic is a guard who can defend both the point guard and the center,” he said. “He can take the big forward and the small forward, too. And there ain’t many of those. You talk about range.”
While he didn’t lean in favor of one player, Erving also gave his input. He played against both during his 16-year Hall of Fame career. Erving said Magic is the only player in the league who could do less and still have the greatest impact on the floor.
“He’s the only player who can take only three shots and still dominate a game,” Erving told Sports Illustrated.
Erving would know. He saw Magic and the Lakers beat him in the NBA Finals in 1980 and 1982 before Erving and the Sixers got their revenge in ’83.