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Just before Boston Celtics legend Kevin McHale came into the NBA in 1980, the league was struggling. There were no longer any true rivalries. The hype wasn’t there. The Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers teams with Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were long gone. The league needed an identity.

That identity came after what many consider to be the most-hyped college basketball game ever. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson squared off in the 1979 NCAA tourney finals and carried that hype to the next level. While McHale believed Bird and Magic are responsible for helping the NBA take off, he said they weren’t the only two.

Kevin McHale had a front-row view of the NBA’s resurgence

Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics ties his shoes during warm-ups prior to an NBA game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 18, 1991, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics during warm-ups in 1991 | Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images.

McHale came to the Celtics in the 1980 NBA Draft. Red Auerbach orchestrated one of the biggest trades in team history to land the big man from Minnesota.

Boston held the first pick in the draft and moved it, along with another first-round pick. In return, the Celtics acquired Robert Parish and the third pick in the draft. With the No. 3 pick, they selected McHale. Parish and McHale joined Bird, who had just won Rookie of the Year.

The Celtics won the first of their three championships of the 1980s during McHale’s rookie season. While they were making noise in the Eastern Conference, the Lakers were busy doing the same out West.

Led by a young Johnson running the point despite his 6-foot-9 frame, the Lakers dominated the Western Conference throughout the decade. In fact, in every year of the ’80s, either the Celtics or Lakers appeared in the NBA Finals.

The Bird vs. Magic rivalry continued into the NBA. The Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry returned. The NBA had taken its game to a new level, thanks to Bird and Magic.

Kevin McHale said three people are responsible for the NBA’s growth

Bird and Magic ruled the 1980s, as did the Celtics and Lakers. Bird was the face of Boston, a blue-collar city. Magic fit LA’s Hollywood style perfectly. Together, they brought the NBA to new heights.

McHale, during a 2021 appearance on The Cedric Maxwell Podcast, gave a lot of credit to Bird and Magic. He also said a third person was just as responsible for the league’s growth.

“The league was kind of building around Larry and Magic,” McHale said. “It was always Magic and the Lakers and Larry and the Celtics.

“They built it up, man. David Stern did a great job. God bless his soul. He got us all, everybody, paid. These guys today — we missed out on a lot of those paychecks — but the guys today are doing OK on it.

Every time we played, that was a massive build-up, and rightfully so. Those two guys at the time were the face of the league. I thought David Stern did a great job of using those two guys and their teams and everything to kind of propel the league. I tell everybody there’s three people that propelled the league — Larry, Magic, and David Stern.”

McHale reminisced about how far the NBA’s TV deals have come

Sure, there are others, including Michael Jordan, who helped draw more attention to the NBA. Jordan helped make the NBA a more global game. TV deals grew after Bird and Magic burst onto the scene. McHale had a little fun talking about his early days in the league.

“They got the television ratings going,” McHale said of the trio. “Do you remember, Max, our first year was tape-delayed? We played Houston, and we won in the Finals. You had to stay up until 11 o’clock at night just to watch the game. By the time you got done watching the game, it was 3 in the morning.

“Think about ’84 when we played again in the Finals. How many reporters were sitting around the side of the court? There were hundreds and hundreds of reporters.”

Maxwell interjected and said the interest in Bird vs. Magic spread quickly.

“There were reporters, but there were also fellow players, guys on other teams,” Maxwell said. “I remember Isiah (Thomas) being there and I remember Mark Aguirre being at the game. When you think about players who are there watching you play that final game. I don’t think many people can realize what it’s like to play a seventh game when you know somebody’s going to be crying, and somebody’s going to be laughing.”


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