The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics added an iconic chapter to the legendary rivalry in the 1980s led by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The many memorable matchups led to intense hatred cultivating between the fan bases. Former Lakers great Kobe Bryant was a part of that, but he didn’t let it stop him from praising the former Celtics legend.
Lakers and Celtics dominated the 1980s
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s arrival to the Celtics and Lakers changed the course of the NBA.
Their intense rivalry lifted the league from a devastating fate to heights of popularity it hadn’t reached before. In the 1980s, Bird and Johnson combined to win eight NBA titles in 13 Finals appearances. The Hall of Famers faced off three times on the grandest stage, with Johnson getting the edge twice.
The fierce competition led to strong hatred between both fan bases that featured Kobe Bryant developing disdain toward Bird, but he didn’t allow that to sway him from praising the former Celtics great.
Kobe Bryant’s hatred of the Celtics couldn’t stop him from praising Larry Bird
Although Kobe Bryant spent much of his childhood overseas in Italy and his teenage years throughout high school in Philadelphia, he garnered a strong affinity for the Lakers.
His admiration for the Showtime Era team led by Magic Johnson created a strong internal hatred toward Bird and the Celtics. All that aside, it didn’t push Bryant away from naming the French Lick native as one of the game’s five greatest players alongside Johnson, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during an ESPN radio interview in June 2013.
The former Lakers star then ventured the extra mile to single out Bird’s greatness that he believed was overlooked.
“I will say, as the years go on, people really forgot how great Larry Bird was,” Bryant said via NESN. “He was ridiculous. And I grew up in L.A. — just like everyone else here — hating his guts. Dude — the guy was just money.”
The hatred for the Celtics aside, many Lakers fans would express similar sentiment regarding Bird. Throughout much of his career, the Hall of Famer dominated the league as Boston’s guiding force, leading the franchise to sustained success.
Bird wasn’t a physically imposing player by any means, but his all-around game coupled with his basketball IQ and performance in clutch moments made him an all-time great. Regardless of the fandom, his talent was undeniable, and Bryant clearly recognized that.
Larry Bird admired Kobe’s dedication to the game
The tremendous respect was mutual between the two all-time greats.
Bird remained a prevalent figure around the game well into retirement, taking a head coaching gig with the Indiana Pacers for a few seasons. He then moved to a front-office role within the organization, where he garnered a strong appreciation for the Lakers star.
During an interview on “The B.S. Report” with Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons in 2012, Bird voiced that he would have liked to play a season with Bryant.
“Well, probably Kobe, because of the fact that … well, of course he wouldn’t have been shooting as much as he does now … but his desire to win, his dedication, to always get better, uh, and he’s just, he’s just tough,” Bird said via ESPN. “He’s just a tough cat.
“But, if you want to have fun, like I did with Bill Walton, play with LeBron. It would have probably been more fun to play with LeBron, but if you want to win and win and win, it’s Kobe. Not that LeBron’s not a winner, just that [Kobe’s] mindset is to go into every practice, every game, to get better.”
Bryant played with the mentality and approach to the game that Bird greatly admired.