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The battles between Larry Bird‘s Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson‘s Los Angeles Lakers also gave way to an individual rivalry that defined the NBA in the 1980s. Even when Bird became hampered by a crippling back injury at the start of the 1990s, the two legends were meant to ride into the sunset together. Only, it never happened.

Johnson stunned the world by announcing his retirement from the NBA in November 1991. A despondent Bird still could not process Magic’s departure from the game one week later, refusing all questions regarding the Laker legend.

Magic Johnson abruptly retired from basketball in November 1991 after announcing he contracted HIV

Whereas Larry Bird prepared for what would be his final NBA season in the fall of 1991, Magic Johnson and the Lakers still had some Showtime left in the tank.

The Lakers no longer had the dynastic feel they carried throughout the 1980s, but Johnson still helped steer the Purple and Gold to the 1991 NBA Finals. Although LA came up short against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the Lakers appeared to still have some “Magic,” pun intended.

But LA’s contender status came to a sudden end in November 1991.

Johnson announced he contracted HIV and would retire from basketball immediately. The news sent shockwaves throughout the entire NBA and the world at large.

Magic’s abrupt retirement impacted Bird in particular. The two had become extremely close through the years, with fierce competitiveness giving way to mutual admiration. Larry Legend could hardly function in the aftermath of the news and had a hard time channeling his energy into basketball in the Celtics’ first game after the announcement.

It took the Hick from French Lick some time to come to grips with his friend leaving the game for good.

Bird still couldn’t find the words one week after Magic’s retirement

Reporters yearned to get Bird’s reaction to Magic’s retirement after a Nov. 15 matchup between the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. Larry Legend had nothing to offer.

Over a week had passed since Johnson held his earth-shattering press conference. Yet Bird remained at a total loss for words (h/t Washington Post) after the game:

“I can’t … I don’t want to talk about that … it’ll have to be later.”

–Larry Bird (1991), via the Washington Post

The media naturally wanted some kind of soundbite. But anyone who understood the Bird-Magic relationship knew the Celtics great needed space. That included Hall of Fame teammate Kevin McHale.

“It’s affected people on different levels,” McHale said, via the Washington Post. “I wasn’t really that close to Magic and I was really affected. Just think of how it must be for L.B.”

However, Bird’s silence would eventually give way to heartfelt appreciation. Doctor’s orders could not prevent Bird from traveling to LA for Magic’s jersey retirement ceremony in February 1992.

In a more fitting conclusion to the rivalry, Bird and Magic shared curtain calls as members of the 1992 Dream Team in Barcelona.

Bird and Magic won a gold medal together in the 1992 Olympic Games

NBA superstars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson answers questions from the media after practice for the men's basketball competition at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain | Icon Sportswire

Michael Jordan’s Unmatched Competitive Drive Made Him Selfishly Upset When Magic Johnson Announced His Retirement: ‘I Felt I Was Being Cheated’

Larry Bird joined Magic Johnson at the end of the 1991-92 season, ending a storied 13-year career with the Celtics. But the two legends had one more moment to share on the hardwood.

Bird and Magic were members of the esteemed Dream Team that won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Both men played somewhat sparingly. Bird and Johnson both averaged 18 minutes, with Larry Legend appearing in all eight games and Magic registering six appearances.

Still, the Dream Team provided an appropriate capper for Bird and Magic, who remain close to this day.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.