The Larry Bird and Magic Johnson Rivalry Had Everything but Handshakes: ‘There Was a Hate Factor There’

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson remain two of the game’s greatest players. Their intense rivalry guided the NBA’s rise to popularity in the 1980s. The fierce competition between Bird and Magic also led to the lack of handshakes fueled by hatred.

Larry Bird shared an intense legendary rivalry with Magic Johnson

Bird and Johnson initially sparked their rivalry through an unforgettable matchup in the 1979 NCAA national championship game.

The latter got the edge leading Michigan State to claim the NCAA title over Indiana State. It set the stage for the game’s greatest rivalry as the two anchored the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers’ success. 

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 coming out on top twice. The intense rivalry also featured plenty of hatred, including the lack of one key element.

The Larry Bird and Magic Johnson rivalry had everything but handshakes: ‘There was a hate factor there’

Throughout the early years of the rivalry between Bird and Magic, it featured a heavy dose of hatred.

Although the two stars never outwardly expressed that strong sentiment, the two privately held that shared feeling. It led to more intense matchups, with the two facing off in the Finals three times over four years in the 1980s.

The gravity of each game left a strong imprint of emotions on each Hall of Famer. During an interview with Mitch Lawrence of the Daily News in November 2009, Bird admitted that he never shook hands with Johnson or any Lakers players before or after a contest.

“I didn’t shake hands when we lost to the Lakers,” recalled Bird, now the Pacers’ president. “I never shook hands. When the Lakers and Celtics played, we didn’t shake hands. When I first got to play against Magic, there was a hate factor there. It was more than just dislike.”

The Lakers and Celtics were the gold standards throughout much of the 1980s. Johnson understood the importance of the rivalry that became shaped by their matchups in the Finals.

“If Larry and I didn’t meet a few times in the Finals, the NBA wouldn’t be the same,” Johnson said. “But we met so many times. And then we both won in the Finals and that helped.”

In today’s game, NBA players share strong friendships with other players on opposing teams. Meanwhile, the lack of camaraderie between Bird and Johnson only further fueled the magnitude of rivalry that played a pivotal part in transforming the NBA into what it’s become.

Legendary rivalry lifted the NBA to greater heights

Bird and Johnson held a mutual hatred through a significant stretch of their respective careers, but that never overshadowed the tremendous shared respect.

The two Hall of Famers anchored the NBA’s rise to popularity in the 1980s, leading them to develop a strong, lasting relationship that goes well beyond the basketball court. However, any notion of a friendship went out the window when the two competed.

The rivalry served as a guiding point that pushed them to reach greater heights with their craft while guiding their teams to sustained success. They served as each other’s greatest source of motivation.

“I had to have him there for some reason,” Bird said via NBA.com. “Like a crutch, somebody I could compare myself to.”

Bird and Johnson needed each other, and the league only stood to gain from their legendary rivalry.

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