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The rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson is on the shortlist for the greatest in all sports.

For over a decade, Bird and Magic went head-to-head on the biggest stages of the game. Despite the rivalry between them and their respective teams, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, the two superstars formed a friendship and mutual respect off the court.

However, their rivalry changed forever on November 7, 1991, when Johnson announced he had tested positive for HIV. The news hit many people hard, but few were as crushed as Bird.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had a strong bond on and off the court

In 1979, Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the NCAA National Championship. The two college stars became fierce foes upon entering the NBA, thanks to the already-historic rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics.

The two played their first NBA game against each other on December 28, 1979, with Magic and the Lakers earning the win. They met for the final time on February 15, 1991, with Bird and the Celtics fittingly getting the last laugh. In total, the pair met 18 times in the regular season, with Johnson winning 11 of the competitive matchups.

Beyond the regular season, Bird and Magic met in three NBA Finals, 19 games total. Larry Legend was victorious in 1984, earning Finals MVP. But ’85 and ’87 belonged to Magic, who won Finals MVP in ’87.

At first, the two Hall of Famers were nothing more than competing stars. However, the two would become good friends after filming a Converse commercial and enjoying lunch together at Bird’s home in French Lick, Indiana.

“Now we had never really broken bread, so I went up to his house, and his mother was bringing out all the food,” Johnson explained on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “And finally, she said to Larry, ‘Did you tell him yet?’ And Larry said, ‘No, you tell him.’ She turned around and said, ‘Magic, you’re my favorite basketball player.’ That broke the ice, and we became friends right after that, and we’re great friends even today, and I love the man.”

The news of Johnson’s HIV diagnosis devastated Bird

Both Bird and Magic saw their careers end prematurely. For the Celtics great, a debilitating back injury forced him to retire after the 1991-92 season. As for Johnson, the star point guard walked away at only 32 years old upon testing positive for HIV (he eventually returned for 32 games in 1995-96).

Rick Fox, a rookie during Bird’s final season in Boston, vividly remembers the star’s reaction to Johnson’s announcement (h/t: The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz).

“As a rookie that year, I came into the league and my opportunity was to, after practice, shoot around with Larry. Rebound for him, try to outshoot him, play him one-on-one. And the day Magic announced in that press conference his status with HIV, Larry wasn’t around after practice. I couldn’t find him or figure out where he was. So I went to look for him and walked into the training room, and he was on the training table crying. And this was only a few weeks into knowing Larry Bird but it was odd to see. And I looked up at the TV and I could see the press conference going on.”

Rick Fox

“I could just see how that impacted him at that moment, and I really, for the first time, realized how competitive the two were on the court, but how much they meant to each other for it to hit him in that way,” Fox further explained. “And it impacted all of us. But just to see the human side of Larry Bird, which was rare to see because he was so stoic and so ‘shut off’ on the floor.”

Larry Bird once shared how Magic Johnson’s announcement impacted him

Teammates like Fox have shared how the news impacted Bird. But Larry himself once spoke to how hurt he was at that moment.

“Magic’s agent [Lon Rosen] calls me and tells me about the announcement ahead of time,” Bird told ESPN in 2012. “I said, ‘I gotta talk to him right now.’ And Lon goes, ‘I don’t know. He’s going through all this stuff right now.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care. I gotta talk to him right now.’ And he put me through to him. Man, that really hit me. It really hit me hard.”

The night after the announcement, Bird and the Celtics hosted the Atlanta Hawks. The distracted star, already dealing with severe back pain, contributed just 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting in the five-point loss.

“That was the first time in my life I played in a game that I didn’t want to play,” Bird said. “I didn’t have anything that night.”

Fortunately, Bird and Johnson would be on the court together again, though not as foes. The Hall of Famers suited up for Team USA in the 1992 Summer Olympics as part of the famous “Dream Team.” Now, as Johnson has successfully lived with HIV and shaken the stigma originally tied to it, he and Bird have remained close throughout their post-playing days.

A great rivalry may have ended prematurely, but an incredible friendship has soldiered on.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference


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