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Magic Johnson and Larry Bird will be forever linked. Their meeting in the epic 1979 NCAA title game was the beginning of a long-lasting rivalry that helped spring the NBA to a new level.

Because Bird played for the Boston Celtics and Johnson played for the Los Angeles Lakers, that rivalry intensified. The teams rekindled their rivalry from the 1960s. Not only did it become the Celtics vs. the Lakers, but it turned into Bird. vs. Magic. It lasted 13 years in the NBA, and that rivalry went from hatred to friendship. Magic recently admitted to hating Bird, but he said he never felt that way about the great Michael Jordan.

Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird was must-see basketball

Larry Bird, left, and Magic Johnson accept the Lifetime Achievement Awards on stage during the 2019 NBA Awards presented by Kia on TNT at Barker Hangar on June 24, 2019, in Santa Monica, California. | Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Turner Sports.

Everything fell into place for the NBA after Johnson’s Michigan State defeated Bird’s Indiana State in the ’79 championship game. Magic Johnson was drafted by the Lakers with the No. 1 pick and Bird came into the league after signing the richest rookie deal for an NBA player. The Celtics drafted Bird the previous year as a junior, but he elected to play out his senior year.

The two changed the landscape of the NBA. In each year of the ’80s, either the Celtics or Lakers reached the NBA Finals. They squared off against each other three times in the championship round during the decade. Magic and the Lakers won twice, claiming victories in 1985 and 1987. Bird’s Celtics won in 1984.

The rivalry was must-see basketball. The NBA couldn’t get enough of their matchups, so the league scheduled them for multiple preseason meetings. Magic and Bird helped the NBA grow. TV deals exploded. The NBA became a global game.

Magic and Bird began as opponents. Then they became hated rivals.

“Before, we wouldn’t say nothing,” Magic said to Sports Illustrated in 1991. “We’d just be glaring at each other, wouldn’t even shake each other’s hands.

“But now we’ll talk a little bit on the court: ‘I got you that time,’ ‘What you doing on me?’ ‘You can’t stop this,’ ‘You’re too big to be out here.’ Little stuff like that. It’s fun.” 

Johnson hated Bird but could never hate Jordan

During a recent appearance on the Dan Patrick Show, Magic reminisced about his days playing against Bird. He said he didn’t realize the impact the two had on the league until after they played.

“I don’t think we understood,” Johnson said. “When they told us (the ’79 NCAA title game) had been and still is the number-one watched game in college basketball, we knew it was special. They were undefeated and (Bird) was college basketball player of the year, and I was runner-up to that. I think it was the first time that the two best players met for the national championship.”

Magic talked about hating Bird right off the bat.

“In the early beginning, we hated each other,” Johnson admitted. “We had to because he ended up on the Celtics and I ended up on the Lakers. You knew that there was going to be hatred there because the Celtics had beaten the Lakers, what, seven straight times.

“We met, and they beat us in ’84, so I had to hate him,” he continued. “I had to hate the Celtics. When we shot that commercial, I believe in ’87, at his house in French Lick, Indiana, that’s when we became friends.”

In the late ’80s, Bird, Magic, and Jordan became the faces of the league. Patrick asked Magic if he ever hated Jordan like he hated Bird.

“I didn’t get a chance to hate Michael because of the fact we played one time (1991 Finals),” he said. “I think because the relationship with Larry happened in college, then it carried over to the two most storied franchises in NBA history, and we played so many times. That’s why we hated each other.

“Michael, I think the dislike might’ve come with the Bulls and the Celtics because they’re in the Eastern Conference, and they played so many times. We only really played that one time in ’91 when they beat us. I didn’t have a chance to hate Michael.”


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