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Starting with their days in college, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had a fierce rivalry. While the two men respected each other and ultimately formed a strong friendship, there was no time for pleasantries on the hardwood. Both players were setting out to win, and no one, let alone a long-time foe, was going to get in the way.

As you might expect, both Bird and Johnson came to know each other’s game over the years. That reality became abundantly clear in 1987. In a piece discussing Larry Legend’s weaknesses, Magic offered a perfect assessment of the forward’s shortcomings.

Magic Johnson quipped that Larry Bird’s only weakness was jump balls

Larry Bird (L) and Magic Johnson (R) shake hands ahead of a 1993 game.
Magic Johnson was quite familiar with Larry Bird and his one weakness. | Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

During his time on the NBA hardwood, Larry Bird was known to show off his dry wit and produce a biting quote. On some occasions, though, he could be on the opposite end of some ribbing.

Take, for example, a 1987 story that ran in the Chicago Tribune. It discussed Bird’s weakness and pulled in perspectives from names around the league. Larry Legend even provided his own assessment.

”It’s my speed and my ability to guard guys one-on-one,” Bird told Mark Newman.

When it came time for the third-party quotes, there were plenty of tongue-in-cheek takes. Mavs assistant Richie Adubato, for example, quipped that Bird wasn’t “doesn’t sell popcorn and hot dogs during the game.”

When the question of his rival’s weakness was posed to Magic Johnson, he managed to keep things within the court. His answer, however, was both humorous and telling.

Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers’ guard and Bird’s archrival since college, thought it over and finally concluded: “Probably that he can’t win jump-ball situations. That’s about it.”

Mark Newman, as published in the Chicago Tribune

You can almost see the Lakers guard cracking his signature smile as you read the quote.

That quote sounds silly, but it does put Larry Bird’s skillset into perspective

As I’ve mentioned, there was definitely a touch of humor in Magic Johnson’s response. By that time, he and Bird were old rivals who had developed a special bond. The Lakers guard, if nothing else, probably couldn’t resist a chance to tease his friend.

With that being said, though, there is a nugget of truth behind every joke.

If we combine Bird’s assessment of his own game — that he’s lacking speed — and Magic’s comment about the forward’s leaping ability, we get an image of an incredibly talented player who’s slightly lacking on the physical side of things. That isn’t a hot take, as we’ve heard jokes about Bird being unathletic before, but it does highlight just how much raw talent the forward had.

Especially when we consider modern talents like LeBron James, the NBA has become an incredibly athletic league. While a high level of skill and intelligence is required, it almost seems like you have to be built like a linebacker and capable of leaping over buildings in a single bound to find success.

Larry Bird did neither of those things, but that didn’t stop him.

When we consider the living legend’s stat line and some of his iconic moments, they become even more impressive. Averaging more than 24 points per game across a lengthy career is impressive for anyone, let alone someone who considered himself slow. Earning three All-Defensive team honors and producing some iconic moments on that end of the floor loom even larger when you hear that Bird was a bit skeptical of his own one-on-one defense.

In order to produce those sorts of performances, Bird needed something other than raw physical talents. He needed to understand the game and think his way through situations. He needed to rely on his signature confidence to make plays that he probably shouldn’t have been able to pull off. And, perhaps above all else, the forward had to know exactly who he was and refuse to compromise.

And while everything else, ranging from championships to Three-Point Contest wins, is impressive, that’s arguably the most legendary part of Larry Bird’s career. Not only did he understand his own shortcomings, but he worked through them to become an all-time NBA icon.


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