Magic Johnson and Larry Bird Were Actually Teammates Before Their Famous Rivalry Ever Began

It’s essentially impossible to discuss Magic Johnson or Larry Bird without mentioning the other, isn’t it? And there’s certainly good reason for that as the two engaged in one of the greatest rivalries in sports history, a rivalry that began with their duel in the 1979 NCAA title game and continued at the professional level as Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers and Bird’s Boston Celtics met three times in the NBA Finals in the 1980s and were responsible for eight of the 10 titles won over the course of the decade.

But once their rivalry was complete, Magic and Bird famously teamed up as members of the 1992 Dream Team that won gold at the Barcelona Olympics. But what some may not know is that before any of the events named above took place, the two teamed up for the USA Men’s World Invitational Tournament.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird battled for the 1979 NCAA title and three times in the NBA Finals

The storied rivalry between Magic and Bird began at the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, which is still the most-watched college basketball game in history. On that historic night in Salt Lake City, Magic’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Bird’s undefeated Indiana State Sycamores, 75-64, as Larry Legend struggled to shoot the basketball, making just seven of 21 shots from the floor and five of eight shots from the foul line for 19 points.

Johnson, on the other hand, made eight of 15 shots from the floor and eight of 10 foul shots for 24 points and also dished out five assists on the way to being named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player.

Both entered the NBA a few months later, and within two seasons, both were NBA champions as Magic helped the Lakers to a title in 1980 with Bird following suit a year later with the Celtics. Magic added a second title in 1982 but missed out on a third in 1983 as the Lakers were swept by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals.

In 1984, the Lakers and Celtics finally matched up in the NBA Finals, but Bird & Co. were simply too much for Magic and the Showtime gang as they took the series in seven games. Johnson got his revenge a year later as LA took down Boston in six and also won the rubber match in 1987 as the Lakers again defeated the Celtics in six. In total, Magic and Bird won eight titles between them in the 1980s.

Johnson and Larry Legend won a gold medal together as part of the famed 1992 Dream Team

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson following a Dream Team practice in 1992
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson following a 1992 Dream Team practice | Icon Sportswire

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When the first 10 members of the Dream Team were announced in September 1991, Magic and Bird were both included. But just a short time later, the dream of possibly seeing the two rivals team up hit a snag when Johnson announced his retirement from the NBA following his HIV diagnosis, which was an issue at first but was obviously resolved.

As the ’92 Olympics drew closer, Bird’s involvement came into question as he was dealing with a bad back. But while he was forced to miss a few games due to the injury, he also obviously took part, and it was an absolute thrill for fans to watch the two longtime adversaries wear the same uniform.

But what many may not have been aware of at the time was that Magic and Bird had worn the same uniform once before.

Magic and Bird were teammates for Team USA in 1978

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In 1977, both Magic and Bird wore the Red, White, and Blue for Team USA but in separate events. Bird had helped the U.S. to an 8-0 record and a gold medal at the World University Games in Bulgaria, while Johnson had been the leading scorer for the gold medal-winning U.S. squad at the biannual Under-18 Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany.

In the spring of 1978, both were selected to represent the U.S. in the USA Men’s World Invitational Tournament, a made-for-TV round-robin tournament featuring teams from the United States, Yugoslavia, Russia, and Cuba.

Magic and Bird certainly weren’t the true superstars they would ultimately become but were included on a roster that featured a dozen future first-round NBA draft picks, 10 of whom were selected within the first six picks. Neither put up mind-blowing stats in the team’s three games (all victories) as Magic scored 15 total points with seven assists and five rebounds while Bird scored 14 points with 18 rebounds and six assists.

But the two shared some time on the court and provided a few of the electric highlights for which both would come to be known as their respective careers progressed.

Stats courtesy of Sports Reference and USAB.com