Magic Johnson and Larry Bird became the centerpieces of the NBA during the 1980s through their intense rivalry. The competition brought the best out of the all-time greats. It also led Johnson to build a privately festering disdain toward the former Boston Celtics star.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s rivalry fueled the NBA
Johnson and Bird entered the NBA with the basis of a brewing rivalry after an unforgettable 1979 NCAA National Championship Game.
The two quickly become intertwined behind their rise to stardom and many battles on the court. Johnson and Bird faced each other three times in the NBA Finals, with the Los Angeles Lakers coming out on top twice. Overall, the two combined to win eight championships during the 1980s, with Johnson making eight Finals appearances to Bird’s five trips.
Many believe the fierce rivalry lifted the NBA to become one of the world’s most popular sports. The two stars anchored the league’s rising popularity while further setting the foundation for decades ahead.
The heated competition also led Johnson to make an unsurprising admission about comparisons to the former Celtics great.
Magic Johnson privately grew angry about being compared to Larry Bird: ‘I hated what was being said that Larry was better than me’
The rivalry between the two all-time greats quickly led to strong comparisons of their respective skillsets.
The Hall of Famers shared much of the same approach to the game, with their team-first playing style fueled by passing and smart decision-making. During the HBO documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivalry, Johnson revealed that he hated the outside chatter that Bird was a better player than him.
“I hated what was being that Larry was better than me,” Johnson admitted. “I’m just a guy that can control the game. My first 4-5 years, that bothered me a lot. I didn’t tell nobody that it bothered me, but it did.”
Through five campaigns, the former Celtics star earned five All-Star selections, two NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVP awards, a regular-season MVP award, five All-NBA First Team nods, the 1980 Rookie of the Year award, and three NBA All-Defensive Second Team selections.
More than that, Bird topped Johnson in the 1984 NBA Finals, which only further ate away at the Lakers great. Over Johnson’s first five years, he more than held his own with two NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVP awards, four All-Star selections, and two All-NBA First Team nods.
His disdain toward Bird remained for much of his career, but the level of respect only drove him to greater heights. Johnson won the 1985 and 1987 NBA titles over his longtime rival, finishing with a 2-1 record in the NBA Finals against him.
NBA legacies will remain forever intertwined
The pure fuel of competition lit an internal fire in Johnson and Bird, lifting their respective games to greater heights.
As the two got to know each other off the court, a lasting friendship developed. The two stars helped save the NBA from a disastrous fate as their rivalry became the centerpiece of the 1980s behind their tremendous success.
The two became all-time talents who inspired the many generations that followed.
They will always have their NBA legacies tied together because of the many matchups, comparisons, and championship success. Beyond that, Johnson and Bird left the league in a better spot than they found it.
“What I tell young players today is keep the game you found and it can go on for generations to come,” Bird said during his 2019 acceptance speech for the NBA Lifetime Achievement Award.