A Converse Sneaker Commercial Set the Record Straight on Who Larry Bird and Magic Johnson Really Were

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Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird were inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have been linked since their 1979 NCAA men’s title game. They took their talents to the two biggest franchises in the NBA, with Bird landing with the Boston Celtics and Magic finding a home with the Los Angeles Lakers. The two gave the NBA the boost it needed.

Bird and Magic were the faces of the NBA in the 1980s. Each year of the decade, one of them reached the NBA Finals. They faced off three times in the championship round. The heated battles between the Celtics and Lakers were must-see TV. While the teams had no love for each other, Bird and Magic were considered enemies until a 1987 sneaker commercial showed their true colors.

The NBA needed Larry Bird and Magic Johnson

In the 1970s, the image of the NBA wasn’t a pleasant one. Drugs ran rampant throughout the league. A change was needed.

“There is not a team in the league you can confidently say does not have a drug problem,” former Utah Jazz GM and coach Frank Layden told The Washington Post in 1980. “Every team could benefit from a rehabilitation program. I had two (drug) cases out of 11 players last year. We need a place to send these people (for help).”

Bird and Magic helped reshape the landscape of the league. All eyes were on the two stars. Bird instantly turned the Celtics back into a winner. Before he got to Boston, the Celtics won 29 games. As a rookie, Bird guided Boston to an NBA-best 61 victories. He won Rookie of the Year.

Meanwhile, Magic helped guide the Los Angeles Lakers to their first of five NBA championships in the decade. He was named Finals MVP. He finished second to Bird in the Rookie of the Year voting. NBA Commissioner David Stern eventually built the league around his two stars, who helped turn the NBA into a global game and a marketing machine.

“The league was kind of building around Larry and Magic,” Bird’s former teammate Kevin McHale said during a 2021 appearance on The Cedric Maxwell Podcast. “It was always Magic and the Lakers and Larry and the Celtics.

“They built it up, man. David Stern did a great job. God bless his soul. He got us all, everybody, paid. These guys today — we missed out on a lot of those paychecks — but the guys today are doing OK on it.”

A sneaker commercial showed the true colors of Bird and Magic

It was no secret the Celtics and the Lakers didn’t like each other.

“The one thing everybody has to understand is it was a true rivalry,” former Lakers guard Byron Scott said on his Off the Dribble podcast. “It’s not like today. You don’t have the true rivalries in the NBA like you did back in those days. We didn’t play ball with those guys in the summer. We didn’t play high school ball with them, and we didn’t play AAU ball with those guys. Those guys hated us. We hated them.

“The rivalry was real. It was legit. We couldn’t stand each other. We tried to beat them up. They tried to beat us up. In the midst of all that, we were trying to win a series.”

Many believed there was legitimate hatred between Bird and Magic as well. Former Lakers star James Worthy explained how that wasn’t the case at all. He said a 1987 Converse sneaker commercial featuring the two stars told the true story.

“It wasn’t until they did that Converse commercial that people started to realize that they weren’t enemies, just two very tough guys who hate to lose,” said Worthy, per Jackie MacMullan’s book When the Game Was Ours.

“They were both great assist men who enhanced everyone around them.”