K.C. Jones Once Explained How Larry Bird and Magic Johnson Were the Complete Opposite Despite Constant Comparisons

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Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird during break at the 1985 NBA Finals.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are two of a kind, often compared to one another after coming into the NBA at the same time and helping reignite the Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers rivalry from the 1960s. You can’t mention Bird without mentioning Magic.

The rivalry sparked new life into the NBA. Bird and Magic squared off in the epic 1979 NCAA men’s championship game, and that individual competition carried over into the NBA through the 1980s. While the two stars were often compared, former Boston Celtics coach K.C. did say there was one trait that made them complete opposites.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson helped reshape the NBA

The NBA needed a change. The image of the NBA in the 1970s wasn’t ideal. To put it bluntly, the league had a drug problem. Frank Layden, former GM and coach of the Utah Jazz explained.

“There is not a team in the league you can confidently say does not have a drug problem,” 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).”

With Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entering the league for the 1979-80 season, all eyes turned to basketball instead of distractions. Neither star disappointed.

Bird turned a team that won 29 games before he got there into one that racked up a league-leading 61 victories. Magic’s Lakers won the first of their five championships of the decade, claiming the 1980 NBA Finals. In each year of the decade, either the Celtics or Lakers reached the championship round. The Celtics and Lakers faced each other three times.

Kevin McHale, a former teammate of Bird’s, said Bird and Magic, along with then-Commissioner David Stern, helped grow the NBA into what it is today.

“The league was kind of building around Larry and Magic,” 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.”

K.C. Jones explained how Bird and Magic were different

Throughout the decade, it was always the Celtics and the Lakers. That meant it was always Bird and Magic.

Although Bird was on one side of the coast in Boston and Magic was 3,000 miles away in LA, the two always went hand in hand. Bird won three championships. Magic won five. Bird was a three-time MVP. Magic was, too. They both were 12-time All-Stars and both are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

After Game 5 of the 1984 NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Lakers, Celtics coach K.C. Jones explained why the two superstars were different.

Bird had just torched the Lakers for 34 points and 17 rebounds in a victory that gave the Celtics a 3-2 series lead. The game was played in a heat wave, with game-time temperatures reported at 97 degrees. He played a game-high 42 minutes and made 15 of his 20 shots from the floor in a 121-103 victory.

“When you’re having a game like that, you figure the guy is going to be jumping up and down,” Jones said, per Jackie MacMullan’s book When the Game Was Ours. “Not Larry. He did it without flair.

“In that regard, he was the exact opposite of Magic.”