Magic and Bird: Opposing Personalities but a Great Friendship

The Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics. Magic vs. Bird. The glitz of Hollywood vs. a working-class city. East vs. West. An intensely private figure against one admired and revered for his warmth. Despite countless factors, the friendship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird shows how opposite personalities can become good friends. 

This next post in my series, New Year; New Types of Friends is another example of a friendship in sports; this time from a team sport of basketball. In most cases, teammates need to blend well, think like each other, and work well in tandem. In many cases, opposite personalities will blend together easily. Sometimes, they will clash. Occasionally –though not always, they fit together to bring tremendous success to a team.

In the case of Magic and Larry, these two polar opposites found a common bond which led to a great friendship long after their playing careers ended.

More than Opposite Personalties

Aside from the most obvious difference in race, the two players also differed in temperament and upbringing.

Introverted and shy, Larry Bird had trouble making eye contact and went the entire college season without talking to the media. But he was very capable of unleashing withering trash-talk. Conversely, Magic Johnson couldn’t seem to get enough public adulation due to his megawatt smile.

Their backgrounds were also different. Magic was a black kid from Michigan, one of six children belonging to an autoworker and a custodian. Larry was a poor white kid from Indiana who would lose his father to suicide.

The love of basketball would eventually bring these two opposites together. They reached their collegiate peaks at precisely the same moment. Their rivalry set the NBA on fire. They did the most unexpected thing: they became friends despite their fierce rivalry. 

Teammates First 

In their book, When the Game Was Ours, co-written with Jackie MacMullan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry “The Legend” Bird detail their relationship that officially began as teammates, long before their NBA careers.

The two highly-recruited high school basketball stars opted to play college ball in their respective home states: Johnson for the Michigan State Spartans and Bird for the Indiana State Sycamores. Back in 1978, Earvin and Larry were two of America’s finest college basketball players. However, they were barely aware of each other until they were both named to a college all-star team to compete in the 1978 World Invitational Tournament. 

Shockingly, neither player received a lot of playing time initially from the team’s coach, Kentucky’s Joe B. Hall, who was partial toward his own Wildcats players, Jack Givens, Kyle Macy, and Rick Robey. However, the talent of Bird and Johnson became apparent while executing a play in a later game against the Russian team. Their brilliant passing skills were on display as Johnson scored a quick layup on an assist from Bird.

“It was an incredible three seconds of basketball,” Johnson related in the book “It was boom, boom, boom! I’m thinking, ‘Man, I love playing with this guy!’ And believe me, the crowd loved it too.”

Bird, while less effusive in public, typified his low-key personality. He was similarly impressed with Johnson though, telling his brother Mark that he had “just seen the best player in college basketball.”

The next year, both players went on to lead their respective teams into the 1979 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which elevated the Magic vs Bird match-up. In the famous NCAA men’s basketball championship game, the Spartans defeated the Sycamores, 75-64.

Their Rivalry Intensified

The two collegiate stars would join NBA teams that already hated each other. The Boston Celtics of the Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and Bob Cousy era, battled the Los Angeles Lakers with Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West, throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. But the two teams had not faced each other at all in the NBA Finals in the 1970s.

Larry Bird originally declared for the 1978 NBA draft. The Celtics chose Bird with the sixth pick, hoping he might forgo his senior season, but knowing he was worth the wait even if he didn’t.  Instead of immediately joining the team, Bird elected to go back to Indiana State for his senior season. He then signed a five-year contract with the Celtics before the draft, which made it impossible for any other team to select him.

Magic Johnson also declared for the NBA draft early, wanting to go to the Lakers with the first pick. If Bird’s deal with the Celtics didn’t happen, it is possible the Lakers would’ve drafted Larry instead of Magic, who indicated he would return to college if he couldn’t play for the Lakers.

They Reinvigorated the NBA

Bird and Magic were considered the NBA’s saviors when they turned pro in 1979. The league was in dire straits in the late ’70s. It carried a perception that it was “too black” for white fans to enjoy and many players allegedly did a lot of drugs, especially cocaine. There were also no real, long-lasting rivalries as a result of an expansion of teams in the late 60s and early 70s, and the merger with the American Basketball Association in 1975-76. 

But that would change with Boston signing Bird and the Lakers drafting Magic. Bird said that he and Johnson “rekindled the fire” of the long-running Celtics vs. Lakers feud. The rivalry made the NBA feel relevant again. Throughout the 1980s, the Lakers and Celtics played against each other three times for the NBA title in 1984, 1985, and 1987.

Bird said that their own personal rivalry “caught the imagination of everyone in America.” Johnson, meanwhile, admitted that he and Bird disliked each other during their first few years in the NBA. “I even hated him more because I knew he could beat me,” Magic explained.

Their Friendship

Despite their fierce battles, their opposite personalities, backgrounds, and skills channeled their rivalry into a lasting friendship. In 1985, both men took steps toward an unlikely friendship when Converse invited them to shoot a shoe commercial in Bird’s hometown of French Lick, Indiana. 

The commercial was shot right after the Lakers had bested the Celtics in the 1985 NBA Finals. Johnson explains, “We shot for 3 hours and they say it’s lunchtime. I’m going to my trailer to have lunch and Bird turns to me and says, ‘Magic, my mom has prepared lunch for us at the house.’ When he threw his mom in there, you know I can’t say no.” 

Johnson recalled, “His mom gave me the biggest hug and hello, and right then she had me. Now we had never really broken bread so I went to his house and his mother was bringing out all the food and finally, she said to Larry, ‘Did you tell him yet?’ Larry said, ‘No, you tell him.’ She turned around and said, ‘Magic, you’re my favorite basketball player.’”

Magic later said. “Then Larry and I sat down for lunch, and I tell you, we figured out we’re so much alike. We’re both from the Midwest, we grew up poor, our families [are] everything to us, basketball is everything to us. So that changed my whole outlook on Larry Bird.” 

Rivalries Don’t Last…But Friendships Do

On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson announced he had tested positive for HIV and was immediately retiring from the NBA. Before he made that announcement, Magic decided to break the news to a few select people, including Larry Bird. According to Johnson, he chose to speak to his rival because he could count on his support when he needed it.

“It was probably one of the worst feelings you could ever imagine,” Bird said, “It was very difficult. We played against each other for a long time. At that time, HIV was known to be a death sentence. But for some reason, when he told me he was going to be fine, I believed him because everything he’s ever said had really come to be true, as far as winning and winning championships.”

Further elaborating, Johnson said “As strong as I appeared to be, I still needed a friend to just say, ‘Hey man, I’m here, I’m supporting you. Just do what you got to do to be here for a long time.'”

Teammates Again

By 1992, Magic was a year removed from retirement. Bird was dealing with a nagging back injury and just about ready to call it a career. But they teamed up for a celebratory lap, helping Team USA’s “Dream Team” run roughshod over the competition at that year’s Summer Olympics in Barcelona. 

Magic Johnson is an advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention, a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, broadcaster, and motivational speaker. Magic was a part-owner of the Lakers for several years, and an investor in the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Sparks, a WNBA team.

Larry Bird was a special assistant in The Celtic’s front office from 1992 until 1997 before accepting the position of head coach for the Indiana Pacers. In 2000, he became the Pacers’ president of basketball operations. Bird is the only man in NBA history to win the NBA MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year in a career.

According to the Los Angeles Times, at Bird’s retirement party in February 1993, Johnson presented a Lakers jersey to the Celtics icon, with the inscription reading, “To the greatest basketball player ever, but more importantly, a friend forever.”

Small GB logo

God Buddy Focus

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird meant a lot to the game of basketball. But their friendship shows how two opposite personalities can become great friends who support each other.

The Bible says God made all nations from one blood, made in His image (Genesis 1:26). It also says there is “no distinction between Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and freeman, but that Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11).

As John M. Perkins wrote in his book, One Blood, human beings are much more alike than our genetic make-up. We are of “one blood” since all human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup. That shows just 1/10 of 1% distinguishes our skin color, hair texture, height, weight,– and yes, even our basketball abilities.

God doesn’t care if we are black or white, root for the Celtics or Lakers or even the Chicago Bulls (pardon my NBA fandom!). Once we realize we have much more in common than not, it is easier to be friends for a lifetime.

My next post is about two female friendships in sports.

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