Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bird & Magic: When the Game Was Theirs

This past March marked the 30th anniversary of perhaps the most pivotal event in NCAA and NBA basketball history - the 1979 NCAA Championship Game between Larry Bird's Indiana state Sycamores and Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans.

After reading Seth Davis' When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball and speaking with the author/analyst, I noted that the legacy which followed that game "helped reshape the pro and college games and ushered in a new era of televised basketball."

From an April 2009 HHR post
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Their equally uncertain and tumultuous recruiting experiences aside, their paths to stardom couldn't have been more contrasting, and as such, the Bird-Magic rivalry which ushered in an unprecedented era of hoops could, in many ways, have never come to fruition.

With ESPN still in its infancy, March Madness hardly a nationwide cultural phenomenon as we know it today, and the NBA a fledgling league struggling to appeal to mainstream America, the attention-shunning, but competition-driven, "Hick from French Lick" and the charismatic, camera-friendly and freakishly skilled 6'9" point guard from Michigan captured the country's attention throughout the ensuing decade.

The league and broadcasters learned how to effectively capture that attention and market sport around its superstars. The rest, as they say, is history.

As their Hall of Fame careers progressed, their paths to the Hall of Fame - often seen as stark contrasts to one another (Showtime vs. Blue Collar, and, yes, Black vs. White) - actually ran almost exactly parallel, with each man's drive and intensity derived directly from the other. Once bitter rivals, Magic and Bird's mutual admiration helped dissolve the competitive hatred that early defined their relationship.

Today, their places in history are nearly inseparable.

What the 1979 Championship game did for the NCAA and televised hoops, the Magic and Bird Rivalry did for the NBA. Without the duo, along with David Stern, the NBA as we know it might not exist - not just the game, but the culture, as their revolutionary, bank-breaking "Choose Your Weapon" Converse campaign upped the ante with Nike to go all out with Air Jordan, and paved the way to the shoe endorsement racket ever-present today.

While its coverage of their early years and much of their playing career isn't ground breaking, the release of this month's joint memoir When the Game Was Ours. (with Jackie MacMullan) provides a fresh, first person perspective of their rivalry.

Much of the attention with the book's release surrounded the comments made by Magic regarding Isiah Thomas' alleged blacklisting from the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. However, those anecdotes are really just a small part of the book. Johnson places his own animosity towards Zeke on the Pistons guard's (and once good friend and confidant's) lack of support and unfounded accusations of Magic's homosexuality in the wake of his HIV revelations.

"Isiah kept questioning people about it. I couldn't believe that. Everyone else - Byron, Arsenio, Michael, Larry - they were all supporting me. And the one guy I thought I could count on had all these doubts. It was like he kicked me in the stomach."

"Our relationship was really strained at that point. We didn't speak for years, and Isiah knew why. He questioned me when I got my HIV diagnosis. How can a so-called friend question your sexuality like that? I know why he did it, because we used to kiss before games, and now if people were wondering about me, that meant they were wondering about him too."

The HIV revelations are among the most captivating in the book. The myriad struggles of Johnson had to deal with upon the diagnosis of a then-misunderstood virus were almost heart-wrenching.

In terms of calling out players, I was more amused by his thoughts on Kareem Abdul Jabbar:

"Thank God Kareem was my teammate, because I used to cringe at the way he treated people. There was a way to say no if you didn't want to sign an autograph...but Kareem didn't do it in a very kind way. Sometimes he'd have people in tears. It's hurt him now that he's done playing."

But for all the readers' hopes of dirt-dishing, the book is more a reflection on their thoughts throughout milestones and hardships in their careers, and their post playing careers - Magic Johnson Enterprises and Bird's coaching and executive roles. This includes a great few pages on Bird's relationship with Ron Artest during the fallout of the The Malice at the Palace.

To their credit, for all their collective bravado and rightful claims to having created the league's resurgence, the recurring theme in the book is their respect for the game, desire to be the best, and insistence that their teammates follow suit.

In follow up posts, I'll be publishing audio from a recent remote press conference where Bird and Magic talked with journalists and bloggers about When the Game Was Ours.

Here is a clip on why they now pushed forward with the project 30 years in the making.





Look for the following shortly:

ON THEIR RIVALRY & RELATIONSHIP
  • On playing the "Right Way"
  • A quarter a century later why they are still popular
  • At the height of the rivalry how did they honestly feel about one another
  • Recounting the joint ’85 Converse ad
  • Favorite memories against each other
  • Their relationship today
ON TODAYS GAME
  • What obstacles would they as players face today in light of changes in officiating and rules today?
  • Are players too close to ever have another true rivalry?
  • Thoughts on the coziness of players with one another
  • Are there two players in the league that might develop into a Magic-Bird type rivalry?
  • Biggest differences between today and their day

ON ISIAH
  • Magic refuses to take bait to elaborate on Isiah
  • What made him reveal the nature of the incidents that led to their parting ways?
  • Did Isiah’s personality attribute to his problems with the Knicks?

ON LAKERS/CELTICS
  • On today’s Lakers/Celts and their leadership
  • On Kevin Garnett in Boston.
  • Could the rivalry have happened anywhere but LA & Bos?
  • Would Bird-Magic have been as big in other cities?
ON PLAYERS
  • On LeBron / NYC
  • On Doctor J
  • On Brandon Jennings
  • Influence on AAU, Recruiting of Star Athletes.
  • 1 and Done rule.
  • Who today plays in the same style they did?
OTHER
  • Thoughts on the Pistons Back-to-Back Championships
  • Laimbeer as an NBA coach and Rambis’ hiring of him
  • On their versatile game and who influenced it?
  • Contributions of Role Players: Praise for Rambis, Cooper and DJ
  • On Kareem’s Coaching Prospects


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