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Magic And Bird: A Rivalry Gives Way To Friendship

Nov 3, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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In the 1980s, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers dominated professional basketball, winning a combined eight titles during a decade that was known as the "golden era" of the NBA.

The modern-day NBA would not be what it is without the era's superstars — Hall of Famers Larry Bird of the Celtics and the Lakers' Earvin "Magic" Johnson — and the rivalry that elevated the entire league.

In a new book, When the Game Was Ours, co-written by Jackie MacMullan, Bird and Johnson detail their love and hate for one another over the years. Johnson says that after competing against each other in the 1979 NCAA championship game, they joined NBA teams that already hated each other.

"We're so competitive anyway that there was a dislike there," Johnson tells NPR's Michele Norris. "I even hated him more because I knew he could beat me."

The rivalry between the two teams started in the 1950s — and Bird says he and Johnson "rekindled the fire."

"We did it in a way where we caught the imagination of everyone in America," he says. "People wanted to see us play against one another. ... If you like competition you want to play against the best, and that's what we wanted to do."

A Defining Lunch

Then in 1985, Converse asked Johnson and Bird to tape a shoe commercial in French Lick, Ind., Bird's hometown. Johnson says he agreed to it, but he was nervous because he had never had a conversation with Bird.

"I'm nervous! I'm nervous!" he says. "It's like I'm going crazy, like, 'What's going to happen?' "

During the shoot, the two didn't talk. But then a curious thing happened: They bonded over lunch at Bird's house.

"His mom gave me the biggest hug and hello, and right then she had me," Johnson says. "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."

Johnson's teammates and coach couldn't believe the two had lunch.

"Believe me, everybody was shocked," he says.

Bird said he was nervous about getting too close to his rival.

"I always thought you had to keep the edge," he says. "You don't want to get too close to a person because you will get a little soft. Once me and Magic left that commercial shoot in Indiana, it was back to business, believe me. We both had a burning desire to win championships. And once we got with our teams, all of that was forgotten until we retired."

The Diagnosis — And Phone Call

Then, on Nov. 7, 1991, Johnson called Bird and told him he had been diagnosed with HIV. Bird was on the short list of his basketball colleagues to tell before he got in front of the camera and shocked the nation.

"We'd been connected to each other since college," Johnson says. "We were always thinking about each other — what we were doing and how we were doing. I knew that he would want to know and also know from me. And I'm glad I was able to talk to Larry and let him know that I'm gonna be OK, and I knew he was going to be supporting me."

Bird says he'll never forget the moment he got the call.

"It was probably one of the worst feelings you could ever imagine," he says. "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. So I felt a little bit better. But still — I was a gamer, I loved game day; I couldn't wait to get down to the gym. But when I got that call that's the one time I can honestly say I didn't feel like playing."

Johnson said he needed Bird in that moment — and he knows he can count on him, even if they see each other only once a year.

"Both Larry and I are very strong, strong-willed, strong-minded," he says. "Sometimes that armor is weakened. 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.' You don't have to talk every day and we don't. But we know that if I need something, he's gonna be there. If Larry needs something, I'm gonna be there. And he knows that. And then when we do get together — when I see Larry and I get that pound, and I get that hello — I'm good. It takes me through my next year or two, until I see him again."

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