Greatest Lakers Rivalry: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson

By Kaylyn Neely

Rajon Rondo‘s recent comments about the Los Angeles Lakers are anything but new. They’re a throwback to one of the greatest rivalries in basketball history: the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics.

The Lakers and the Celtics rivalries are some of the best stories in sports history. Perhaps unintentionally, Rondo’s comments were deeply fused into one of the most beautiful competitions in sports. ESPN and Sports Illustrated became household names writing about these kinds of stories.

Larry Schwartz, one of the best ESPN sports journalists of the era, wrote on the topic of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird‘s importance to the sport of basketball. It brought many other key factors of human interest into the world of sports. Issues off the court became important to sports fans and media during this time.

Sports Illustrated explains that the Lakers and Celtics “Have won 33 the NBA’s 65 championships (now 66) and have met in the Finals 12 times, with the Celtics winning nine of those. Five of the 12 series have gone to seven games.”

Johnson and Bird’s story, like so many others, began in college at the 1979 NCAA final when Johnson’s Michigan State defeated Bird’s Indiana State.

ESPN‘s Schwartz, wrote that:

In his first competition against Bird, in front of the most-watched college basketball television audience of all-time up to then, Magic scored 24 points and Michigan State won 75-64. He was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Turning pro after that season, he was selected by the Lakers, who had the first choice in the draft because of a 1976 deal in which the Jazz obtained Gail Goodrich. In the final game of his rookie season, Magic went from star to legend.

With his center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sidelined with a sprained ankle, coach Paul Westhead started his 20-year-old point guard at center for Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Philadelphia. Magic, three years out of high school, scored 42 points (14-of-23 from the field, 14-of-14 from the foul line), with 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals as the Lakers won the title with a 123-107 victory.

“What position did I play?” he said. “Well, I played center, a little forward, some guard. I tried to think up a name for it, but the best I came up with was C-F-G Rover.”

The first NBA finals match-up between the Lakers and the Celtics was in 1959 when the Celtics swept the Minneapolis Lakers (would become the Los Angeles Lakers). The Celtics would go on to win eight straight titles.

The two events, the 1959 NBA finals and the college match were the beginning of the destined story. In order to beat each other, Bird and Johnson had to play almost perfectly. They’re respective teams were already the perfect enemies.

Out of college, Bird and Johnson would both be drafted to teams that already had a history together. A 20 year history, which would make the rivalry all the better. Not to mention, East Coast-West Coast battles are bitter ones.

Better yet, perhaps, Bird vs. Magic was one of the last times fans would see pure sports without business. A sports world that wasn’t centered around sponsorship, endorsements, corporations, and marketing.

NBA Classic Quotes captures the sheer competition:

When the new schedule would come out each year, I’d grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80.”
–Magic Johnson

“The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else.”
–Larry Bird

Additionally, Magic and Larry’s images clashed. Magic loved the attention and celebrity from fans and media. He liked being the face of 1980s basketball. Bird, alternatively just wanted to go home and do hick stuff in Indiana, hang out with Tweedy Bird and occasionally trash talk his opponents.

Bird and Magic would end up representing the image that they’re teams and their cities projected on America. Boston in the 1980s, was a working class city. The blue collar population would relate to Bird’s poor redneck upbringing.

Many great sports journalists would dig deeply into the race issues that ariose from Magic and Bird’s rivalry.

The signing of Shaquille O’Neal and the drafting of Kobe Bryant (Lakers) and Paul Pierce (Celtics), in the late 1980 and early 1990’s would secure both teams position as top dogs after Bird and Johnson retired. They would also, like Rondo, keep the fuel burning even when this guy you might have heard of named Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls took over basketball media and invented longer shorts, which was great.

Pierce was drafted in 1998 and would not win a NBA championship until 2008 against the Lakers, despite multiple postseason campaigns.

O’Neal, once pulled a Boston reporter aside told him to, “Take this down. My name is Shaquille O’Neal, and Paul Pierce is the [expletive] truth. Quote me on that, and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth.”

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