Basketball Culture 101: Magic, Bird And Cultural Memory

[Editor's Note: Ryan DeGama is a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop Blog CelticsHub. Here, he looks at one of the most sacred collective NBA memories and describes how two men came to be so revered and, in a symbolic sense, untouchable. It was all true, which is what makes the story so great.-Beckley]

Everyone knows the story.

Which, in a way, is the story.

The Beginning

In When The Game Was Ours (2009), Jackie MacMullan details that familiar period in NBA history when the league, mired in low ratings and financial uncertainty, plagued by drug use, and struggling to grab a foothold in the national – much less global – sports conversation, was in a precarious position. As the 1980s dawned, without some fundamental change, it was conceivable the NBA could cease operations by the end of the Reagan era.

Keep in mind the NBA Finals were shown on tape delay back then. The league was considering contracting Denver and Utah. Sponsorships were a rarity. All-star tickets were given away, if people could be bothered to take them. And an overwhelmingly African American league was failing to draw sufficient white customers – its primary fan base — to the arenas during the regular season.

And then along came Larry Joe Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson to save the NBA.

Or so the story goes.

Bird and Magic were, in many respects, vastly different men, particularly in the ways they engaged with the world off the court.

Bird was prickly, enormously private, and cared little for how he was perceived beyond his basketball accomplishments. Magic was born for the emerging media-saturation age, his million-dollar smile on offer to all who’d accept it.

But as any dramatist will tell you, a person is not their personality, but what lies beneath it – at their core. And for all the differences that made them legitimate enemies in the early years – primary among them the desire to crush the other — Magic and Bird’s common approach to basketball would eventually build a deep bond between them.

They both had a tenacity born of hardscrabble working class upbringings. And while they both kept tabs on each other’s individual numbers in the daily box scores, they also both believed championships, as won by teams, were the best measure of individual greatness.

MacMullan details a particularly instructive social encounter between Dream Team members. During the run up to the 2002 Barcelona Olympics, the players were arguing about the greatest NBA teams of all time (the nominees included the 60s Celtics (per Bird), the Magic Johnson-led Laker teams (per Magic) and the 1986 Celtics, who were noted by inexplicable-gathering-attendee Ahmad Rashad).

When everyone – including Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing – began squabbling over their individual places in history, Bird quickly shut them down.

“Quiet,” Bird said. “Charles, you ain’t won nothing. You’re out of this discussion. Ahmad, same thing. You’re gone. Patrick, you don’t have any championships either, so you need to shut up and sit down and learn some things.”

It was a fair comment from Bird, who pointedly excluded Johnson from his wrath. After all, the two had just spent the last decade teaching their peers what excellence in the modern NBA (eight total championships) was all about.

The Golden Age

It’s fair to say that the way Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers played the game remains the gold standard for our sport. There have been better players (maybe) and better teams (possibly), but none capture the fluid five-men-working-as-one ideal of professional basketball quite as adroitly as those 80s Celtics and Lakers squads.

At least none do in our collective imagination.

No other two players in NBA history could have come along and changed the league the way Bird and Magic did. They were not just the perfect odd couple for their time but the only odd couple for their time.

At least that’s what’s been ingrained into our thoughts.

And sure –- memories of Magic and Bird, particularly to those too young to have seen them in their primes, are buoyed by nostalgia. But by the time Commissioner David Stern agreed to go all-in marketing the NBA via the Magic-Bird rivalry, his two megastars had already racked up two careers worth of achievements.

By the summer of 1984, after the first Celtics-Lakers final since 1969, Bird had a rookie of the year trophy in his pocket, two championships and the first of three consecutive MVP awards. Magic also had two titles on his resume, as well as one of the greatest single-game performances in NBA history, when, in the deciding game of the 1980 finals, he started at center for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played 47 minutes, all five positions, and tallied 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. (Johnson, it should be noted, had been informed that Bird had been awarded the rookie of the year award earlier that day).

Like their cultural contemporary Bruce Springsteen, who went supernova around the same time they did in 1984, the hype surrounding Bird and Magic was a result of their achievement, not the cause of it. In the NBA that followed them, that wouldn’t always prove to be the case.

During their prime years, Bird and Magic didn’t just win titles but, as MacMullan’s book details, married the aesthetic beauty of their individual games (exemplified by 70s luminaries like Julius Erving) to the team-centric game of the 60s (when some guy named Russell won all the rings).

The clip below, familiar though its highlights are, still stands up and announces the arrival of something astonishing. If you were even a casual basketball fan in the 1980s, how could you not get onboard with this?

The End

It should have lasted longer.

We didn’t know it at the time but the Magic-Bird-era effectively ended with the 1987 finals. The Lakers would win one more title in 1988 but never again topple the Celtics in the finals, because Boston would never again advance that far.

A mounting series of injuries would undercut Bird’s career. He missed all but six games of the 1988-89 season with heel problems, and chronic back problems would eventually sap his greatness and force him out of the game in 1992.

Magic’s body was built for a longer career but his HIV diagnosis and retirement in 1991 would slam the door on Showtime for good.

The temptation with these two careers, glorious though they were, is to play what if.

What if they’d both stayed healthy and met in the finals again in 1989 and 1990 or beyond? What would their legacies look like then? And what of their contemporaries, like Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas? Would we view them differently had Bird and Magic run the table on titles into the mid-90s?

Ultimately whether Bird would have won 5 career titles, or Johnson 7 – both legitimate possibilities, assuming better health – is probably beside the point. The NBA, almost entirely for better, was permanently imprinted with the footprints of the skinny white kid from Indiana who cared for nothing but basketball, and the Lansing, Michigan kid who dreamed of being a basketball star.

They were entirely different and entirely the same.

Those are oversimplifications, of course, and romantic ones at that.

But that’s the story.

And everyone knows it’s true.

Larry Bird inducts Magic Johnson into the Hall Of Fame:

Magic Johnson at Larry Bird’s Retirement Ceremony:

Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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