In Ryan DeGama’s contribution to HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101 series, he discusses the notion of Bird-Magic as a golden era for the NBA. The controlling narratives of their1980s rivalry were effective in part because they so easy to define: East vs. West, Showtime vs. Hustle, Purple vs. Green, Black vs. White, Larry vs. Magic. But more important than these differences, as DeGama points out, the basketball was brilliant. Through the meritocracy of hoops, opposites became equals. It’s a great and true story, but I couldn’t help focusing on how this image of Bird and Magic is preserved in our cultural memory because of the sad ways in which their careers ended.
Bird’s body broke down in the tail end of his prime and Magic’s career was never the same after he was diagnosed with HIV (although I join the way their career’s ended in the “before their time” aspect, I do not at all mean to equate heel and back problems with contracting HIV). More importantly, because the two stars’ bodies were compromised with potentially productive years left, an artificial limit was placed on their “era.” DeGama’s article made me wonder what would have happened had Magic and Bird been able to compete at a high level into the early/mid 1990s. Not only would the way we remember the Golden Age of the 1980s (side note: how many other things do we really cherish from the 1980s the way we unironically cherish Bird vs. Magic?), but I could see it having a dramatic impact on our NBA sensibilities today.
Imagine Bird and Johnson play major minutes for good teams until, say, 1994. If Michael Jordan kicks their butts for the last five years of their careers, does this change the way we remember Larry v. Magic? Or, what if they had provided real competition to Jordan’s Bulls and Jordan only wins one or two titles in the early 1990s? Would Jordan have skipped his mid 1990s hiatus because he needed to satisfy his yearning to dominate? Maybe Jordan sticks around and runs into Hakeem’s Rockets in the Finals for two straight years. Hakeem’s squad was well designed to challenge Jordan’s Bulls, and the Dream may have averaged 40 pts, 15 rbs, and 5 blk against the likes of Purdue, Cartwright and Grant. What if the Shaq-Penny Magic had beaten a prepared Jordan in 1995?
For wild hypothetical conjecture’s sake, let’s just say Jordan splits with Hakeem, then dominates the back half of the decade the way he did in the actual 90s. MJ could still end up with six rings, but he wouldn’t carry the air of infallibility that he does today. He would likely still be the consensus choice for greatest player ever, but certainly by a slimmer margin. And how would this change how Kobe Bryant, Jordan’s most faithful mimic, developed his game and his own mythology? It’s my opinion that the afterglow of Jordan’s greatness has significantly enhanced–and complicated–Bryant’s (and likely LeBron James’s) legacy. If comparisons to Jordan weren’t seen as comparisons to a mythology of perfection, would Kobe’s historical place be enhanced or lessened?
Of course it’s possible that even had Larry and Magic’s primes played out, everything would have happened as it did in reality for Jordan and the rest of the League. I’ve no doubt that Jordan as The One would have replaced Bird-Magic as the league’s dominant narrative no matter what. But it’s worth remembering that the immutable standard by which all great players (even ones who play different positions) are judged was created in part by the untimely fall of his peers.
And perhaps without physical issues interceding on the latter stages their careers, Bird vs. Magic wouldn’t have the same soft, shiny place in our hearts. Our understanding of the future and past are perpetually intertwined in a mutually modifying embrace. But the unexpected end to Bird vs. Magic severed the connection between their future on-court performance and the way they will always be remembered. The glory of their legacy depends in part on the existence of “what might have been” never being. In a way, that their own careers were unwillingly cut short preserves an ever-amber image of perfection in our collective NBA heart and memory.
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