Magic vs. Bird: Rivalry and Respect

Written by: Keith Henderson

When I close my eyes, I can still see it.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 01:  Basketball great Earvin 'Magic' Johnson arrives at the 23rd annual American Cinematheque show honoring Samuel L. Jackson held at Beverly Hilton Hotel on December 1, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)


The Sony Trinitron TV with the antenna positioned just right, is tuned in, on this night, to Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals.

It’s down to the last few seconds of the game, and though I’m watching in my household of four, I’m absolutely certain that I’m among the millions of Lakers fans, Celtics fans, and basketball fans in general, who are either on the edge of their seats or on their feet.

With this final, crucial possession in favor of the Lakers, who else should have the ball in his hands, but Earvin “Magic” Johnson? Had I actually been asked this, I surely would’ve thought it was a trick question.

Be honest, Celtics fan. You saw this coming, didn’t you? It was what you feared most, because you knew what determination looked like. You saw killer instinct on that very same parquet floor, every night for eight seasons (up to that point), wearing a green and white number 33 jersey.

By the time Magic floated that “junior junior skyhook” over those fingertips of Parish and McHale (which, in the moment, seemed to stretch far beyond normal human reach, like figures in an Ernie Barnes painting), your heart had to be in your throat, because you already knew that ‘mistake #1’ had been made: he was allowed to get the ball, with enough time on the clock to make a play. And now, on top of that, he makes a hesitation dribble, which gives him the sliver of daylight that he needs. Uh oh… ‘mistake #2’.

We know how it turned out; both the game and the series. And, I know it’s painful to relive it. Of course you hated Magic. Of course you hated the Lakers. Not just at that moment, but for as long as the rivalry continued between Magic, Bird, and their respective teams. Magic was ‘the face’ of the Lakers, much like Bird was for the C’s, so you could truly say that, to the core, the Lakers were “his team.” For that reason, it was easy for Boston fans to focus their collective ire and green-tinted venom on Johnson whenever the two rivals squared off.

Next: From Hatred Grows Respect

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