Magic vs. Bird: Rivalry and Respect

But, even if your allegiance to the Celtics, and your aversion to anything even remotely purple and gold, prevented you from feeling anything but hatred, back then, love and appreciation of the game of basketball would have to have allowed a healthy respect to creep in, over time.

DETROIT - APRIL 06:  Larry Bird (R) and Earvin 'Magic' Johnson walk on the court to be honored for the 30th anniversary of their match up in 1979 NCAA Championship Game between Indiana State and Michigan State prior to the Michigan State Spartans playing against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Ford Field on April 6, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

I can admit that, as a kid, I hated Bird. Not in the real sense of the word, though. He was just so damned good, and had tortured my Lakers so often, that I didn’t know how else to feel. However, watching Larry Bird more than hold his own against guys like Dominique Wilkins and Chuck Person really solidified my respect for him. I could be completely neutral and objective, and just be a fan, in those matchups.

I understand the concept of “Celtic Pride.” Really, I do. True Celtic Pride, I would think, comes from a feeling that every win was earned by beating the best; by taking the opponent’s best shot and coming out on top. Losing to a lesser opponent was unacceptable. Losing to a worthy opponent was only slightly less painful. Larry Bird was a warrior. He epitomized Celtic Pride. If a guy stepped on the floor unprepared to face him, that guy was finished before the opening tip, whether he knew it or not.

In Magic Johnson, Larry had found his equal. Magic had the same fire burning within him. He took losses personally. There was an accountability with him that is largely absent in today’s athlete. I’m not just talking about saying the right thing when facing the media, either. I’m talking about true leadership; a real sense that “I will not let us lose” actually carries some weight, and is not merely an idle threat or empty promise.

Do you remember that moment, during Larry Bird’s retirement ceremony, when Magic tore open his Lakers warmup jacket to reveal a Boston Celtics t-shirt? Under normal circumstances, fans of both teams would’ve been outraged – Lakers fans would cry, “Magic, how could you?!,” while Celtics fans would yell, “How dare he…?!” But, Magic had a way of disarming the most staunch detractors. Although there was an obvious humor in that gesture, it was preceded by an even more obvious respect. The kind that comes from knowing that the guy in the other uniform is just as willing to bleed for that trophy as you are.

Next: Doing It For The Glory

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