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Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry: How it came about

May 19, 2019

The NBA will be honoring former rivals Magic Johnson and Larry Bird with a joint Lifetime Achievement on the league’s 2019 Awards Night on June 24.

Magic and Bird were embroiled in a personal rivalry in the world’s oldest and most prestigious professional basketball league during their time while carrying the colors of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, respectively, in the 80s.

But did you know that the duo’s celebrated and glorious feud had started during their college days at the Michigan State Spartans, in the case of Johnson, and Larry’s Indiana State Sycamores, protagonists for the 1979 US NCAA championship, the basketball crazy Americans called “March Madness.”

Honestly speaking, I wasn’t at Salt Lake City where the championship duel took place although I was already in my seventh year as a sportswriter by that time, manning the sports desk of the Philippines News Agency as its sports editor. Besides, I couldn’t afford to go to the battlefield for obvious reason. I didn’t even see the game through the magic of television for some reasons I can’t remember.

Maybe I was busy preparing for the opening of the fifth season of the PBA where the legendary Crispa Redmanizers were to exact revenge for having been shutout for a PBA title the previous year. Or maybe readying the sports staff for the coming bicycle tour then popularly known as the “Summer Spectacle on Wheels.”

There were actually many reasons as to why this OUTSIDER missed that important event, like preparations for the Golden anniversary of the World Cup of Golf the country was scheduled to host before year 1979 ended.

Anyway, to abreast myself of what transpired during that classic matchup that served notice of what to come when Magic and Larry resumed their soon-to-be storied rivalry in the NBA, I had to rely on the next morning’s wire reports, which were dumped on my desk and which, all the more, made me sorry for the unforgivable miss.

As media reports had it, Larry played in the gold medal game with a broken left thumb although he never used the injury as an excuse then and now when both are already retired despite shooting 7 of 21 from the floor. The real culprit, as he admitted later, was the Spartans’ 2-3 matchup zone, in which a player was assigned to train Bird step-for-step.

Whenever he received a pass or tried to dribble, another Spartan would shade over for the double-team. Bird admitted he had never seen such an intense defensive pressure and it showed. He could count on one hand the open looks he had and the frustration was etched on his face all night.

The Sycamores could not counter a similar tactic on Magic, who had such a great passing skills and talented offensive teammates like Greg Kelser, who helped Johnson and the Spartans erect a 16-point lead in the second half.

When Kelser needed to be rested on four fouls, Larry and the Sycamores made a run but couldn’t get closer than six points the rest of the way. When Kelser was fielded back, he even made an exclamation point with a power dunk in the final seconds of the contest on a no-look, over-the-shoulder lob pass from Magic in the Spartans’ 75-64 triumph.

Contributing to the downfall was Bird, a career 89 free throw shooter, who hit just 5 of 8 from the line that night. Years after establishing himself well as a Celtic, he talked about that Indiana loss to Michigan with some objectivity: We could have played them 10 times,” he admitted, “and they probably would have beaten us eight.”

The animosity that existed between the two Hall of Famers turned so deep that they, reports had it, barely spoke with each other during their early years in the NBA, eyeing each other with mutual distrust. It was only during the filming of a Converse commercial at Bird’s French Lick, Ind. home in the summer of 1984 finally cemented their friendship.

Larry and Magic revived the NBA with their talent, their high basketball IQ, their commitment and most of all, their personal competition. Their victories and their failures, their epic battle for the crowns.

How I wish to have 10 more chances for me to watch Magic and Larry in the duel that will continue to capture the imagination of the whole world. Chances to soak in the game that made history and created one of the most fascinating rivalries in sports.

After all, there is no more Crispa-Toyota games to cover, no more Tour of Luzon to worry about as a sports editor. No more World Cup of Golf to prepare for.

Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net


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