It is difficult now to imagine a time when the NBA was not the highly successful organization it is today but , in fact, in the late seventies it was not much more relevant than the NHL. The NBA’s television package was modest,its marketing strategies anemic and league attendence was underwhelming because a league with mostly African-American players did not appeal to an overwhelmingly white audience. With a rash of NBA stars ( David Thompson, John Lucas, Walter Davis, Micheal Ray Richardson , John Drew etc.) implicated in drug scandals there was real doubt whether the league would survive. That it did and that it thrived was almost entirely due to the emergence of two charismatic young stars , Earvin ” Magic ” Johnson and Larry Bird. Their magical skills and intense rivalry rescued the league from its doldrums and set the stage for Michael Jordan and his transcendent game.
When Magic and Bird were active , it was well known that they didn’t like each other but not why. Late in their careers, they grew closer but the average fan didn’t know much about their interactions excepting for their battles oncourt. This book is a collaboration between the two stars which for the first time explains their feelings about each other right from their college days , when Magic’s Michigan State Spartans played Bird’s Indian State Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA finals , to the present day. Basketball fans , espescially Laker fans and Celtic fans, will relive those epic battles when it seemed like either the Celtics or the Lakers took turns winning the NBA title each year. But this is about much more than what happened on court.
The book gives us great insights into what happened behind the scenes as Bird and Magic strove mightily to have their teams come out on top. Both were intensely competitive players and respected each other as competitors even as they fought tooth and nail to win.We are with them every step of the way from their hardscrabble childhoods to success in the NBA and beyond, to Magic’s contracting HIV and Bird’s back problems, to their Hall of Fame inductions and their post NBA careers.Nor is the book only about them . There are plenty of other stories of people who impacted their lives, people such as Jerry Buss , Red Auerbach, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Pat Riley , Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton , Cedric Maxwell, and a host of others. Some of the anecdotes are well known but many are new. For instance , I didn’t know that Jerry West , the Laker GM , was leaning towards taking Sidney Moncrief of Arkansas with the first pick in the 1979 draft. If Jerry Buss, about to buy the Lakers, had not insisted otherwise we might never have seen Magic in a Laker uniform. Likewise, I didn’t know about Julius Erving befriending Magic when he was about to turn pro. Or about the time in 1978 that Joe B. Hall, coach of the U.S. team at the World Invitational Tournament, left both Magic and Bird on the bench in order to showcase his own U. of Kentucky players ! There are also fascinating glimpses of the inner workings the Celtics and Lakers during the glory years. As unselfish a player as Magic was , as low key as Bird was, I would not have thought any of their teammates could be jealous of them , but there were some.
Reading both players accounts of the infamous incident in which Kevin Mchale clotheslined Kurt Rambis as the latter was streaking to the basket for a layup upset me all over again. Both Bird and Magic view that incident as the turning point in the series . What is upsetting is that the Celtics seem to be unrepentant, treating it as a necessary ploy. In fact , reading about the gamesmanship of the Celtics ( Red Auerbach, the management and the fans , not so much the players) infuriated me all over again. By the close of the book , my respect for Bird had only increased but so had my hate for the Celtics.
Jackie McMullan , who authored the book along with Magic and Bird, has done a commendable job stitching together their memories.The book is a must for any lover of basketball , not just for fans of the Celtics and Lakers. I wish though that she had been a little more careful in her word choices. She writes repeatedly about players submitting their game stats ( as in “.. submitted 42 points , 13 rebounds and 12 assists..” ) as if it was a term paper. And really, a journalist with 30 years experience should not make mistakes like writing ‘shoot‘ when she means ” chute“. These are minor flaws but they are distracting in what is otherwise a very enjoyable book.
When the Game Was Ours. Larry Bird and Earvin Magic Johnson with Jackie McMullan. Houghton Mifflin ( 2009). $ 26.