It was the 1979 Collegiate Basketball Championship, and on the sidelines of the court were two great players who were about to go face-to-face in a game that would change their careers. Larry Bird, playing for Indiana State, and Magic Johnson, playing for Michigan State, were two of the best basketball players during this time and were about to go head-to-head in a competition that sparked a rivalry between them that lasted throughout the 1980s.
Larry Bird’s journey began in the small rural community of French Lick, Indiana. His mother, Georgia, worked as a cook in a restaurant, and his father, Joe, was a blue-collar worker in the construction field. Larry also grew up as a blue collar-worker, working more than forty hours a week at a local grocery store while in high school. It was here where he got his work ethic and dedication that he used later in his basketball career to make himself so successful. With the money he made weekly, he helped to put food on the table and help take the burden off his parents. He spent about equal amounts of time on the court and at work, and with his work ethic, he still managed to play at a junior college his freshman year. His unmatched drive was noticed and would eventually lead him to play at a division one college—Indiana State.1
During his time at Indiana State, Bird did not allow himself to be benched, and he quickly became one of the most popular players in college basketball at the time. He also developed a mindset that winning was the most important thing, and that losing was not an option.2 Larry Bird, being the star sharpshooter of the 29-0 Indiana State team, eventually played a 25-6 Michigan State team that had one of the best point guards in the country, Magic Johnson.3 Ervin “Magic” Johnson was one of the most talented and well-known players in the country. His passing abilities and ability to lead on the court was one-of-a-kind, and pro scouts had an eye on him from the day he walked onto the court at Michigan State. The popularity of both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson made the 1979 NCAA Basketball game the most watched college basketball game in history. Everyone was watching to see if Magic Johnson would defeat Larry Bird, a kid that came from nowhere.4
The Indiana State Sycamores and the Michigan State Spartans went head-to-head in the 1979 NCAA Basketball Championship on March 26 in Salt Lake City. On the court, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson both had something to prove to the millions of fans watching the game, all over the country. Each man had fans supporting them. Larry’s fans wanted him to prove that a small-town kid from nowhere could beat the charismatic, team-player Magic Johnson. However, during the game, Larry let the stress of the game get to him, and he started under-performing, missing 14 of 21 shots, only scoring 19 points. This was so uncharacteristic of the player that normally was unfazed by the competition and excelled at shooting and dictating what would happen on the court. Michigan State’s unmatched pursuit on the defensive side of the ball rattled Larry and caused him to perform at a low caliber. On the other side of the ball, Magic Johnson with Michigan State shot a game-high of 24 points. His performance showed the public that, statically, Magic Johnson was better than Larry Bird. This was something that Larry Bird could not stand and it fueled his competitive side, creating a rivalry that lasted until the next time they played each other at a high stakes game.5
After the game, Bird was devastated and covered his face with a towel while he cried. This loss to Magic Johnson stayed in Bird’s mind until he could redeem himself. After the 1979 game, Bird graduated from Indiana State and was drafted to play in the Boston Celtics. He kept working hard, and he started regularly making shots instead of passing the ball. During the 79’-80’ season, Bird made Rookie of the Year with the Celtics, making a huge turnaround, a 32 win improvement from the previous season. In 1981, the Celtics, with Bird leading them, won their first NBA title and continued to win.6 All of these wins helped Bird to become more confident, so that when he played Magic Johnson again in the 1984 NBA Finals, he would not be defeated and embarrassed like he had been before.
During the time after Johnson’s win in 1979, Johnson also went on to be drafted into the NBA by the Los Angeles Lakers. In 1980, Magic Johnson was named NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) and played all five positions to help his team win the NBA Finals in 1980 and 1982.7 Finally in 1984, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers went head-to-head in the NBA Finals. Bird’s Celtics were having a 62-20 regular season record and Johnson’s Lakers a 54-28 season record. These seven games gave Bird and Johnson a sense of déjà vu, making them think about the last time that they played each other in a game with such high stakes. For the NBA Finals, it’s best four out of seven games wins. And the series went to a dramatic finish on a final game to decide the 1984 Finals champion. This was a chance for Bird to redeem himself and beat Magic Johnson, a man who defeated Bird in a game that had been so important to him in 1979.
There was so much anticipation for the Finals series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. It was West coast Vs East coast, Hollywood life Vs Bostons blue collar personality. The beginning of the series went both ways, with the first four games splitting the series 2-2. Game five in the Boston Garden was 97 degrees Fahrenheit, because the AC was broken. Despite the harsh playing conditions, Bird posted a game high of 34 points and added in 17 rebounds. The hot play by Bird helped the Celtics come back from a 15 point deficit and they won making the record 3-2 Celtics. This game proved that Birds determination and unmatched pursuit despite playing in harsh conditions gave him the edge over Johnson. The Celtics had a chance to defeat Johnson’s Lakers in Los Angeles during game six, but were unsuccessful. The fast paced Lakers team at home with a roaring LA crowd in the Forum was too much for Bird and the Celtics. So they had to play Game Seven for the championship. This game, in the Boston Garden, was everything for Bird and for the city of Boston. It was a one for all and all for one epic scenario, with Bird and the city that he represented standing by his side. This was the pivotal moment in his life that he needed to fulfill and it was the chance of receiving the glory that had been once denied him by his nemesis Magic Johnson.
This game would be the epic conclusion to the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The wait was over; it was June 12th, game seven of the 1984 NBA Finals. Both teams standing on either side looking at each other with competitive ferocity and with the crowd on Bird’s side, it was going to be a game to remember. Johnson was rattled during the game and shot very poorly due to the crowd’s roaring and tremendous atmosphere, which gave the Celtics the competitive edge. The safe play with few turnovers and with every shot that went in by a Celtics player the crowd would erupt with loud cheers. Bird was playing stellar defense and the Lakers had little to match for Bird’s Celtics in the second and third quarters, and it proved to be too much for Johnson’s Lakers. Bird and the Celtics defeated Johnson and the Lakers 111-102. Bird posted a double-double of 20 points and 12 rebounds and after an amazing performance, was named Finals MVP.8 Bird’s realization that he had finally defeated Johnson in such a big venue fulfilled Bird’s vengeance that fueled him for years. Bird wanted it more and Johnson didn’t, and Bird came out on top. Bird reflecting on the games said, “It’s a matter of intensity. You play as hard as you possibly can. You never give up.”9 This is exactly what Bird needed to ultimately defeat Magic Johnson. The combination of heart and the intensity that the Celtics displayed in the 1984 NBA Finals was too much for Johnson and the Lakers. This Finals win over Johnson gave Bird the realization that a strong work ethic can help you to achieve your goals.
After the 1984 game, Bird and Johnson both ended up winning more NBA titles individually and actually ended up playing together on the Olympic basketball team in 1992, known as the Dream Team. Bird and Johnson were the two most famous basketball players during this time and when working together, they made the NBA more popular. In 1996, both Bird and Johnson were named in the 50 greatest players in NBA history.10 Even after both men became friends, the Bird and Johnson era marked a rivalry that will echo for all eternity in the NBA.