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From the moment these two legendary players took the court on opposing sides, they engaged in a fierce physical and psychological battle. In Celtic green was Larry Bird, the hick from French Lick, with laser-beam focus, relentless determination, and a deadly jump shot, a player who demanded excellence from everyone around him and whose caustic wit left opponents quaking in their high-tops. Magic Johnson was Mr. Showtime, a magnetic personality with all the right moves. Young, indomitable, he was a pied piper in purple and gold. And he burned with an inextinguishable desire to win. Their uncommonly competitive relationship came to symbolize the most thrilling rivalry in the NBA East vs. West, physical vs. finesse, old school vs. Showtime, even white vs. black. Each pushed the other to greatness, and together Bird and Johnson collected eight NBA Championships and six MVP awards, helping to save a floundering NBA. At the start they were bitter rivals, but along the way they became lifelong friends. With intimate detail, When the Game Was Ours transports readers to an electric era and reveals for the first time the inner workings of two players dead set on besting each other. It is a compelling portrait of two giants of the game, during professional basketball's best times.
APRIL 9, 1978
Lexington, Kentucky. The errant shot came off the glass at a sharp angle, but Larry Bird, charting the flight of the ball, pulled down the rebound and advanced without hesitation, swiveling his head as he examined his options.
Earvin Johnson had already begun to head down the court the moment the ball was in flight. He’d been playing with Bird for only six days on a team of college All-Stars in this international round-robin competition, yet already Johnson had determined that Bird was the most resourceful rebounder they had.
Bird filled the center lane, and Magic streaked down the right side, calling for the ball, but the forward looked away, as if he had pressing matters elsewhere. For one brief instant, Magic was disappointed. “I guess he’s not going to give it to me,” he murmured.
And that’s when it came: a behind-the-back missile that landed directly on Magic’s right palm. It remained there just long enough for Johnson to disarm defender Andrei Lapatov with a crossover dribble, then sling it back over his shoulder with a no-look feed to Bird.
Indiana State’s star barely aligned the seams before his touch pass was back to Magic, leaving no time for the overmatched Soviet player to react. As Johnson banked in the lay-up, the crowd at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, roared with delight.
Magic turned and charged toward Bird to offer him his signature high-five. Bird slapped the teenager’s hand, and the two jogged back down the floor, side by side, one skipping, clapping, and celebrating as he went, the other, head down, expressionless, as if nothing remarkable had occurred.
The intertwined basketball journey of Earvin Magic Johnson and Larry “Joe” Bird had officially begun—as teammates.
Johnson had never met Bird before the tournament. He was stunned at how well the forward passed the ball, and when Bird fed him the no-look pass, Magic told himself, “I’m not going to let this guy upstage me.”
“It was an incredible three seconds of basketball,” Magic said. “It was boom, boom, boom! I’m thinking, ‘Man, I love playing with this guy!’ And believe me, the crowd loved it too.”
Some thirty years after that collaborative transition basket, executed against the Soviet Union’s national team when Magic was just eighteen years old and Bird only twenty-one, both remember the play with startling clarity.
“The defender was stumbling to keep up with us,” Bird recalled. “We were coming at him so fast that his head was going around and around, and he ended up in a circle. I was sort of laughing, because the poor kid didn’t have a clue.”
He wasn’t the only one. No one thought to chronicle the footage of Bird and Magic’s wizardry in the open floor. There were no breathless descriptions of the artful passers in the morning papers. In 1978, though both had displayed a developing basketball pedigree, they were not widely recognized as elite players. At that juncture, neither had won an NBA championship, a league MVP, or, for that matter, an NCAA title. The irony of Bird and Magic commencing their storied relationship as teammates did not register because their parallel careers had not yet evolved into one of the compelling rivalries in basketball history.
“They were certainly good,” noted Michael O’Koren, their tournament teammate, “but they weren’t Magic and Larry—not yet.”
Instead, Johnson and Bird were second-stringers on an amateur basketball team participating in an international round-robin competition called the World Invitational Tournament, or WIT, attempting in vain to prove to the coach, Joe B. Hall, they were worthy of prime-time minutes.
Although Bird and Magic occasionally shared knowing glances when the two of them outwitted the starters in practice, Bird revealed little of himself to Johnson. He was a young man of few words—until he went back home to French Lick, Indiana, and tracked down his brother, Mark Bird.
“I’ve just seen the best player in college basketball,” Larry gushed. “It’s Magic Johnson.”