From the moment these two players took the court on opposing sides, they engaged in a fierce physical and psychological battle. Their uncommonly competitive relationship came to symbolize the most compelling rivalry in the NBA. These were the basketball epics of the 1980s — Celtics vs Lakers, East vs West, physical vs finesse, Old School vs Showtime, even white vs black. Each pushed the other to greatness — together Bird and Johnson collected eight NBA Championships, six MVP awards and helped save the floundering NBA at its most critical time. When it started they were bitter rivals, but along the way they became lifelong friends.
With intimate, fly-on-the-wall detail, When the Game Was Ours transports readers to this electric era of basketball and reveals for the first time the inner workings of two players dead set on besting one another. From the heady days of trading championships to the darker days of injury and illness, we come to understand Larry’s obsessive devotion to winning and how his demons drove him on the court. We hear him talk with candor about playing through chronic pain and its truly exacting toll. In Magic we see a young, invincible star struggle with the sting of defeat, not just as a player but as a team leader. We are there the moment he learns he’s contracted HIV and hear in his own words how that devastating news impacted his relationships in basketball and beyond. But always, in both cases, we see them prevail.
A compelling, up-close-and-personal portrait of basketball’s most inimitable duo, When the Game Was Ours is a reevaluation of three decades in counterpoint. It is also a rollicking ride through professional basketball’s best times.
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About the Author
Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr., in his 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, claimed 5 NBA titles, 3 MVP awards and was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002. He also won an Olympic gold medal as part of the 1992 “Dream Team.” Currently, he is the Chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises and Vice President and part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jackie MacMullan is a nationally recognized sports columnist, who spent three decades at the Boston Globe and covered the NBA for Sports Illustrated in the late 1990s. She is a frequent correspondent for ESPN, CNNSI and local Boston television networks. She is also a regular contestant (and the only female one) on ESPN's Around the Horn.
Read an Excerpt
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 roundrobin 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 18 years old and Bird only 21, 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.” ### The World Invitational Tournament was a whirlwind, made-for-television event that assembled a group of top college players and held three games in five days against the Soviets, Cuba, and Yugoslavia at rotating venues: the Omni in Atlanta, Carmichael Auditorium on the campus of North Carolina, and Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Bird had just completed his junior season at Indiana State as a first-team All-America selection who would be drafted by the Boston Celtics within the next three months. Magic had just finished his first year at Michigan State, a third-team All-America pick who had dazzled the Big Ten with his array of no-look feeds, alley-oops, and backdoor bounce passes.
Yet, on the World Invitational team, also known as the Converse Cup, Johnson and Bird were afterthoughts. The headliners were Joe B. Hall and his Kentucky Wildcats, who had beaten Duke 94– 88 the previous week to capture the NCAA championship. Coach Hall placed five of his guys on the WIT roster: swingman Jack “Goose” Givens, who had poured in 41 points in the title game against Duke; Rick Robey, their rugged big man; point guard Kyle Macy; lefty forward James Lee; and guard Jay Shidler.
Givens, Macy, and Robey garnered most of the minutes in the tournament even though the second team, anchored by Johnson and Bird, dominated them in practice. Privately, both players fumed as they sat and watched inferior players gobble up their minutes.
“There were the Kentucky players, and the rest of us were fillers,” Bird said. “Hall wanted to go around the country and show off his guys.”
Bird and Magic spent a total of eight days together during the WIT. They engaged in no more than four or five conversations, even though they ate together, practiced together, and rode the bus together. While Magic hobnobbed with Arkansas star Sidney Moncrief, blasting his boom box and jiving to the beat of the Ohio Players, Bird remained largely to himself, surveying the Kentucky scenery out the bus window while Magic’s music — and personality — overtook the team.
“Magic was nonstop chatter,” said Rutgers star James Bailey. “And Larry said zero. It was ‘Good morning,’ and don’t expect a lot more.”
The World Invitational Tournament was the concoction of television executive Eddie Einhorn. While professional basketball in the 1970s produced dismal ratings, the colleges, provided the matchups had some national appeal, were proving to be a market with potential.
Einhorn had already successfully televised exhibition games against Russians and felt that a competition with some international flavor would prove to be successful. Thus, the WIT was born.
Einhorn enlisted the help of Brandeis athletic director Dick Rodis and Providence College basketball coach Dave Gavitt, prominent members of the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States (later renamed USA Basketball), to fill out the roster around the Kentucky players.
“At that time, I really didn’t even know who Magic and Larry were,” Einhorn admitted. “I would venture to say most other people didn’t either.”
Gavitt was painfully aware of the abilities of Michigan State’s imposing point guard. Just weeks earlier, Magic and his Spartans had steamrolled Gavitt’s Providence Friars in the opening round of the 1978 NCAA Mideast Regional in Indianapolis. Magic scored 14 points and dished out 7 assists, but his ability to push tempo and provide his teammates with high-percentage shots (Michigan State hit 61 percent of its field goals) was what caught Gavitt’s eye. Johnson saw the game differently than the other players, almost as if he were watching the action unfold in slow motion.
Bird’s Indiana State team posted a 23–9 mark that spring but was left out of the NCAA field, relegated instead to the less prestigious NIT tournament. Gavitt had never seen him play and knew little about him. Since Indiana State was not being featured on network television, many basketball fans assumed Bird was African American.
Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan hadn’t seen Larry yet either, but was already well versed in Bird lore. Ryan was in Indianapolis to cover Providence but informed Gavitt he also was driving to Terre Haute to check out the Sycamores and this mysterious hidden gem, whom Celtics scouts assured him was a legitimate NBA prospect.
Ryan embarked on his pilgrimage with Providence Journal sportswriters Mike Madden and Jayson Stark, who were openly skeptical of Bird’s credentials. He was playing at a small school in a small conference, which, they surmised, accounted for his prolific offensive numbers.
The writers barely had time to remove their jackets before the right-handed Bird snared a rebound and started up the left side of the floor dribbling left-handed. Just shy of midcourt, he fired an underhand rocket pass to his guard off the dribble for a lay-up.
“From that moment on, I was hooked,” said Ryan.
Indiana State went on to win by a point on a jumper by Bird. Ryan was so animated talking about his performance on the way back to Indianapolis, he was driving 75 miles per hour when the state police pulled him over.
“Sorry,” Ryan told the trooper. “I’m just excited because I’m coming back from the ISU game.”
“Oh, yeah?” said the cop, ripping up the ticket. “Who won?”
The next morning the scribes were back court-side in Indianapolis to witness another legend in the making: a 6-foot- 8 (and growing) floor general who dominated play without a consistent jump shot. Magic was a whirling dervish of energy and enthusiasm. Even though he was just a freshman, he barked orders to his older teammates and after every successful play slapped hands, whooped, and celebrated with his teammates. The Friars players took offense at his histrionics, particularly in light of the lopsided score (77–63).
“Some people thought he was a hot dog,” Gavitt said. “I never did. He played like he loved the game. There was a lot of high-fives and fist-pumping, which you didn’t see a whole lot of back then.
“I suppose it was annoying if you were on the other team. I asked his coach, Jud Heathcote, about it, and he said, ‘Dave, he’s like that every day in practice. Not some days — every day.’”
After Gavitt met with the press and gave proper credit to Michigan State and their remarkable blossoming star, he bumped into Bob Ryan in the hallway.
“So, how did your ‘hidden gem’ do in Terre Haute?” he asked.
“Dave,” Ryan answered, “I just saw one of the game’s next great players.”
When it came time to flush out the World Invitational team roster, Gavitt recalled Ryan’s endorsement and added both Magic and Bird to his list.
Bird was ecstatic about being chosen, until he learned the identity of the coach. Joe B. Hall recruited Bird out of Springs Valley High School in French Lick, Indiana, but after watching him, Hall determined that Bird was “too slow” to play Division 1 basketball. A wounded Bird vowed to prove him wrong someday and was disappointed that he never had the opportunity to play against Kentucky in college.
“I wanted a crack at that guy,” Bird said.
The odds of that happening were slim. Kentucky was one of the more prestigious programs in the country. Their conference, the Southeastern, was known primarily as a football hotbed, with heavyweights Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and Georgia among its members. The Wildcats, under the tutelage of Adolph Rupp, had established themselves as one of the top basketball powers in the country in the late 1940s, winning four NCAA championships in ten years. Indiana State simply didn’t measure up, and neither did Michigan State — at least not until students named Earvin and Larry arrived on their respective campuses and instantly altered the basketball landscape.