Monday, January 3
From coast to coast, a magical pair
By Andy Katz

 Michael Jordan may be one of the top five athletes of the century, but he's not responsible for changing the NBA, or to some extent, the NCAA's Final Four.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson can close the century knowing they resuscitated the pro game and gave new life to the college tournament.

Bird, the fair-haired white shooter from the sticks of Indiana, led an undefeated Indiana State to the national title game in 1979. Magic Johnson, the flashy, gregarious African-American point guard from urban Michigan, brought a taste of showtime to Michigan State.

Larry Bird
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson revived the NBA in the 1980s.

That title game became one of the most documented finals in history -- it remains the highest-rated college basketball game ever, a contest that captivated the nation. It helped that neither program had a history of reaching the Final Four. UCLA had dominated most of the previous 15 years, but the '79 final gave us a taste of two programs that were led by stars. Bird and Magic helped set the tone for a 20-year period where players actually grabbed equal billing with the head coaches (does anyone remember who coached Indiana State?).

Also, the Bird-Magic showdown was a turning point for the NCAA Tournament, which became one of sports hottest properties. In November, CBS extended its current deal with the NCAA with an 11-year, $6 billion deal -- about $545 million per year to televise the tournament.

But that '79 title game has grown in importance in part because the Bird-Magic continued in the NBA. No other individual rivalry has moved from one level to the next without a time gap. Bird simply traded his light blue Sycamores' jersey for the Celtic green. Magic went from Spartan green and white to Laker yellow and purple.

The NBA has always been about one-on-one duels. Bird, the forward, and Magic, the point guard, didn't guard each other. But the rivalry continued as the Lakers and Celtics battled for NBA supremacy throughout the 1980s.

Magic vs. Bird
Tale of the tape:

Lakers: 1980, '82, '85, '87, '88
Celtics: 1981, '84, '86

Magic: 1987, '89, '90
Bird: 1984, '85, '86

1984: Celtics 4, Lakers 3
1985: Lakers 4, Celtics 2
1987: Lakers 4, Celtics 2

Bird represented Boston, a blue-collar city. Magic's GQ persona was the right fit in Hollywood. It didn't hurt that Bird was white, playing in Boston, a city with a history of racial intolerance. It certainly helped that Magic was in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the nation.

Acknowledging the race issue isn't being racist. Certainly, the Celtics had African-American fans. But a healthy, respected rivalry between two players of different races was good for both cities and for the nation that followed the sport.

Playing seven-game series in Boston and Los Angeles brought the coasts closer together. Magic and Bird were the best competitors in the game -- the best players -- and their teams battled in three riveting championships in 1984, 1985 and 1987. In every year of the decade, either the Lakers or Celtics played for the title.

Remember this as well: When Magic and Bird entered the league in 1979, the NBA Finals were broadcast on a tape-delayed basis. You had to say up until 11:30 p.m. to watch Brent Musberger call the play-by-game. The league was riddled with drug problems and attendance was sagging.

Many like to credit David Stern with reviving the league. But where would David Stern be without Magic Johnson and Larry Bird?

With the NBA struggling for an identity (Julius Erving was viewed as a novelty), Bird and Magic gave the NBA star power. Jordan was still in college when Bird and Magic played in their first NBA Finals. The rivalry allowed the NBA to become a form of entertainment. The media loved the rivalry and the pair seemed to flourish in it, as well. They were loyal to their cities and their organizations, which played well across the nation. Neither player ever considered being traded and that allowed fans to root for teams they knew would mostly remain intact. Today, Scottie Pippen is trying for another NBA title with his third team in three years.

Jordan won six NBA titles, the last two against the Utah Jazz. He didn't have a rivalry with Karl Malone or John Stockton. For one thing, you can't have a rivalry if only one team wins. Bird and Magic were both winners, sometimes against each other. They helped create the interest in the Final Four and they made today's NBA.

Andy Katz is a staff writer for

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