TrueHoop: Magic Johnson

Lakers legends too busy to be upset

November, 17, 2014
Nov 17
12:04
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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The Lakers’ glorious past and pathetic present were both well represented at Staples Center on Sunday night, and normally the confluence of such a disparity is disruptive, like the turbulence when two weather fronts meet.

I still remember Lakers legends Jerry West and Magic Johnson fuming when the Lakers were swept by the Utah Jazz in the 1998 playoffs. West called it “ridiculous” and said players “should be embarrassed.” Johnson said, “I’m really upset at this.”

There was no such anger Sunday night, not even as the Lakers were picked apart by the Golden State Warriors 136-115 to drop their record to 1-9.

Maybe criticism wasn't at the forefront of people’s minds because of the reason they gathered: to celebrate Elgin Baylor’s 80th birthday. Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens flew in from Seattle. Dick Barnett, one of Baylor’s teammates in the Lakers’ early years in Los Angeles, came out from New York. Former Lakers players Tommy Hawkins, Lucius Allen and Michael Cooper were on hand as well. All of the fans at the game received replicas of Baylor’s No. 22 Lakers jersey, and he was honored at halftime with a lengthy video tribute. All in all, a wonderful homage to one of the NBA’s all-time greats.

Maybe they abstained from criticism because their minds are occupied elsewhere.

When Magic chatted with Cooper, his teammate through five championship seasons in the 1980s, the topic was the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, which Cooper used to coach and Johnson now owns.

As West made his way out of the building, he said, “We’re a fun team to watch.” He was talking about the Warriors, whom he currently serves as an executive board member.

The Lakers are still part of their identities, but they’re no longer their business. West left the front office in 2000 and Johnson sold his ownership stake in 2010. You could make a case that the exodus of the valuable institutional knowledge of Johnson and West is one of the reasons the team is in its current state.

The older generation of Lakers felt more nostalgic than ornery. Hawkins sat next to Baylor and talked about the team’s early days in Los Angeles, when they played at a nearly empty Sports Arena and didn’t have a full-time radio play-by-play announcer. Hawkins recounted one of his favorite stories, the time he and Baylor combined for 78 points -- 71 of them by Baylor.

Jeremy Lin probably won’t have such fond recollections of Sunday night, when he and Kobe Bryant combined to score 44 points -- 44 of them by Bryant. Bryant took 34 shots to Lin’s two.

But watching Kobe shoot and score seemed to be enough to satisfy the fans, who were oddly complacent throughout the game. No boos rained down, not even when the Warriors went ahead by 38 points. Most of the fans even remained in their seats well into the fourth quarter, even after it became apparent that neither Bryant nor the Warriors’ starters would return to the court. Lakers games feel more like a tourist destination than a sporting event these days. Come look at the banners and the Laker Girls and Jack Nicholson, say you’ve seen Kobe do his thing, and don’t worry about the outcome of the game.

One of the patrons who stayed until the end was Shaquille O’Neal, who was “in father mode” and took his kids to the game at their request.

O’Neal said Kobe and all of the residents of Lakerland just need to hang in there.

“It’s not what L.A. fans are accustomed to,” O’Neal said. “Just got to weather the storm.”

There’s sunshine in O’Neal’s life. He has an ownership stake in the Sacramento Kings, who are 6-4. The Lakers legends have moved on. Even on a rare occasion when they were all in the same building again, there was no collective angst about the franchise’s descent to the bottom of the Western Conference.

It’s not their problem.

Where do the Spurs rank among dynasties?

May, 28, 2013
5/28/13
1:26
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.

Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Sam Jones.

Those are the clubhouse leaders in the “best trios in NBA history” debate.

The formula to enter that debate? Three Hall of Famers, multiple NBA titles and longevity.

Let’s add Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to that conversation.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the first trio on a team other than the Celtics or Lakers to reach the NBA Finals four times together, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have recorded 98 postseason wins together, the second-most in NBA history by a trio, according to Elias. Only Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper (110) have more.

After winning three titles together but not reaching the NBA Finals since 2007, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the only trio in NBA history to win multiple titles and then experience a drought of at least five seasons before making it back to the Finals.

Duncan won his first title in 1999. When he takes the court in the NBA Finals, his 13-year gap between his first and last Finals appearance will be the longest in NBA history among players that played for the same team when they made those appearances.

Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich have recorded 129 wins together, the most by a player-coach duo in NBA history.

Parker is at the top of his game
Parker scored a team-high 14 points inside the paint in Game 4 on 7-of-8 shooting. Despite being listed at 6-foot-2, Parker led the Spurs with 40 points inside the paint in the series.

Parker’s 37 points in game 4 are tied for the third-most in a road win to clinch a Conference Finals series in the last 50 years. Only Michael Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar have scored more during that span.

Duncan still has it
Duncan was the primary reason why Zach Randolph had trouble scoring in the Conference Finals. As the primary defender, Duncan held Randolph to 5-of-17 shooting (29 percent) and 0.58 points per play. Randolph averaged one point per play in the first two series this postseason.

If the Spurs win the NBA Finals, Duncan would join John Salley as the only players in history to win a title in three different decades. Salley won with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, the Bulls in 1996 and the Lakers in 2000.

LeBron James isn't clutch? Think again

May, 23, 2013
5/23/13
3:19
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsLeBron James made a buzzer-beater with no time remaining to defeat the Pacers in Game 1.
What can’t LeBron James do?

Score 30 points? Check.

Triple-double? No problem.

Game winner at the buzzer? Sure.

LeBron is the first player in NBA postseason history with a triple-double and a buzzer-beater game winner in the same game.

Magic never did it. Jordan never did it. Bird never did it. Not even Oscar or Wilt. Only LeBron.

Not too long ago, the discussion was about how LeBron wasn’t clutch. That no longer seems to be a discussion.

Since LeBron came into the league in 2003-04, nobody in the NBA has made more game-tying and go-ahead shots in the final 24 seconds of playoff games than LeBron, who is 7-of-16 on those shots. His 43.8 field goal percentage on those clutch shots ranks the best in the NBA since his rookie season among players with at least 10 attempts. The league average is 28.3 percent on those shots.

Along with his buzzer-beater layup to defeat the Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron also made a go-ahead layup with just under 11 seconds remaining in overtime.

The buzzer-beater was LeBron’s first game winner in the final 10 seconds of a playoff game since his buzzer-beater against the Magic in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.

Coincidentally, that shot came exactly four years ago to the day -– May 22, 2009.

The last time any NBA player made a buzzer-beater to win a playoff game was Paul Pierce for the Celtics in 2010 against the Heat.

LeBron and Ralph Sampson are the only players in NBA history with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and three blocks in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Sampson did it in 1986 for the Rockets against the Nuggets. Blocks became an official statistic in 1973-74.

Since the 2006 postseason, a player has had a playoff triple-double with at least 30 points four times. All four of those players are named LeBron James.

The last player other than LeBron to accomplish that feat was Steve Nash, for the Suns in 2005 against the Mavericks.

LeBron and Oscar Robertson are the only players in NBA history with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a playoff game four times, according to Elias. LeBron has done it four times, while Robertson has done it eight times.

LeBron now has nine career postseason triple-doubles, which ties him with Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time list, according to Elias. Only Magic Johnson (30), Jason Kidd (11), Rajon Rondo (10) and Larry Bird (10) have more.

Jrue Holiday emerging as elite point guard

December, 6, 2012
12/06/12
5:52
PM ET
Saini By Sunny Saini
ESPN Stats & Information
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Mark L. Baer/US PresswireJrue Holiday (left) and the 76ers will face Rajon Rondo (right) and the Celtics on ESPN Friday night.
Jrue Holiday might be ready to insert his name into the list of elite point guards in the NBA.

Holiday, who will lead the Philadelphia 76ers into their division matchup with the Boston Celtics on Friday (ESPN, 7 ET) is averaging career highs in points per game (18.2), assists per game (9.3) and player efficiency rating (18.5) this season.

If he keeps up this pace of 18 points and nine assists per game, he would be one of four players since 2000 to have those averages along with Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Deron Williams.

Even though Holiday is leading the NBA in turnovers with more than four per game, the 76ers as a team have the second-lowest turnover percentage (12.6). With a career-high usage rate percentage of 26, the turnovers are expected to be high. At his current averages, Holiday would join Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas (1986-87) and Magic Johnson (1988-89) as the only players with 18 points, nine assists and four turnovers per game for a season.

No team is dependent on one player to create their offense as much as the 76ers are on Holiday. He has been responsible for 43 percent of his team’s total points this season, which leads the NBA. The “points responsible for” statistic includes offense generated from assists and points scored.

Holiday also leads the NBA in efficiency on isolation plays with a points-per-play average of 1.17 (minimum 30 plays), up from .89 last season.

Holiday is creating high-percentage opportunities for himself and his teammates. Last season he had a 47 effective field goal percentage (gives extra weight to 3-pointers) on isolation plays. This season he’s at 59 percent.

The pick-and-roll is a big part of every point guard’s repertoire to go along with isolations. Holiday is no different, as 59 percent of his offense either comes from the pick-and-roll or isolations, compared to last season when 46 percent of his offense came from those plays.

With high usage rate in those play types Holiday has made drastic improvement in his shooting percentage from 42 percent last season to 46 this season on pick-and-rolls and isolations.

The 76ers are 10-8 without a single former All-Star active on their roster. Key offseason acquisition Andrew Bynum is still not healthy enough to suit up. However, Holiday almost singlehandedly has kept the 76ers in the playoff hunt.

It will be interesting to see how Holiday fares with a national audience against a superstar point guard, Rajon Rondo, who is also top five in points responsible for and leads the league in assists at nearly 13 per game.

2012 Team USA: Better than Dream Team?

July, 12, 2012
7/12/12
12:59
AM ET
By Ryan Feldman & Gregg Found, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
US PresswireWould the current U.S. Olympic team have a chance against the Dream Team?
Kobe Bryant believes the 2012 U.S. Olympic team would beat the 1992 Olympic team. Is he correct?

According to AccuScore, which ran 10,000 computer simulations, the 1992 team would win 53.1 percent of the time and by an average margin of one point per game.

No one will ever know the true answer, but let's take a look at the Next Level analytical facts about the rosters at each point of their careers to help make the case either way.

REBOUNDING AND DEFENSE

Much has been made about the current team’s weak frontcourt. The 1992 team had four players who grabbed at least 15 percent of available rebounds in 1991-92 (Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, David Robinson). The current team has three players at that rebound rate last season (Tyson Chandler, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love).

The 1992 team had two players (Ewing, Robinson) who blocked at least 5 percent of the shot attempts they faced in 1991-92. No 2012 player had a block percentage higher than 3.4 last season (Chandler).

SHOOTING

Four current members had a true shooting percentage (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws) of at least 60 last season (Chandler, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James). Chandler (70.8 in 2011-12) led the NBA each of the past two seasons. Only one of the 1992 members had a 60 true shooting percentage (Barkley), although three others fell just short of that threshold in 1991-92 (Malone, Robinson, John Stockton).

PASSING

Five Dream Team members assisted on at least 25 percent of their teammates’ field goals in 1991-92 (Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Stockton), plus Magic Johnson had a 49.3 assist percentage in his most recent NBA season (1990-91). LeBron, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams had a 25 assist percentage or better last season, but none were as high as Stockton (53.7), who was in the midst of leading the league in assist percentage for 10 straight seasons.

AGE, EXPERIENCE AND CHAMPIONSHIPS

The 1992 team was about 2½ years older on average (28.8-26.2). Other than Bird and Magic, every Dream Team member was 30 years old or younger. Every member of the current team is 29 or younger, other than Kobe, who is 33.

But the NBA experience level is about the same. The 1992 team had, on average, 7.3 years of experience per player. This year’s team has 7.1.

As far as NBA titles, give the edge to the 1992 team. Its players had a combined 12 championships as they entered the Olympics -- five by Magic, three by Bird and two each from Jordan and Pippen.

The 2012 version has seven championships among them, carried by Kobe’s five. LeBron and Chandler each have one. The current team has members of each of the past four NBA champions, while the 1992 team had members of the then-past two champions.

PLAYER VALUE/EFFICIENCY

Using average win shares per 48 minutes in their previous NBA seasons, (including Magic’s 1990-91 season and not including Christian Laettner), the 1992 squad’s average is higher by 9 percent (.215-.198). Prefer player efficiency rating to win shares? The Dream Team’s PER was 3 percent higher (23.8-23.0).

IN THEIR PRIME?

Other than Laettner, all 11 Dream Team members are Hall of Famers. And only two could be considered in the twilight of their careers. Bird had just finished his last NBA season, while Magic had retired the previous year, although he made a brief comeback in 1995-96. As for this edition, one could make the case that all but the 33-year-old Kobe on the roster could appear on another Olympic team again.

The 2012 team gets under way with an exhibition game Thursday against the Dominican Republic on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET. Only time will tell whether this team is the modern-day Dream Team.

Nash trying to provide Bryant 'Magic' touch

July, 4, 2012
7/04/12
9:52
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireSteve Nash will provide a friendlier face for Kobe Bryant now that the two will be teammates.

Taken two picks apart in the 1996 NBA draft, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant will now be teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers.

Nash is headed to the Lakers in a sign-and-trade deal with the Phoenix Suns. He’ll be the most statistically notable Lakers point guard since Magic Johnson.

Nash’s Résumé
Nash averaged 10.7 assists per game last season. He has led the NBA in total assists in each of the past three seasons, and he holds the three top spots on the list of oldest players to lead the NBA in assists.

No Laker other than Johnson has averaged in double figures per game in assists in any season. Johnson did it nine times.

There are a few lists on which Nash and Johnson share space. The most noteworthy is the leaderboard for most seasons averaging 10 assists per game and shooting at least 50 percent from the field. John Stockton heads the list with eight such seasons, two more than Nash and Johnson.

With 84 more assists, Nash will become the fifth player in NBA history with 10,000 assists. With 225 assists, he'll match Johnson's career assist total.

Nash and Bryant
Nash and Bryant have been longtime rivals. The two went head-to-head in postseason play three times, with Nash’s teams winning two of the three series and 10 of the 18 games. Nash made quite the impression, averaging 18.9 points and 11.6 assists in those games.

Nash will be the most accomplished playmaking point guard Bryant has ever played with. Only one Lakers point guard has averaged at least seven assists per game since Bryant joined the team: Nick Van Exel in 1996-97 (8.5).

A look at the 2011-12 Suns with and without Nash on the floor shows just how much value he still has. The chart on the right shows the huge differences, particularly in points per 48 minutes and field goal percentage.

Lakers starting point guards last season averaged 7.7 points and 4.3 assists per game. That ranked second-worst and fourth-worst in the NBA, respectively.

Did You Know?
Nash won the MVP award in 2004-05 and 2005-06 with the Suns. He will become the third player in NBA history to play for at least three different franchises during his career and win multiple MVP awards (12 players have won multiple NBA MVP awards).

The other two are Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone.

Heat return to comfort zone vs Celtics

June, 5, 2012
6/05/12
1:17
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Credit: Steve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Game 5 winner has gone on to win the series 83.5 percent of the time when tied 2-2.
The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat (ESPN, 8:30 ET) will square off in Game 5 tonight with the winner taking a 3-2 lead in the series. The Celtics have put themselves in a good position to take control, because in the Big 3 era (since 2007-08 season), Boston is 8-0 in Game 5s when the series is tied 2-2.

The Heat, however, have been very comfortable at home against the Celtics recently. Miami is 6-1 at home against the Celtics in the postseason all-time, and according to Elias, Miami’s current six-game home postseason win streak against Boston is its longest against a single opponent in franchise history.

The Game 5 winner has gone on to win the series 83.5 percent of the time when tied 2-2.

Miami has certainly been more comfortable at home this postseason, averaging 100.4 points compared to 91.0 on the road. That's crucial, considering the Heat are 7-0 this postseason when scoring at least 100 points, and were 25-4 in such games during the regular season.

The focus for Miami will again likely be in the closing seconds. Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem each missed game-tying and go-ahead attempts with under 24 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and OT in Game 4, and the Heat are now 0-for-10 on such shots in the last two postseasons. Overall, Wade is now 2-8 on game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final 24 seconds of the fourth quarter or OT in his postseason career, below the league average of 26.9 percent. By comparison, LeBron James is 5-14 (35.7 percent) in those situations.

What's more, Wade has been a slow starter this series. He is averaging just 5.5 points on 25.8 percent shooting in the first half of games against the Celtics, his lowest points average for a first half for any round in his postseason career.

The Heat are also hoping to activate Chris Bosh for Game 5. His status could be pivotal, as Miami is 5-1 this postseason in games Bosh has played, with a +13.2 points differential in that span.

On the other side, the Celtics have relied heavily on Rajon Rondo in this series. Boston has been much better with Rondo on the court, averaging more than 19 points per 48 minutes compared to when he’s been off the floor. According to Elias, Rondo has 13 double-digit assist games this postseason and 38 for his career, and when he takes the court tonight, he'll be looking for his 39th 10-assist game, which would break the all-time Celtics record originally held by Bob Cousy.

Rondo's postseason performance has also placed him in great company this year. He's averaging 17.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 11.9 assists in 16 games this postseason, and according to Elias only one player in NBA history has averaged at least 17 points, six rebounds and 11 assists in 10+ games played in a single postseason (Magic Johnson did it six times).

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com.

Rondo among elite playoff point guards

May, 6, 2012
5/06/12
11:17
PM ET
By Ryan Feldman, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

David Butler II/US PresswireRajon Rondo (right) has double-digit assists in each of his last three playoff games.
Rajon Rondo is making it clear how important point guard play is in the NBA playoffs.

Rondo is the first player with at least 20 points and 16 assists with no more than one turnover in a playoff game since Tim Hardaway for the Golden State Warriors in 1991, who had 27 points, 20 assists and one turnover against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Rondo, Hardaway and Magic Johnson are the only players to accomplish this feat in the last 25 years.

In the last 25 seasons, a Boston Celtics player has had at least 16 assists in a playoff game eight times. Rondo has seven of those performances (Larry Bird had the other in 1990).

Rondo consistently gets it done in the playoffs. Among players in NBA history with fewer than three turnovers per game, only John Stockton (10.1) averages more assists per game than Rondo (8.6).

With Rondo on the court in the playoffs, the Celtics are 14 points better per 100 possessions than they are when Rondo is off the court.

Their offense is significantly better with Rondo, scoring 21 more points per 100 possessions. They're shooting 10 percentage points higher from the field and 13 percentage points higher on 3-point attempts, and they're averaging nine more assists with 5.5 fewer turnovers per 48 minutes with Rondo on the court.

A popular definition of a great point guard is one who makes his teammates better. There’s no better example of that in the playoffs than Rondo with Kevin Garnett. When Rondo is on the court in this series, Garnett is averaging eight more points per 48 minutes and shooting 25 percent better from the field.

Garnett, Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass are all scoring more, shooting better and have a better plus-minus when Rondo is on the court.

How important is a reliable point guard in the playoffs? Just ask the Bulls, who lost Derrick Rose to a torn ACL and went from an NBA title favorite to a First Round underdog.

Or how about the New York Knicks, who were outscored by a combined 60 points in their first three games against the Miami Heat before barely staying alive in Game 4?

Certainly, injuries to Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert have hurt the Knicks at point guard. No team has fewer assists (12.5) or more turnovers (19.5) per game in the playoffs than the Knicks. Their starting point guard, Baron Davis, who exited Game 4 with a dislocated patella, has 13 assists and 13 turnovers in the series. Every single other playoff team has at least one player with more assists per game in the playoffs than Davis, who leads the Knicks.

Still not sure how important strong point guard play is in the playoffs? Over the last three seasons, point guards with at least 12 assists are 19-6 in playoff games.

Rondo etches name in NBA record book

May, 5, 2012
5/05/12
1:05
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty ImagesRajon Rondo’s triple-double helped the Celtics take a 2-1 series lead over the Hawks.
Rajon Rondo made plenty of history in the Boston Celtics’ 90-84 overtime win over the Atlanta Hawks.

Rondo became the first player in NBA history with at least 17 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and four steals in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Elias also tells us he’s the first player in NBA history to record a triple-double in a playoff game after missing his team’s previous game.

Rondo triple-doubles equal Celtics wins. In Rondo’s 20 career triple-doubles (13 in the regular season, seven in the playoffs), the Celtics have a 19-1 record. The lone loss came to the Chicago Bulls in the first round in 2009.

Including the regular season and playoffs, nobody has more triple-doubles than Rajon Rondo (20) since the start of the 2008-09 season.

Rondo’s seven career playoff triple-doubles are tied with LeBron James for the second-most among active players, trailing only Jason Kidd’s 11.

Rondo really steps his game up in the playoffs. He notches triple-doubles more than three times as often in the playoffs as he does in the regular season. He’s done so once every 34 games in the regular season, but once every 11 games in the playoffs.

Per Elias, Rondo’s seven triple-doubles in his first 75 playoff games is tied with Kidd for the fourth-most in NBA history. Only Magic Johnson (18), Wilt Chamberlain (8) and Oscar Robertson (8) had more in their first 75 playoff games.

Only five players in NBA history have more than Rondo's seven career playoff triple-doubles. Magic Johnson (30) is the all-time leader in that category.

Rondo has etched his name in playoff lore by joining an elite list of NBA all-time greats.

OTHER CELTICS NOTES FROM GAME 3
• Paul Pierce was 14-of-14 on free throw attempts. Only three times in the past 20 seasons has a Celtic made all of his free throws with at least 14 attempts, and it was Pierce each of those three times.

• Ray Allen came off the bench for the first time in a playoff game. He had started his first 110 career playoff games.

• The Celtics have won nine of their 10 playoff series against the Hawks, with the Hawks’ only series victory coming in the 1958 NBA Finals while the team was located in St. Louis. According to Elias, Boston’s .900 winning percentage in playoff series against the Hawks is the highest any team has over another in NBA history (minimum six series).

Magic and Larry Legend on the big stage

April, 6, 2012
4/06/12
12:14
PM ET
Wade By Jared Wade
ESPN.com
Archive
Magic/Bird
Magic/Bird Press
As depicted in a new play, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had their share of awkward moments before a friendship developed.

On one side of the stage is actor Tug Coker playing Larry Bird. On the opposite end is Kevin Daniels in the role of Magic Johnson. Each is talking on a phone with his agent in what begins as one of the more mundane scenes in Eric Simonson’s new Broadway play Magic/Bird.

Larry’s rep tells him that Converse wants to film a commercial for his new signature basketball sneaker, the Weapon. Sounds great, says Larry. Have them send me a script and let's shoot it.

There is one catch: Magic Johnson, Bird is informed, will also be in the commercial.

Cue the record scratch.

On second thought, thanks but no thanks, says Larry.

Magic has a similar conversation with his agent, who tells his client that Converse wants him, at Bird's request, to film the TV spot in his rival's hometown.

"There's no way I'm going to French Lick," says Magic. "I live in Hollywood. This is where they make commercials."

OK then, says his agent. It looks like there won't be any Magic Johnson basketball sneaker after all.

"Wait," says Magic. "Where is French Lick?"

Smash-cut to Indiana.

Bird and Magic stand on opposing sides of a basketball court wearing hoops gear. And Converse Weapons. Their patience is wearing thin. Each complains to his respective handler that the filming is tedious. Magic says he is headed to his trailer and will be back when they need him. As he walks off, Bird calls out. The two rivals speak, having a real conversation for the first time. It starts awkwardly. Then it gets more awkward. Bird has a request.

"My mom was wondering if … you … want come up to the house … to have lunch … with us," says Larry.

Magic is taken aback. Larry explains that his mom will be upset if Magic refuses. "Do me a favor," he asks, adding that he doesn't want to be in his mom's "dog house." Magic, still somewhat puzzled, accepts.

Cue Mrs. Bird absolutely stealing the show.

Georgia Bird explains to Magic that she has been following his career ever since his high school team won the Michigan state title, "something Larry never did," she notes.

"Thanks, mom," says Larry.

"You were my favorite player," she says to Magic.

"Don't forget about Bill Laimbeer," says Larry.

Mrs. Bird and Magic hug.

As they talk, the Lakers point guard interrupts his greatest rival's mom to tell her, "You can call me Earvin."

She does just that while informing her new friend that her son was supposed to have played ball as a Hoosier at the prestigious Indiana University.

"He would have played under Bobby Knight," but instead "got scared or something" and was "back here in three weeks."

Slowly, this warmth and familiarity that Mrs. Bird exudes towards a new friend spills over to her son. After Larry's mom exits to tend the mashed potatoes, the two future Hall of Famers discuss the Birds’ vast acreage in front of the house. Earvin seems envious that Larry has this wide-open expanse where nobody treats him like a legend. Like the Legend.

Magic doesn't have an escape. He loves Hollywood, but you can tell that Earvin is starting to realize that Larry has something of which he can only dream. Larry opens up about his upbringing and how it's nice that he now has his space, something he never had as a child in a family with five siblings. Earvin had nine, he says.

Larry lets his guard down so much that he almost slips up and tells Earvin how he hurt his back while shoveling gravel for a retaining wall he has been building all summer. He pauses, realizing he shouldn't be revealing a new physical weakness to Magic.

"Trade secret?" asks Earvin. “Something like that,” says Larry before later admitting to Earvin that he "wrenched" his back working on the wall.

Why, asks Earvin, is he, Larry Bird, the reigning NBA MVP, out there building a wall rather than employing a contractor? "If I can do it, why hire someone?"

"Because you can afford it"

"Huh," says Larry, who seems to have a yokel-turned-rich epiphany.

Cut to real life.


Who knows if any of these conversations ever happened? But real-life Magic and Legend actually did have lunch with Larry's mom while filming the Weapon commercial in French Lick in 1985. By their own admission, this was the moment when two men who had spent years hating each other, even as they together created March Madness and built the modern NBA, finally realized -- even grudgingly -- their commonalities.

It's fitting, then, that Larry was the one building a wall. As depicted in Magic/Bird, he was the one who showed more vulnerability as the two foes first became friends. In the literal sense, building the wall is what led to his physical demise, as we see later when he struggles through excruciating back pain during routine activities. But that metaphorical wall, that shell that he creates as a cocoon, was something he needed to construct to maintain his edge against the only man he knew could beat him. Larry can’t befriend his rival. He has to act the ornery bastard.

All this begs the question of whether or not a truly great competitor must show animosity to his opponent. The answer probably depends the individual.

Like Bird, Michael Jordan reveled in hate. It helped both thrive, and it seemed to be something they took with them off the court. But Hakeem Olajuwon, the leader of one of the six teams to win an NBA title over an 18-year stretch, always seemed more internally motivated, focusing less on how to beat you and more on flawless execution, knowing that the latter would take care of the win.

In the current era, guys like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowtizki have had tremendous success. Neither is particularly prone to animosity. Dirk, until he carried the Mavericks to the title last year without an All-Star sidekick, was called soft for years due to this.

Still, commentators -- and even retired NBA legends -- continue to chastise modern players who don’t have enough of a mean streak. Apparently, you can’t be a saint like David Robinson. To win it all, you need to be a hard-case like Karl Malone. Right.

Where does this disconnect come from? Was it an unprecedented run of dynasties by Bird, Magic, Jordan and Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boys that conditioned us to believe that winning requires a certain psychological makeup? These champions all approached the game from a similar mentality. And their near-two-decade reign makes it easy to forget that Bill Walton, Hakeem, Duncan and Dirk have all proved you can reach the pinnacle of success with varying degrees of antagonism.

Besides, even if today’s players want to hate the competition, it’s a lot harder in 2012. They didn’t first get to know one another five years into their NBA career. Most became friends playing AAU or at summer camps before they could compare endorsement deals. So perhaps the only answer for today’s NBA star who wants to maintain the hate -- Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, perhaps -- is to follow Magic’s path.

Magic, as depicted in the play and in real life, found a way to blend competitive scorn into his gregarious nature. For him, there was also a wall, but it wasn’t always up. He balanced his need to be adversarial by constructing two sides to himself. On the court was the superstar Magic, while outside of the public eye he was simply Earvin.

As he suggests in the Magic/Bird, Earvin found it natural to hire a guy to build that wall for him. He hired Magic.

One scene shows how his on/off switch contrasts that single-mindedness of Bird. During their next regular season game following the Converse commercial shoot, Magic, wearing purple and gold, approaches Larry. "What's up, LB?"

Larry has nothing but scorn for him.

"Your man, Michael Cooper, over there," says Larry. "Tell him I'm putting on a show. A Larry Bird show. We're gonna kick your ass."


Jared Wade is the founder of 8 Points, 9 Seconds, the TrueHoop Network's Indiana Pacers blog

Tuesday Mini-Bullets

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
3:54
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

Friday Bullets

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:57
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Gather around for John Converse Townsend's rich, real-life story about the time the ABA's Kentucky Colonels upended the NBA's Baltimore Bullets in an exhibition game at Louisville's Freedom Hall in 1971. It was the first time an ABA squad beat a rival from the more prestigious, senior NBA. The Colonels had a formidable roster that featured Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel, while the Bullets were playing without Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson. The Bullets' Fred Carter joked that the ABA's tri-color ball looked like a prop for trained seals, but for the ABA, the win carried enormous symbolic importance.
  • Tom Ziller writes that the players' stance is as much about self-determination as it is a financial calculation. One reason: NBA players are much wealthier as a group than they were in 1998: "Make no mistake: with this week's moves by the players, the scales have evened. The players are no longer content to negotiate from the corner David Stern put them in. They looked Stern and MJ and Paul Allen and Dan Gilbert right in their gold-specked eyes and they waved a middle finger and they said, "No mas." That's what David Stern has to deal with now, if this ever gets back to the negotiating table: a collection of players that have had enough."
  • Imagine a world where Charles Barkley was drafted by Philadelphia in 2002 and paired with Allen Iverson.
  • SB Nation's Jason Concepcion on hard-line Phoenix owner Robert Sarver: "Sarver's signature lockout moment was his comment that his wife had asked him to return to Arizona with the mid-level exemption in her purse. I love that for two reasons -- 1) a woman with an eye for arcane salary cap exemptions is obviously a keeper, and 2) Robert Sarver is so cheap he travels with his wife's purse."
  • Beckley Mason on HoopSpeak on the systemic reasons why the system is broken and the owners' unwillingness to address those issues: "The only true source of owner accountability, fans deciding to tune out terrible teams, has been subverted by the owner’s ability to force a too big to fail type bailout at the expense of the labor and taxpayers. Now the owners are trying to impose some kind of logic on a system that is inherently tainted by their own unchecked power. If they really wanted to make the league better, they’d seek the same standard of competency and competition from themselves as they’re demanding of the players."
  • Shane Battier is using the lockout to contemplate life after basketball: "At this point, I’m confident that if the NBA were to never settle, I could go out and get a job and use my brain to provide for my family. That’s allowed me amazing piece of mind to just start thinking about post-basketball, but at the same time be ready for when we do settle, if we settle, to be ready to go."
  • At Hardwood Paroxysm, Noam Schiller looks at a potential arms race in Europe if the NBA lockout persists: "If the Gasol brothers come home to Barcelona --already one of Europe’s top basketball teams -- what do you think their bitter rival, Real Madrid, says? 'No thank you, Rudy Fernandez and Serge Ibaka are enough'? Hell no! They swing for the Dwights and the LaMarcuses and the Dirks -- anybody who can top that Catalan splash, both on the court and off it. And once a strong Real is even stronger, what say CSKA Moscow, or Maccabi Tel Aviv, or Panathinaikos? These are teams that dominate their domestic competitions, and their entire existence is built around the prospect of capturing the Euroleague crown. You think they’ll give it away just because bringing a really really really good player costs a lot of money?"
  • Bullets Forever explores why the allure of The Club is so potent for pro athletes and so foreign to many fans.
  • Hall & Oates sold a ton of records during the 1980s, but their lasting imprint might be the use of "One on One" in one of the NBA's best promotional ads.
  • Not sure what's more fun about this reel: Watching Magic Johnson or listening to Chick Hearn.

Monday Bullets

October, 3, 2011
10/03/11
2:48
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

NBA 2K12 keeps giving us what we want

July, 22, 2011
7/22/11
11:29
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
ESPN.com
Archive
Back when the NBA video game world was expanding into giving you an actual NBA experience, the limitations of games reached beyond whatever the technology allowed.

While NBA Live 95 was revolutionizing the overall expansion of NBA video games with a 30-degree angle, instant replay and the ability to trade players, it was being hampered with the exclusion of the league’s biggest star. Michael Jordan, among others, would not allow his likeness to be sold with these games. EA Sports cleverly went around these legal issues by inserting “Player 23” onto the Bulls, and wouldn’t you know it that he seemed to have the exact same look and abilities of a certain global icon.

It was something that you could work with and pretend he was actually in the game. But for many young teenagers such as myself, it was ultimately a disappointment when you fired up the Sega Genesis, went to the rosters after first inserting each yearly installment and seeing Player 23 defending you from fully embracing the pixilated NBA experience.

Last year, NBA 2K11 revolutionized the basketball gaming world for seemingly the 11th straight year. They worked out a deal with Jordan and put him on the cover of the game. Not only was he on the cover, he was in the game as his old self. You could play through 10 different moments of his career and each version of MJ was a bit different from the other, in order to simulate the feeling of playing with him in 1986 as opposed to using the 1998 version.

2K Sports gave us what all of the people playing basketball games in the 90s never got to do. We were able to be Jordan.

This year, they’ve announced that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson will be on the covers as well. And even though they’re still being coy with the new features of this year’s installment of the best basketball gaming franchise of all time, a lot of people are hoping they give you the same experience with Magic and Bird that they did in last year’s game and Jordan.

If we’re given the option to play through 10 moments of Magic and Bird’s careers, here are the moments I’m hoping we get to run through.

For Magic’s accomplishments:

- Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. Running out Magic as center and having him play all over the court throughout his first title-clinching game of his career.

- Game 6 of the 1982 NBA Finals. Record a triple double while playing against the Philadelphia 76ers to win the championship.

- Game 3 of the 1984 NBA Finals. Record at least 21 assists against the Celtics and win the game.

- Game 6 of the 1985 NBA Finals. Close out the Boston Celtics on their home floor to win the NBA title.

- Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals. This is the game with the famous hook shot by Magic to win the game and control the series against the Celtics.

- Game 6 of the 1987 NBA Finals. Close out the Boston Celtics for the second time by getting at least 16 points and 19 assists.

- Game 7 of the 1988 Western Conference Finals. Record at least 24 points, 9 rebounds and 11 assists while securing the win against the Mavericks.

- Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals. Close out the Pistons for the repeat by getting at least 19 points and 14 assists.

- 1992 All-Star Game. Get to play in his sendoff game after being allowed to play following his sudden retirement.

For Bird’s accomplishments:

- Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. After being down 3-1 in the series, the Celtics won two straight games to force Game 7. Close out the Sixers in Game 7 to move onto the Finals.

- Game 6 of the 1981 NBA Finals. Score 26 points and grab 13 rebounds with Bird to close out the Rockets and win his first NBA title.

- Game 7 against the Knicks in the 1984 playoffs. Record 43 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists while closing out Bernard King and the Knicks.

- Game 5 of the 1984 NBA Finals. Score 34 points and grab 17 rebounds to beat the Los Angeles Lakers and take a 3-2 lead in the Finals.

- 1985 regular season game against the Hawks. Score 60 points while watching for the Hawks’ bench players to celebrate in astonishment.

- 1986 regular season game against the Blazers. Score 47 points, record 14 rebounds and dish out 11 assists while they have Bird shooting primarily with his left hand.

- Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals. Put up 29 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists to knock off the Houston Rockets.

- Game 7 against the Hawks in the 1988 playoffs. Score at least 34 points to beat the hot shooting Dominique Wilkins.

- Game 5 against the Pacers in the 1991 playoffs. With a hobbled Bird, score 32 points to outduel Chuck Person and the Pacers.

If you’ll notice, I left a spot open for each player by only providing nine games. Hopefully there is a way to include the gold medal game of the Dream Team’s march through the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. They will probably have the rights to most of, if not, all of the players from that team.

That would be a fun way of expanding on the new legacy 2K Sports gave us last year by turning Player 23 into what every basketball game aficionado had been craving for the better part of two decades.

Magic and HIV: "We thought it was a death sentence"

July, 18, 2011
7/18/11
9:50
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
A team's athletic trainer, by virtue of his function, is at the very center of the lives of players. These are athletes whose job performances are predicated on good health -- and they look to a team's trainer as their primary guide on their physical well-being. When they feel sick or achy, tweak their back, are having trouble sleeping, or want advice on their diets, that's whom they consult.

Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti has been with the organization longer than virtually anyone -- since the 1984-85 NBA season. At the beginning of his eighth season with the team, Vitti remembers getting a phone call from Magic Johnson. The Lakers' point guard felt exhausted and wanted to take the last two games of the preseason off.

What developed over the next few days rocked not only the NBA, but reverberated internationally.

Nearly 20 years later, Vitti recounts to Mike Trudell the events surrounding Magic Johnson's announcement that he had contracted HIV:
MT: When we today see Magic so full of life, so vibrant, do we perhaps forget – at least to a degree – what the letters “HIV” meant in 1991?
Vitti: We thought it was a death sentence, just a matter of time. He was going to die.

MT: Do you think Magic ever believed that?
Vitti: No. He told me that he was going to beat it. But when he said it to you at the time, you’re like, ‘Good attitude, man.’ You didn’t really think he was going to beat it.

When we want to mark time, technology is what we most often use as a benchmark. As revolutionary as tools like the web and semiconductors might be, few things have changed more radically during the past 20 years than the way we publicly discuss HIV.

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