Commentary

Larry and Earvin still magic

Originally Published: March 6, 2012
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Larry Bird & Magic JohnsonGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesLarry Bird and Magic Johnson have been rivals on the court and good friends off it since 1979.

No two Americans in sports history are woven more tightly together than Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. And yet they're almost never in the same room.

That's because Bird, a famous homebody, has an odd rule. He refuses to travel farther than 45 minutes from where he stands, unless he absolutely has to. "I get homesick," he says with a shrug.

Which is why it was so rare to get them together on March 3 in the rarified air of Beaver Creek, Colo., much less have them sit still for an hour's worth of my questions.

The best of it:

Reilly: On April 11, you both will be at the premiere of a Broadway play about your lives -- "Magic/Bird." Larry, how many Broadway shows have you been to in your life?

(Sounds of Magic breaking up laughing.)

Bird (laughing): Uh, well (long pause while Magic laughs) ... uh ... thousands?

Reilly: Zero?

Bird: Yeah, zero.

(Magic now has his hands on the floor, laughing.)

Reilly: It's just, you don't seem like a Broadway play kind of guy.

Bird: I'm not! I couldn't even tell you where Broadway is!

Magic: Ahhhhh!

Bird (laughing): I didn't even go to my school play! And I was in it!

Reilly: Did you read the script?

Bird: Well, my wife read it to me. It's good. When it first came up, it was like anything else. I said, 'I ain't doing that.' But Earvin called me and said, "We gotta do this."

Magic: It's so cool! I'm a black kid from the ghetto and he's a hick from Indiana. And now we have a Broadway play. How does this happen?

One time, I was hurt. I was on the bench. Larry comes by during warm-ups and says, "Don't worry, Earvin. I'm gonna put on a show for you." I think he scored 40 that night and I think he only missed two shots. He'd get that walk goin' and that blond hair floppin' and you knew you were gonna be in for a long, long night.

-- Magic Johnson

It's been more than 20 years since Magic announced he had the HIV virus. This Tuesday night in L.A. is the premiere of the 90-minute ESPN film "The Announcement." The film debuts on ESPN on March 11 at 9 p.m. ET.

Reilly (to Bird): That day, did you think we were going to lose him?

Bird: We thought, at the time, there would be only 10 years left. That's what the doctors were telling us.

Magic: The first call I got that day was from Larry. Man, that moved me. You value great friends, people who, no matter what, will be there to support you.

Bird: Magic's agent (Lon Rosen) calls me and tells me about the announcement ahead of time. I said, "I gotta talk to him right now." And Lon goes, "I don't know. He's going through all this stuff right now." And I said, "I don't care. I gotta talk to him right now." And he put me through to him. ... Man, that really hit me. It really hit me hard. That was the first time in my life I played in a game that I didn't want to play (vs. Atlanta). I didn't have anything that night.

Magic: Twenty years later, we're still here. I have a lot to live for. I have a wife and grandkids and kids and great friends. The medicine is working. God blessed me.

The two men are so alike -- both grew up poor in the Midwest in big families (Magic had nine siblings, Bird five), with blue-collar fathers. (Magic's dad worked at a car factory, Bird's at a piano factory.) Each has three kids. Each has adopted kids (Bird two, Magic one.) Each married his college sweetheart. And yet they're as different as butter and butterflies.

Bird: You know, I used to wish I was like Magic -- happy go lucky, always friendly and smiling. And then I got to know him over the years and I decided, "Nah. No thanks." (laughing) I like being by myself. I'm a loner. People would ask why I sat in my garage. I'd say, "I gotta sit somewhere."

Magic: Let me tell you a story. I was gonna tell you this later, Larry, but I'll tell you now. I know a guy whose best friend lives next door to Larry down in (Naples) Florida. They meet up in the driveway and he asked Larry did he want to play golf. Larry says OK. This guy thought they would talk while playing golf. But Larry never said a word about talking. He just said he'd play golf. So they play golf and Larry doesn't say a word for 18 holes. Well, the guy thought he had done something wrong. "Man, what did I do to make Larry so mad at me?" So now they're loading the clubs back in the car and Larry says, "I had fun. Wanna do it again tomorrow?" Larry had the best time by not talking.

Reilly: How often do you hear about the other?

Bird: Just about every day. I don't travel much, but I can be anywhere, China or Israel or wherever, and it's always the same thing. "How's Magic? How's Magic doing?" Like I live with him or something.

Magic: First question I get whenever I speak is, "How's Larry? How was it playing against Larry?" Every airport, somebody will come up and go, "I'm a Celtics fan, but you and Larry, man, you two changed basketball." Look, man, I am happy to know this man. I tell kids who are trying to get good, "Go grab yourself a Larry Bird tape. And then you'll know how to play the game of basketball."

Reilly: Have you ever thought about what your rivalry and friendship has done for race relations?

Larry: I never got into that. I don't care nothin' about that. When I was a kid, like 14 or 15, I played with the waiters from the hotel, 'cause that was the best game. And these guys, they'd let me play. And they were black guys. And they'd go over and sneak a drag on their Kool cigarettes, but they let me play.

Reilly: Didn't your Michigan State teammates think Bird was black?

Magic: They did! Until they saw that SI cover. I told 'em, 'cause I played with him, this is the baddest white boy you'll ever see.

Bird: I remember when I first seen Magic play, I told my brother, "I think I just saw the best college player in the country." And my brother didn't really believe me. But then he saw him play and he came to me and said, "Man, Magic is BETTER than you!"

Reilly: What kinds of things would the other guy's fans do to you?

Bird: They'd be out there shaking our bus and everything. But one night, they beat us and we're walking out to the bus and this little Mexican guy ran up and just punched me right in the nose! Just jumped up and punched me right in the nose! And that little guy took off so fast. It was almost like it didn't really happen. I said to my teammates, "Did you see that? That Mexican guy punched me in the nose!"

Magic: One time, we had just landed at Logan (in Boston), during the Finals. We're walking through the airport and everyone -- everyone! -- is wearing Larry's jersey, wearing Celtics hats, all that. And this little old man comes up to me, all kinda hunched over, and he gets right up in me and says, (hissing), "Larry is going to KILL you." So now we get our bags and get on the bus and our bus driver is wearing a Celtic cap. And I'm thinking, "Are we going to make it to the hotel all right?" Then we go to check in to the hotel and everyone at the hotel -- everyone! -- is wearing Larry's jersey and Celtic jerseys and mean muggin' us. Just being real nasty. And the lady behind the counter goes (hissing), "Here's your key." Just staring at me.

The Lakers' Kobe Bryant said this week that he hasn't had a real rival in his 16-year career. Not LeBron James, not Dwyane Wade. If anything, Kobe's rivalry was with a former Lakers teammate, Shaquille O'Neal. But Bird and Magic were pure rivals. They were nearly the same height, turned pro the same year, and were so inflamed to beat each other that it pushed both of them to heights they might not have otherwise reached. Combined, they won eight NBA titles and six MVPs.

Reilly: What do you wish you could've stolen from the other guy's game?

Bird: I just could never figure him out. Most guys you could study and figure them out after a while, but Magic, you just never knew what he was gonna do.

Reilly: Did he ever make you look bad when you were back on a three-on-one?

Bird: Oh, yeah. I tried everything. One time, I even just decided I'd try to take a charge and just flop. No chance. I ended up on the floor once in the playoffs and the dunk landed right next to my head.

Magic: Larry was just so smart. He attacked you from so many different angles. And with Larry, you had to guard him five and 10 feet past the (3-point) line. Five feet past the line was nothing for Larry. One time, I was hurt. I was on the bench. Larry comes by during warm-ups and says, "Don't worry, Earvin. I'm gonna put on a show for you." I think he scored 40 that night and I think he only missed two shots. He'd get that walk goin' and that blond hair floppin' and you knew you were gonna be in for a long, long night.

Reilly: You two changed the game in so many ways. Your 1979 NCAA final in Salt Lake is still the highest-rated college basketball game ever. After that game, March Madness really caught fire. Do you ever wish you had a cut of all that money you made for the NCAA?

Bird: Oh, we got it.

Magic: We got some of it. But for us, it wasn't about money. We would've played for free, me and Larry.

Reilly: You two also, arguably, turned the NBA around, with the pass-first, unselfish way you played.

Magic: We didn't set out to do that. I was watching a tape of one of our Finals together and I counted eight straight plays -- on both sides -- where the ball never touched the ground. Never once touched the ground! We played a different kind of basketball than you see now, the kind where they feed it into one guy and everybody stands and watches him to see if he can score. We moved the ball, all the time.

Reilly: How much did it hurt when you lost to the other?

Bird: That '79 game (won by Magic's Michigan State Spartans, 75-64), that was the toughest time ever in my life as far as basketball goes. I just never dreamed we could lose that game. We were good but not as good as them. We play that game 10 times, we might win one of 'em.

Magic: I was depressed all that one summer (of 1984, after his Lakers lost in the Finals to Bird's Celtics in seven games). I was miserable. I sat in the dark a lot. I mean, a lot. I only went outside the house to go to the gym. I felt it was my fault for making some bad mistakes that cost us that series.

Reilly: Where? Where did you sit in the dark?

Magic: Just in my living room, going over the game, going over every play. 'Cause that's what you do when you lose. You sit and think about it. And the headlines were calling me "Tragic Magic."

Bird (laughing): I wrote them headlines!

Magic: If you didn't, you found somebody who would've!

Bird (laughing): Man, I had a great summer!

Magic: It's just, I hate losing. I still hate to lose. My daughter (Elisa, now 17) played a little for her school. So I play with her sometimes, one-on-one. We go to 10 points. l let her get to nine and then I have to crush her. Cookie (his wife) says to me, "You can't let her win one time?" And I'm like, "No, I can't!"

Bird: My son (Connor, 21) thinks Earvin is the king. He loves Earvin. I don't know why. I don't think he's ever seen either of us play. (Bird retired when Connor was 2.) When I told him I was going to be here with Earvin, he was like, 'Oh! Magic? Oh, tell him hey for me!"

Magic: Our wives like each other. They really hit it off. They're not trying to make each other suffer.

Reilly (to Bird): Didn't your wife (Dinah) used to rebound for you?

Bird: Yeah, 'til she broke a nail. You know, actually, she helped me become a better shooter. Because she wouldn't go get a shot that was really poor. If it hit the rim and went way off the other way, she'd say, "You go get that one. That's your fault." So she made me really concentrate.

[+] EnlargeMagc Johnson
Getty ImagesBird and Magic squaring off in the 1979 NCAA basketball final. They've been inextricably bound ever since.

Throughout the hour, Bird stayed in his chair, smiling and staring mostly at the floor in front of his feet. Magic, meanwhile, roamed through the crowd, gesturing wildly about Bird's greatness, making kids march up and shake his hand.

Magic: People, I'm telling you. There will never be another Larry Bird. This man was a genius. The things he would do!

Bird: I used to get bored. One night, I had this idea that I'm gonna try to shoot every shot left-handed.

Reilly: Didn't you spend a summer with your right hand tied behind your back, just so you could improve your left?

Bird: Well, not ALL summer. ... Anyway, (that night, teammate) Bill Walton asks me, "What are you doing? Don't do that. This team is pretty good." I think I made 11 of my first 14 left-handed.

Magic: Oh, my!

BIRD: Anyway, finally, my coach (K.C. Jones) calls a timeout and brings me over, 'cause we weren't too far ahead anymore. And he's pissed. And he says, "Use your other damn hand."

The two were asked about the Knicks' out-of-the-blue sensation Jeremy Lin, from Harvard, and about the league's runaway MVP leader this year, James.

Bird: Lemme tell you, this LeBron is about as good as I've ever seen. I seen players that were so unselfish like him, but not as good as him.

Magic: I think he's the best player in the NBA right now.

Bird: People are on him about no rings, but these championships don't come to your house and knock on the door. Anything can happen. Dallas got some lucky breaks or Miami woulda beat them. LeBron passes the ball and takes some crap for it ... I don't know what's going on with (him in) the fourth quarter. Some guys get shaky at the end of a game. I never felt that. I had it before a game, yeah.

Reilly: You used to get sick beforehand.

Bird: Yeah, but it stopped once I stepped on the court. I never stepped up to the free throw line and said, "Oh, Jesus! What's going to happen to me?" People ask me, "What were you thinking about during the game?" And man, my mind was a million miles away. "Did I turn off the stove? What's my grandma doing tonight?"

Magic: You had ice water in your veins. You scared everybody. Look, not everybody can play the fourth quarter. Not everyone can be the hero or the goat. A lot of guys can't recover from blowing the game. But that is what made Larry special.

Reilly: Why didn't you sign Jeremy Lin? (Bird is the president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers.)

Bird: I don't care what anybody says, nobody knew what that kid was going to be. I only heard about him one time. Our Northeast scout came to me two years ago. It's the only time I ever heard one word about the kid.

Reilly: What did the scout say?

Bird: "This kid can really play."

Reilly: And ... ?

Bird: I didn't want somebody on the team who's that much smarter than me!

Finally, I asked Magic how he ranked the chances of his group of investors buying the Los Angeles Dodgers, now that they're among the seven finalists.

Magic: I think we have a good chance. We have a good group of people, with Stan Kasten, who ran the (Atlanta) Braves.

Reilly: Larry, you going to ask him for season tickets?

Bird: Only if they make the World Series.


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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter," and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.


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