There's a long-running debate among basketball enthusiasts over who was better, Earvin "Magic" Johnson or Larry Bird. The debate is inseparable from conversations about the NBA during the 1980s — a struggling, racially-polarized league given new life by the rivalry between Johnson, Bird and their respective teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
ESPN charts the feud in a three-part "30 for 30" documentary — Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies — the first two episodes of which aired Tuesday night. The film is both nuanced and deliberate in documenting how race factored into the rivalry. But its conceit is rooted in a fallacy. Johnson, who is black, outmatched Bird by every notable metric — even as fans scrambled for a white foil who could match the Laker star's brilliance. It's time to stop placing these men on equal footing, as if Johnson didn't spend the decade demolishing his white opponent. Bird was a great player. But the '80s belonged to Magic.
Some background: Johnson and Bird met for the first time on the national stage in college, when Johnson's Michigan State University Spartans faced Bird's Indiana State University Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA championship game. Johnson's team won, 75-64. Johnson went on to get selected in that year's NBA draft by the Lakers. Bird had been taken by the Celtics the year prior, but decided to play his final season at Indiana State before heading to Boston.
Bird's rookie season in 1980 was spectacular. He won Rookie of the Year honors and completely reversed the fortunes of a dismal Celtics team. It was a brilliant start to what would be a brilliant career. Johnson's rookie season, however, was otherworldly. After fueling the Lakers' run to the NBA finals, he faced a huge roadblock when his team's lead scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, went down with an ankle injury in Game 5 of the seven-game series.
The Lakers were up 3-2 at the time. Abdul-Jabbar was slated to sit out the next game. In a flash of inspiration, Head Coach Paul Westhead started Johnson at center in Game 6 — and the rookie point guard responded with a 42 point, 15 rebound explosion, leading his team to the championship and earning him NBA finals most valuable player honors.
It was the first of five rings and three finals MVP awards for Johnson, who also won titles in 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988. The Lakers and Celtics met in the finals for the first time that decade in 1984, where Bird's Celtics won. But the teams met twice more, in 1985 and 1987. The Lakers won both times. By the end of the decade, Bird had notched three league MVP awards, three championships and two finals MVP trophies. Johnson finished the '80s with the same number of league MVP awards — but one more finals MVP nod and two more championships than Bird.
Add that to Johnson's 1979 NCAA win, and the Laker finished his career with a 3-1 record against Bird in collegiate and professional championship matches. It wasn't the most crushing defeat, but it was decisive nonetheless. And this is not to disparage Bird. He was a singular, world-class player who wanted little to do with the racial narratives that fans infused the Johnson rivalry with. But Magic bested the Celtic on nearly every front. This should not even be a debate.
Yet here we are — and it's not hard to see why. The Johnson-Bird narrative was so riveting in part because it was a proxy for racial anxieties wracking the United States. Johnson was at a disadvantage from the start. He was a black man in a historically white supremacist country, whose stratospheric talent did little to shield him from undertaking the emotional labor so often asked of black people by whites. As a 15-year-old high school freshman bussed into a white school in Michigan, Johnson was tapped by administrators to serve as a delegate to black students and help soothe racial tensions. The documentary captures the teen in grainy black and white at one point, an Afro crowning his head, talking soberly to his fellow children about racism.
And assuming high school didn't foreshadow it, it's hard to overstate what a remarkable figure Johnson was as a professional. Not only was he the engine behind the Lakers' storied "Showtime" offense — a high-speed scoring attack defined by the 6'9" Johnson's elite vision and passing skills — his warmth, toothy smile and magnetic personality made him a perfect brand ambassador as well, the face of the party-like atmosphere that engulfed the Forum in Inglewood whenever the Lakers played home games there. Hollywood celebrities poured in by the limo-full to be part of the action, generating untold millions in revenue for the team's owners and stakeholders.
Bird, on the other hand, was one of the more unassuming stars in NBA history. He was comparatively soft-spoken (off the court, at least) and stoic. He expressed little interest in how fans and pundits injected race into conversations about his play. But he was seen by many as the "Great White Hope," sent to reclaim white dominance in a league that, for many people, had been too black for too long.
This conflict was impossible to ignore. Fans and reporters filtered the stylish, showy aura that defined Johnson's Lakers through a racial lens. The L.A. squad was a bunch of showboats, they said. Their style was "playground," "urban," "black." It was constantly contrasted with the hard-edged persona projected by Bird's Celtics, who pundits described using thinly-veiled racial dog whistles for white people, like "blue collar" and "hard-working."
It was a tension equally apparent in the teams' respective fan bases. One of the more remarkable moments in the documentary comes when Johnson describes walking through Boston with some of his teammates before a game against the Celtics. This was the decade after mandated school integration efforts in Boston sparked riots by white students resistant to attending school with blacks. Johnson and company are greeted by a group of black Bostonians, who embrace him as fans.
"We hope you kill 'em," the men tell Johnson, referring to the home team.
This appears to have been a nationwide sentiment. The Lakers were seen as black America's team, the Celtics were white America's. And while both Bird and Johnson benefitted from the hype this generated — in terms of fame, prestige and even endorsements — Bird did so especially in that his accomplishments came to be seen as equivalent to Johnson's in the public imagination.
This notion has long gone unchallenged. Basketball enthusiasts have more or less accepted that the 1980s were the era of Johnson and Bird, two uniquely talented players who were constantly one-upping each other. But this was not the reality. They were competitive, yes. But Johnson bested his white counterpart repeatedly, and in almost every arena available. He did so in a league where many white fans saw him and his people as usurpers. If we can recognize that race was integral to how we understand the Lakers-Celtics rivalry during the 1980s, surely we can concede that the black man won.
Part 3 of Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.