Correction to This Article
This book review of "When the Game Was Ours" by Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson incorrectly said that Bird won his first NBA title when his Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984. That was Bird's second title; his first came in 1981, when the Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets.

Book review: When the Game Was Ours by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson

By Dave Sheinin
Sunday, December 13, 2009


By Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, with Jackie MacMullan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 340 pp. $26

For sports fans who came of age in the 1980s, nothing in the known universe was as important as Bird vs. Magic. In a debate -- "Who's better, Bird or Magic?" -- you would have staked your life on your answer. When you played hoops alone and fantasized about the final seconds ticking down, you were either one or the other. And when Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers played each other, you would sooner have given away your entire baseball-, basketball- and football-card collections than miss a minute of it.

The passage of time has only enhanced the legends of Bird and Magic. We can look back now and understand how their simultaneous arrival into the league, their immense talents rivaled only by their shared competitiveness, saved the NBA from its twin epidemics of drug abuse and uninspired play. Bird and Magic mattered. It was East vs. West, the Lakers' "Showtime" vs. Celtic pride and, yes, black vs. white. By the end of their run as the gods of the hardwood -- Magic's time cut short when he contracted the HIV virus in 1991, Bird's retirement the following year largely the result of back injuries -- Michael Jordan was well on his way to establishing himself as arguably the greatest player in history. But make no mistake: The '80s, when Bird and Magic ruled, were the NBA's golden era.

Perhaps more than any other sports rivals (with the possible exception of boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier), Bird and Magic are intertwined in history, and that rivalry and that history (as well as the friendship, both unlikely and unavoidable, that developed between them) are at the heart of a fascinating new book, "When the Game Was Ours."

Though Bird and Johnson (with Jackie MacMullan) are credited as the authors, it is clearly MacMullan's book, as all but the introduction (by Bird and Johnson) is written in the third person, with the former Boston Globe reporter and columnist masterfully weaving the recollections of the two protagonists with those of dozens of observers, including teammates and family members. The book is at its most powerful when it hews close to its premise: the evolution of perhaps sports' greatest rivalry, from its origins in 1979, when Bird's Indiana State Sycamores met Magic's Michigan State Spartans in the NCAA championship game (a game that is frequently credited with giving rise to the phenomenon known as "March Madness") to the deep bonds of friendship and mutual respect that developed between them as the NBA's top stars.

Each player's extreme competitiveness is revealed early on, and in fact it was precisely that competitiveness that forced us to wait more than two decades after their last NBA Finals duel (in 1987) to hear what they thought of each other. "I never let on how much [Johnson] dominated my thoughts during my playing days," Bird says on the book's first page. "I couldn't. But once we agreed to do this book, I knew it was finally time to let people in on my relationship with the person who motivated me like no other. . . . What I had with Magic went beyond brothers."

For much of the book, Bird and Magic merely observe each other from afar, with borderline obsessiveness, their occasional encounters on and off the court marked by few words. (An anthropologist could have a field day studying the early interactions of these alpha males, who do everything short of marking their territory to assert their dominance.) The obsession was such that, when Bird's Celtics beat the Lakers to win his first NBA title in 1984, all Bird could say was, "I finally got him. I finally got Magic." Amazingly, their first real conversation together (which took place in Bird's basement following a commercial shoot in 1985) doesn't come until page 176, nearly two-thirds of the way into the book, and it becomes the critical plot development, as the rivalry took on the added dimension of friendship once they realized the similarities in their backgrounds. Their bond eventually grew so deep that Bird compared the feeling of learning of Johnson's HIV-positive diagnosis in 1991 to the time his own father committed suicide when Bird was 19. The Bird-Magic dynamic, in fact, is so powerful that the book drags whenever MacMullan strays from it, as during a distillation of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry or the inevitable biographical examinations of each player.

But MacMullan keeps those detours mercifully brief and soon returns to the action, which is not so much what occurred on the court (Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics played each other only twice a year, plus three times -- for a total of 19 games -- in the NBA Finals) as about what went on in the minds of these two titans. The game of basketball has never been better than when it was theirs.

Dave Sheinin is a writer for the sports section of The Washington Post.

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