The first time they faced each other was in the NCAA final in March 1979. Magic Johnson's Michigan State team prevailed over Larry Bird and Indiana State that day. It was a memorable matchup, and it's almost always been that way whenever the two men have played against one another as professionals.
Nothing changed today in the National Basketball Association All-Star Game. This time Bird dominated, scoring 12 of the last 15 points for the East, which won, 120-118. Bird was voted the game's most valuable player.
Johnson missed a layup with one second remaining that would have sent the game into overtime. The shot was reminiscent of Johnson's 10-foot air ball in the final seconds of the Western Conference semifinals against Houston that resulted in the Lakers' elimination from the playoffs last year.
It has already been a tough year for Johnson, who was blamed by many for the firing of Laker coach Paul Westhead 11 games into the season. Today Johnson was the only player booed.
He took the booing the same way he took the missed layup.
"It's only a game," he said. "It doesn't bother me."
Despite the boos, Johnson demonstrated once again that he is still among the most exciting players in the league. In an incredible 6 1/2-minute stretch after he came off the bench in the first period, he scored nine points and had four assists to bring his team from a 20-18 deficit to a 39-34 lead.
When the game was at stake, however, Johnson came up short and Bird left the hero.
"We're the same-type players," Johnson said. "We're big-game players and we play best under pressure. We get the points, the rebounds, the assists, and we steal the ball. I guess we're just destined to be the ones who make things happen. Today he was the man."
The West got the ball out of bounds on the sideline with five seconds left, and Coach Pat Riley set a play to get the ball either to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar low on the left side of the lane or to Jack Sikma on the right side. Both were covered, however, and Johnson was left to drive the lane.
He got by Sidney Moncrief, but Michael Ray Richardson came over to help.
"He reached for the ball and made me pick it up sooner than I wanted to," said Johnson, "so I wasn't real comfortable with the shot. I still should have made it, though, because it was a good shot, and I'd made the same one three times already today."
Johnson finished with 16 points and seven assists, but the big man for the West was 6-foot-2 Gus Williams, who scored a game-high 22 points and added nine assists.
A year ago, Williams was home watching the All-Star Game on television, sitting out the season in a contract dispute. He came back this season better than ever, ranking among the league leaders in scoring, steals and assists.
"No part of my game suffered by sitting out last year," said Williams, "but it helped me improve. I'm a lot more intelligent player than I was."
The all-star who had the roughest day was Abdul-Jabbar. He left his goggles behind in Los Angeles, made only one of 10 shots, had three rebounds and was never a factor.
No Bullets were represented for the second straight year, but former Maryland star Buck Williams of the New Jersey Nets scored four points and had 10 rebounds. Adrian Dantley of De Matha High School and the Utah Jazz scored 12 points as a starter for the West.