Bird and Magic

When the Game Was Ours: written by Jackie MacMullan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson (2009): Fun and occasionally revealing dual, quasi-ghostwritten autobiography of Celtics great Larry Bird and lakers great Magic Johnson, whose teams pretty much defined the National Basketball Association in the 1980’s, winning eight of nine titles between them from 1979-80 to 1987-88, three of them in head-to-head competition. They saved the NBA from obscurity, briefly made passing cool again, and drove each other to greater and greater heights.

The most revealing sections of the book deal with the “lost” first meeting of Magic and Bird, playing for a college all-star team in the summer of 1978. At the conclusion of the 1978-79 NCAA season Bird and Magic’s teams would meet in the college basketball finale, with Bird’s overmatched Indiana State team succumbing to Magic’s deeper Michigan State team in what remains the highest rated college basketball championship game ever. But in the summer of 1978, Bird and Magic played together.

Unfortunately, all-star team coach Joe B. Hall — who had earlier in the decade declined to recruit Bird because he thought Bird was too slow to play college basketball — relegated Bird and Magic to the second team in favour of a starting line-up composed entirely of players from Hall’s 1977-78 title-winning Kentucky team.

So Bird and Magic dismantled the starters every day in practice, infuriating Hall but not winning them any more than about ten minutes of playing time per actual game. And none of this all-star tour was recorded in the pre-cable-TV universe of the late 1970’s, so we can’t really see much of this early collaboration.

The section on Magic’s HIV announcement and its aftermath is also excellent, as is the full explanation of how bad Bird’s back was during the second half of his career, when injuries and a congenital problem with the size of his spinal canal caused him to miss large chunks of his last five seasons. The overarching narrative of two fierce rivals coming to realize how much each one needed the other as both gauge and inspiration drives the book.

Needless to say, former Magic friend and failure at everything other than playing basketball Isaiah Thomas comes across poorly, while Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Kevin McHale all come across well. There are a few odd minor factual errors. Recommended.

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