Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson – Taking a closer look at one of the greatest rivalries in NBA History

Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson – Taking a closer look at one of the greatest rivalries in NBA History

The rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson was one of the most defining aspects of the NBA in the 80s. With the two forming one of the greatest rivalries of all time, we take a closer look at the finer aspects of this dynamic.


Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the NBA Draft in the same season. However, their rivalry had taken root much before their professional basketball careers began.Johnson, who played for the Michigan State Spartans, went up against Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA championship game.


Although Bird dropped 19 points on the night, Johnson walked away with the trophy as the Spartans won 75-64. Bird won several accolades for a tremendous season. However, the loss to Magic set the tone for the rivalry for the upcoming decade.


Heading into the NBA Draft, Johnson was selected as the first-overall pick by the LA Lakers. Meanwhile, Bird went sixth overall and was picked by the Boston Celtics. Considering the long-standing history between the Lakers and the Celtics, the two couldn’t have picked a better environment for a brewing rivalry.Read: Charles Barkley explains why Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are two most important figures in NBA history

Bird and Magic’s early careers

Their rookie season saw both establish a new style of play in the NBA. As unorthodox players in their respective positions, Bird and Magic redefined the sport. Needless to say, this was destined to breed success in building a culture in the future.




Bird ended up winning the Rookie of the Year award that season. However, Johnson took things a step further and won the NBA title as well as the Finals MVP award.


Larry Bird ended up winning the NBA title in the following season with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish coming on board. Meanwhile, Magic Johnson and the Lakers were going through a bit of a rough patch as internal inconsistencies arose.Years 1982 and 1983 saw Bird miss the NBA Finals as Philadelphia was back on top with Julius Erving leading the way. Although Magic won in ’82, Erving and the 76ers would finally enjoy title success the following year.

Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird in the NBA Finals for the first time

The match-up between Bird and Johnson was one that the league was anticipating the most. This was finally realized in the 1984 NBA Finals when the LA Lakers took on the Boston Celtics.The Lakers were heading into the series with some ghosts to face. Since the 60s, the purple and gold franchise had repeatedly been bested by the Celtics, hence the notion of the “Celtics’ Curse”.

But this era of the Lakers seemed like they would finally undo the curse. With the series tied going into Game 7 however, the Lakers lost after an untimely turnover by Johnson spelled the end of the series.


Bird finally got his revenge for the NCAA championship. However, the rivalry was far from being done with.

Magic’s dominance going forward

Following the shortcomings of the 1984 NBA Finals, the Lakers went into the 1984-85 season with a new fire in their bellies. More importantly, Magic Johnson looked like a man on a mission as he took over as the primary superstar in LA.As fate would have it, the Lakers matched up against the Celtics in the 1985 Finals as well. Although LA suffered a humiliating loss in Game 1, they would show incredible poise for the rest of the series.

Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tore Boston apart over the course of six games to eventually lift the title. It was viewed as one of the most iconic moments in Lakers’ history.Although the Lakers missed the Finals in 1986, they had their shot at Larry Bird and the Celtics again in 1987. Magic dominated in this series as he put up 26.2 points, 13.0 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game. In the process of beating the Celtics in six games, he was also awarded his third Finals MVP trophy.


The gradual decline of the Magic-Bird era

The 1987 Finals was the last time Larry Bird and Magic Johnson met each other in the Finals.The following season, the Lakers were still in top form with Johnson entering his prime. However, the Celtics faced some setbacks as they came up against Isaiah Thomas and the Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons.The Lakers repeated their title success by beating Detroit in seven games. The repeat was a first in the NBA since the Celtics in 1969. Unfortunately, this also spelled the end of the Lakers’ dynasty as they came up short against Detroit in 1989.

Magic Johnson continued to play at a high level as he earned himself back-to-back MVP awards in 1989 and 1990. But this wasn’t met with much title success. Meanwhile, Larry Bird was suffering from several injuries, subsequently marking the end of his career as well.

Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls usher in a new era

Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics were already on their way out of the picture as a new titan arose in the East. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had been knocking on the door for a few seasons. But they finally made it through in 1991.

The LA Lakers, now a lot older and past their best, came up against the up-and-coming Bulls in the 1991 Finals. Although Magic Johnson had himself a great series, Jordan would not be denied.The Bulls eventually steamrolled past the Lakers in five games, officially marking the end of Bird and Johnson’s reign in the NBA.Check This Out: “There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is Michael Jordan” – Magic Johnson recalls Michael Jordan’s “It’s my league now” comments as he and Larry Bird were on their way out

Magic and Bird moving forward

Both Johnson and Bird were on the decline in the early 90s. Bird was riddled with back injuries, meanwhile Magic had just contracted HIV. The two participated together in the 1992 Olympics as part of the “Dream Team”. But, the end was nigh.Bird eventually retired in 1992 and the Celtics retired his jersey. Meanwhile, Johnson had on-off stints with the Lakers before he finally retired in 1996.

Although the two had one of the most intense rivalries in sporting history, the two became great friends off the court. After several hard-fought battles on the hardwood over the years, the two share a mutual respect that holds true even today.Read: When did Magic Johnson and Larry Bird become friends? LA Lakers legend says they hated each other early in their NBA careers



Gideon Canice

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