During the 1980s, the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson defined mainstream basketball. Unlike other sports rivals, it’s well-known that Bird and Johnson were friends off-court, which made the spectacular competition between them even more enjoyable.
So, join us as we take a look at what happened when the Boston Celtics and the L.A. Lakers clashed throughout the ‘80s, propelling Bird and Johnson to the NBA legends that they are today.
If you’re interested in the modern NBA, you should check out the March Madness betting odds to check out new basketball talent in the NCAA.
The 1979 NCAA Finals
Having mentioned the NCAA, that’s where Larry Bird first had his run-in with Magic Johnson. The 1979 NCAA Finals is consistently ranked as one of the greatest and highest-rated games of televised college basketball.
Bird led the Indiana State Sycamores against Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans. Johnson and the Spartans took home the win with 75 to 64. With both players shipping off to the NBA later that year, it was the start of one of the league’s greatest rivalries.
The First NBA Finals
While they came to be friends who admired each other and their ball game, the rivalry started with a lot of bad blood between the two.
It quickly became apparent that Bird was a great acquisition for the Celtics as they enjoyed further success, while the same could be said for the Lakers as Johnson made them more competitive in the NBA. He worked well with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and elevated the franchise in a way that hadn’t been seen since Wilt Chamberlain moved along.
The rivalry between Bird and Johnson plays out between three NBA Finals games across just four years – 1984, 1985, and 1987.
Starting with the 1984 game – it was a clincher as all seven games were played and the final game result was 111-102, in favor of the Celtics. They won games 2, 4, 5, and 7 to win the whole thing. Bird became the regular season MVP as a result.
By now, people were already following the Bird-Johnson rivalry after their 1979 encounter. No one was more aware of it than Johnson, who remarked that the Celtics had “someone stronger minded” that taught the Lakers “a valuable lesson.”
The Second NBA Finals
With home-court advantage, the Celtics were confident about their chances going into the next NBA Finals game. However, the combined effort of Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson saw the Lakers winning games 2, 3, 5, and 6 of a six-game series. Every game was close, closing game 6 out at 111-100, and Abdul-Jabbar was named MVP for his work.
However, it’s questionable how much Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar’s performance contributed to the Lakers’ success. This is because Bird was plagued with dismal shooting (at least, for him and his usual standard of performance) and so it seemed to be a combination of the Celtics slacking and the Lakers being hungry for another championship win.
At any rate, this marked the first time that the Lakers had defeated the Celtics in the NBA Finals, or World Championship as it was known back then. With Bird’s Celtics and Johnson’s Lakers tied at one, they’d have another chance to prove who was the ultimate NBA team of the ‘80s.
The Third NBA Finals
The L.A. Lakers didn’t make it to the 1986 NBA Finals after getting knocked out of the Western Conference. Instead, it was the Houston Rockets’ turn at the Boston Celtics, where they beat the Rockets by storming ahead 4 games out of 6.
Instead, it was the 1987 NBA Finals where the Lakers would come back to test the Celtics’ dominance over the sport. The Lakers wouldn’t just challenge the Celtics, they’d win 4 of 6 games and win the whole rivalry. At the time, this was the tenth time the Celtics and Lakers met, which was more than any other franchise pairing.
Unlike the 1985 Finals, Johnson wasn’t overshadowed by Abdul-Jabbar or a lackluster performance by Bird. Instead, he stole the show with his sky-hook in the fourth game. Having clearly learned well from Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson’s own so-called baby hooks proved invaluable in putting the Lakers ahead of the Celtics.
The hype surrounding the Bird-Johnson rivalry is credited with saving the NBA from bankruptcy, making it one of the most important developments in the sport. Together, they didn’t just raise the bar for good basketball, they also demonstrated great showmanship by becoming fast friends afterward.