Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird have been competing against each other for a long time.
In 1979, basketball fans witnessed their first head-to-head battle in the NCAA men’s basketball championship. The game — which Johnson's Michigan State won over Bird's Indiana State — remains the highest-rated basketball broadcast ever and was a classic matchup of contrasting styles.
Bird, "The Hick From French Lick," was the great shooter and scrappy boardman. Johnson, better known as "Magic," was a 6-foot-9 point guard running up and down the floor with flashy passes and great defense.
The face of basketball, particularly the NBA, was about to take a dramatic turn. At the time, the league was struggling to keep up with the NFL and MLB, but when Magic was drafted and signed by the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird signed with the Boston Celtics in 1979, the game’s popularity soared.
These two players changed the course of basketball. The two storied franchises were back in business, and a new grudge match brought unseen levels of success for the league.
So who was better — Bird or Magic?
Larry Bird played his entire 13-year career with the Boston Celtics as a small forward and power forward. Bird was actually drafted as the No. 6 pick of the Celtics in 1978, but he opted to play one more year at Indiana State before signing with the Celtics and beginning his illustrious career.
The game took its toll on Bird. With bone spurs in both heels, and an injured back, Bird retired in 1992 after playing in 897 regular-season games and 164 playoff games. The Celtics promptly retired his No. 33 jersey.
As for Magic Johnson, he played his entire 13-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers as a point guard. In the 1979 NBA draft, the Lakers selected Magic with the No. 1 overall pick out of Michigan State and turned into "Showtime" with Magic as the conductor.
But in 1991, Magic stunned the world and revealed he contracted the HIV virus and suddenly retired. He came back to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, where he won MVP honors, then retired again due to player protests.
He returned once more in 1996 at age 36, but he only lasted 32 games and retired for good after 906 regular-season games and 190 playoff games.
Edge: Pick 'em
Here, we had two frequent visitors to the NBA Finals during the 1980s.
Bird won three NBA championships with the Celtics in 1981, 1984 and 1986, and he was named the NBA Finals MVP twice, in 1984 and 1986.
Magic won five NBA championships with the Lakers in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988. And he was named the NBA Finals MVP three times, in 1980, 1982, and 1987, making him a clear choice as the bigger champion.
Larry Bird made an impact on the league immediately. He was named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1980. He also was named the NBA Most Valuable Player three straight years from 1984 to 1986.
Bird was All-NBA First Team for nine consecutive seasons from 1980 to 1988 and second team in 1990. He was the AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1986 and was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time team.
Magic was the NBA's Most Valuable Player three times in 1987, 1989, and 1990. Magic was named All-NBA first team nine times from 1983 to 1991 and second team in 1982. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team in 1980 and is on the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time team.
This one's a close call.
NBA All-Star Game
Another tough one to decide, almost too close to call.
Larry Bird was a 12-time NBA All-Star (1980-88, 1990-92) and was the NBA All-Star Game MVP in 1982. He was a three-time NBA All-Star Game 3-Point Shootout Champion from 1986 to 1988.
Magic was a 12-time NBA All-Star (1980, 1982-92) and was a two-time NBA All-Star MVP in 1990 and 1992.
The difference here was one MVP trophy.
Over the years, Bird and Magic have put on some spectacular shows, but what's remarkable is how close they were in career wins and losses for regular-season games.
Magic: 670-236, .7395 winning percentage
Bird: 660-237, .7358 winning percentage
Edge: Magic, by a hair
Rarely, have we seen a personal rivalry such as Bird and Magic — especially when they both met in the NBA Finals. Magic’s Lakers won two of the three matchups with Bird’s Celtics.
Overall, Bird and Magic combined for 14 appearances in the NBA Finals, but there was more joy in Los Angeles than Boston.
Magic: 9 Finals appearances, 5 championships
Bird: 5 Finals appearances, 3 championships
Bird did a lot of things on the court, but he was known for his scoring ability and being the go-to guy in the clutch for the Celtics with his quick, accurate release of the ball.
Bird averaged 24.3 points per game over his career for a total of 21,791 points.
On the other hand, Magic’s scoring ability was only a part of his game with his chicken-wing shooting style and trick shots as he drove to the hoop. But usually, he was not the No. 1 option for scoring on the Lakers. He was finding the No. 1 option, usually a guy named Kareem.
Magic averaged 19.5 points per game over his career for a total of 17,707 points. Of note, he did have one of the most memorable shots in NBA Finals known as the "Baby Hook" that sealed a road win in Boston over the Celtics in Game 4 of the 1984 Finals.
We are talking about two of the greatest passers of all time. Both Magic and Bird had remarkable court vision and could find teammates with no-look passes with precise accuracy.
Yet while Bird was a little more subtle with his trick passes, Magic was dramatic, uptempo and flying down the floor. And no one knew what was coming next.
Magic led the NBA in assists for four seasons, in 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1987. For his career, Magic averaged an NBA-record 11.2 assists a game for a total of 10,141 assists.
In his career, Bird averaged 6.3 assists a game for a total of 5,695 assists.
Although the Celtics could count on Robert Parish inside with Kevin McHale coming off the bench, Larry Bird was a sneaky rebounder who somehow always found the right angle to the ball, and he was a marvelous offensive rebounder.
Magic, with his 6-foot-9 size, could mix it up along the boards with the best of the rebounders, and often times, this is where he initiated the fast breaks. In fact, Magic was put in at center in the 1980 NBA Finals with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out with an injured ankle, and Magic pulled down 15 rebounds with 42 points to beat the Philadelphia 76ers.
Still, Bird averaged 10 rebounds a game over his career for a total of 8,974 rebounds.
Magic averaged 7.2 rebounds a game over his career for a total of 6,559 rebounds.
Bird was underrated for his defense and often found himself matched up with the other teams’ top scorer.
Who could forget one of the greatest moments in NBA history in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons when Bird stole Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass with five seconds to play and dished to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning basket.
Meanwhile, Magic led the NBA in steals in 1981 and 1982, and he controlled the backcourt with his size, agility and remarkable anticipation. Magic was one of four players in league history to win the steals title and win the NBA championship.
Larry Bird was definitely a leader by example, the way he always dove for the loose balls, or how he wouldn’t allow injuries to stand in his way in his quest to lead the Celtics to victory. He was the model team player and always passed to his teammates if they had the open shots.
Magic, who was known to his teammates as "Buck" (as in "Young Buck," the name he was given as a rookie for his neverending energy), was the ultimate leader on the floor for the Lakers. With his fast-paced tenacity and amazing vision on the court, he always found an open teammate.
Magic was the kind of player who could score just two points in a game and have a major impact. And his teammates loved playing alongside him.
When you dig a little deeper into the statistics, you see how important Bird and Magic were to their teams.
Bird, for instance, was a member of what is known as the 50-40-90 club. That would be NBA players who had a shooting percentage at or above 50 percent, 40 percent for 3-point shots and 90 percent for free throws for an entire season. Bird did it twice. He was also seen as a fighter on the floor, scrambling and falling to the floor going after loose balls.
Magic was more of a motivator, a player who always took the positive side with his big grin, and not only was he the heart and soul of the Lakers, but he embodied the entire city of Los Angeles as the leader of "Showtime."
One of Magic’s biggest intangibles was his size and the athleticism he had, making it nearly impossible for opposing teams to match up with him.
This is a category where, let’s say, Magic and Bird wanted it their way.
Magic wasn’t always on board with the Lakers coach. In 1981, in the early part of Paul Westhead’s third season with the Lakers, the team was struggling despite having many stars, and Magic demanded a trade because he "wasn’t having any fun." Soon after that, the Lakers unloaded Westhead and elevated Pat Riley as coach.
It was like turning on a light switch. Riley introduced a fast-paced tempo that kicked off the "Showtime" era, and Magic was suddenly on board. "Before we weren't getting any easy baskets,"said Johnson. "Now we're getting the layups, the back-door plays, the fast break. That's the way it should be. If we don't play like this, we're just an average team."
Bird, on the other hand, supported coaches like Bill Fitch, who was a tough disciplinarian and demanded a lot from players, even though many of Bird’s teammates did not get along with Fitch.
K.C. Jones came in and brought a more easygoing technique that Bird adapted to, but he made it clear to Jones who gets the ball when it was crunch time. One time in a game against Portland in the closing moments, Jones recalled, "I started to set up a play for Max (Cedric Maxwell), but Larry said, "To hell with that, give me the ball."
And guess what happened? Bird made the game-winning shot.
Edge: Pick 'em
Bird was respected around the league for his tenacious play. He also was known as the ultimate trash-talker, but that rubbed some players the wrong way.
One time, he refused to shake Dominique Wilkins’ hand and told him he "didn’t belong in the league." Once Bird told the Dallas Mavericks' bench the exact play the Celtics were running, where Bird would get the ball and score from in front of the Mavs bench.
What happened? Yep, he got the ball exactly where he stood and scored.
Some may not have liked Bird's style, but backed up his words.
Meanwhile, Magic was a class act and earned respect through his positive nature and amazing talent as a basketball player. One of those who admired Magic was, believe it or not, Bird.
"I can remember the first time I laid eyes on Magic Johnson," Bird said in 2011. "We played on an all-star team back in college. I could not believe what I was seeing in practice. I remember going home and telling my older brother, 'I’ve just seen the greatest basketball player I’m ever going to see in my life.' "
Back in 2004, Larry Bird gave us a look at his straightforward personality when he made comments during an ESPN special that got people talking about his view of race and the NBA.
"You know, when I played, you had me and Kevin [McHale] and some others throughout the league," Bird said. "I think it's good for a fan base because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited. But it is a black man's game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American."
In fact, Bird said he felt disrespected when an opposing team matched him up with a white player. Magic responded to Bird’s comments as such: "We need some more LBs — Larry Birds. Larry Bird, you see, can go into any neighborhood. When you say 'Larry Bird,' black people know who he is, Hispanics, whites, and they give him respect."
Edge: Bird, for being candid
Dealing With the Media
I can provide a firsthand account of this since I covered two Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals during the Bird-Magic era for a newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to when Bird and Magic played against the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings after they moved from Kansas City.
Both players had contrasting personalities when it came to dealing with the press. Bird was matter-of-fact, getting right to the point with no sugarcoating. At that time, I thought he was somewhat curt to reporters until he agreed to a one-on-one interview during a shootaround in Sacramento and was still matter-of-fact, but he was gracious and patiently answered every question.
Magic, on the other hand, captivated his audience and had the ability to make you believe everything he was saying. He had a personality that would not criticize officials or players. He was humble in defeat and always carried a positive demeanor. He was the ultimate salesperson.
Bird and Magic always had something to say. Bird was direct and to the point while Magic tried to keep a positive spin going. Here are two of my favorite quotes from these two superstars.
Bird: “Leadership is diving for a loose ball, getting the crowd involved, getting other players involved. It's being able to take it as well as dish it out. That's the only way you're going to get respect from the players."
Magic: “If somebody says no to you, or if you get cut, Michael Jordan was cut his first year, but he came back and he was the best ever. That is what you have to have. The attitude that I'm going to show everybody, I'm going to work hard to get better and better."
Edge: Pick ‘em
The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona was the first time the United States could field a team of professional basketball players, so the "Dream Team" was formed with some of the greatest players of all time.
There was no question that Bird was going to make this team. However, Magic was a different story. He had retired in November 1991 when he tested positive for HIV, and while many thought he would not be alive at this point, he was selected to the team.
Magic later said making the Olympics team was a "lifesaver," showing he could overcome the disease to live a productive life.
Both Bird and Magic had issues with injuries. Bird’s playing time was limited due to back issues, and Magic sat out two games with knee problems.
The overall statistics favor Magic, who averaged eight points, 5.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds a game while Bird averaged 8.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.
But let’s be honest, there weren’t enough basketballs to go around, and it was tough for anyone to put up great numbers when you have a roster of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and future Hall of Famers.
Magic was the one who had something to prove, though, and he came through.
At Indiana State, Bird played four years and was named the National College Player of the Year in 1979. He was a two-time consensus first-team All-American in 1978 and 1979 and was third-team All-American in 1977.
He was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year in 1978 and 1979. In 2006, he was enshrined in the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Magic spent two years at Michigan State. As a freshman, he took the Spartans to the Elite Eight, where they lost to Kentucky. The following year, he led Michigan State to the national championship over Bird and Indiana State in 1979. Magic was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player in 1979. He also was named consensus first-team All-American in 1979 as well as second-team All-American by NABC in 1978 and third-team All-American by AP and UPI in 1978.
He was enshrined in the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Edge: Magic on a head-to-head basis
Bird and Magic are not going to the poor house anytime soon, but we do have a clear winner in this category.
According to StemJar, Bird’s net worth is $45 million, and he earns about $2 million annually. He has appeared in some clothes ads and video games, and he also appeared in the movie "Space Jam."
Bird also trades in real estate, has a hotel and restaurant in Terre Haute, Indiana, and he also has money coming from the Heinz Corporation for marketing their products and chains.
Magic's estimated net worth is projected to be between $500 million and $600 million. His shares with the Los Angeles Dodgers have brought him a good portion of his fortune. But his outgoing personality makes him a great entrepreneur, and he has made millions from his business deals.
Some of his past partnerships include Starbucks, 24 Hour Fitness, TGI Fridays and AMC Theatres.
At one point, he owned 105 Starbucks outlets and a 4.5 percent stake in the Lakers. However, he sold both for a reported $100 million.
In addition, Magic owns a mansion in Beverly Hills, has an impressive car collection and a private jet.
Bird and Magic have been generous with community charities during their playing careers and beyond.
Bird likes to keep rather quiet about what he has donated and to which charity. "I’m not doing it for the publicity," Bird told Indianapolis Monthly. "But I do care, and that’s what matters most."
This concern for others and generosity comes from his poor upbringing in Indiana. One of the biggest charities he supports is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in light of the fact his father committed suicide when he was young, and The Stars Foundation. Those are the ones we know about.
Meanwhile, Magic has his own foundation, called the Magic Johnson Foundation that deals with HIV/AIDS awareness while supporting its victims. Other charities Magic has donated to include the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Buoniconti Fund To Cure Paralysis, Celebrity Fight Night Foundation, Keep a Child Alive, Ludacris Foundation and The Miami Project.
Edge: Pick ‘em
Bird grew up in West Baden Springs, Indiana, which was a village just outside French Lick, and he had four brothers and one sister. Growing up, he kept his focus on basketball, but Bird had a rough childhood and left his family when his parents divorced, leading him to work a number of odd jobs.
He married his high school sweetheart, Janet Condra, but that was short-lived, and they divorced in 1988. He has a daughter from that marriage named Corrie. Bird’s father committed suicide in 1989. Later, Bird married Dinah Mattingly, and they adopted two children, Conner and Mariah.
Magic grew up as Earvin Johnson Jr. with nine brothers and sisters where his parents both worked, but he always had a passion for basketball. Magic’s darkest moment came when he contracted the HIV virus. He believed he contracted the disease through unprotected sex.
At the time, his wife, Cookie, was pregnant with their first child, but both Cookie and their son, Earvin III, wound up testing negative for HIV. Cookie stood by Magic, and the two adopted a daughter named Elisa in 1995.
Magic also has a son from a previous marriage named Andre.
Edge: Pick ‘em
Bird and Magic went in different directions as coaches. After retiring as a player and a stint in the Celtics' front office, Bird took over as head coach of the Indiana Pacers for three seasons and had some impressive success.
For the 1997-98 season, Bird was selected the NBA Coach of the Year after going 58-24 with no previous coaching experience. During that season, he also was the East head coach in the NBA All-Star Game. Bird later led the Pacers to the 2000 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Lakers. He vowed he would only coach for three seasons, and that’s exactly what he did.
Magic, however, was a complete mess as a coach for the Lakers. After taking over for Randy Pfund, and Bill Bertka who coached one game, Magic’s tenure lasted just the final 16 games of the 1993-94 season when the Lakers went 5-11 down the stretch and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1976.
After his brief three-year run as a coach, Bird was hired as the Pacers' president of basketball operations in 2003 and eventually found success again. One of his top accomplishments came after the 2011-12 season when he was named the NBA Executive of the Year, making him the only man in NBA history to win the NBA MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year.
Bird cited health problems when he stepped down a day before the 2012 NBA draft. In 2013, Bird returned to the Pacers in his previous role and lasted until 2017, but he stayed with the Pacers in an advisory role.
Magic took a stab at running the Lakers when he was hired in February 2017 as president of basketball operations, replacing Jim Buss. Under Magic, the Lakers failed to land a star until a four-year agreement was reached for LeBron James in 2018, but disaster struck when they were unable to trade for Anthony Davis as the Lakers continued to miss the playoffs.
Then, on April 9, 2019, Magic surprised many when he resigned to return being an NBA ambassador.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson gave us one of the greatest rivalries, not just in the NBA, but all of professional sports. They both had different styles, were amazing to watch and captivated fans everywhere.
As far as measuring their careers, Bird averaged more points and had more rebounds than Magic, whose assists-per-game average is the best in NBA history, and he was overall a better player defensively. However, this comparison goes beyond the basic numbers.
Magic revolutionized the game as a 6-foot-9 point guard who could do everything on the court, playing guard, forward and even center. Magic’s impact didn’t just bring the Lakers together, but the entire Los Angeles community.
Yes, Bird was the face of one of the greatest franchises in professional sports, and his clever play on the floor was something we rarely saw in the history of the NBA. Also, after their playing careers, Bird was a better coach and executive than Magic.
This is another tough call, but when it’s all said and done, Magic had more ways to beat you, more NBA Finals appearances and victories, and is a savvy businessman. He survived the HIV virus, overcame scandal, and was able to keep his family together.
Final decision: Magic over Bird