This entry was posted on Mar 30 2010 by

You know you’re getting older when the documentaries are about things you witnessed firsthand.

Bird & Magic - SI Cover

Hats off to HBO Sports for their new documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, which recounts the careers of 1980s basketball legends Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird.  In my opinion, this was the heyday of pro basketball as a team sport, and it soon gave way to the points-driven, solo-performance era ushered in by Michael, handed down to Shaquille, and now ruled by Kobe and LeBron.

In the great debate of the time—Are you a Laker or a Celtic?—I came down firmly on the side of Bird and Celtics.  Growing up in South Florida during the ’80s, the only professional game in town was the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.  The Miami Heat didn’t get added to the NBA until 1988, so up to that point you had to look elsewhere for a basketball team to cheer for.  The Celtics were a natural fit for me, the majority of my family still living in Providence, Rhode Island, less than an hour from Boston Garden.  So Magic and the Lakers were to be despised for their flashy, West Coast, razzle-dazzle style of play, a polar opposite of the barebones, blue-collar, fundamental Celtic approach (though I chose the Lakers over the even less likable Detroit Pistons, whose style was driven by whiny, cheap-shot artists Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman).  As a dedicated basketball enthusiast—when I wasn’t in school or at work, I was on the court—the rivalry was a huge part of my consciousness.  I remember the Magic vs. Bird ads for Converse Weapon shoes, as well as a particularly jarring Sports Illustrated cover story where they used Photoshop (or whatever passed for Photoshop at the time) to put Bird in Laker gold and Magic in Celtic green, then surmised what the world would’ve been like had they been drafted accordingly.  Sacrilege.

The HBO documentary does a stellar job of portraying the Magic/Bird dichotomy as I remember it, but it also reveals something I hadn’t previously been aware of: the close bond of friendship that the years as bitter rivals forged between the two men.  Throughout their careers they came to depend on each other’s existence as the yardsticks by which they judged themselves, Bird checking the box score every morning to see Magic’s stats from the evening before, and Magic using Bird’s Rookie of the Year and MVP trophies to fuel his own ambition.  When Magic was forced to retire after testing HIV positive in 1991, the game lost all meaning for Bird, who soon retired himself.

I suddenly find myself wishing today’s NBA was more like the league of my youth, when players stayed with a single franchise throughout their careers, forging team identities and heated rivalries that endured.  When players played for their teams, not for themselves.  I’ve tried to watch today’s game, but every time LeBron tosses his powder in the air, I can’t reach for the remote fast enough.

Who knew a 36-year-old could be so fogeyish?

One Response to “You know you’re getting older when the documentaries are about things you witnessed firsthand.”

  1. Van Jensen
    10:21 am on March 30th, 2010

    You need to come down for a Hawks game. They’re not like the 86 Celtics (who is?), but on a good night they play a team game. The league has come a long way since the nadir of the Shaq-Iverson doldrums. And don’t dog on LeBron as being me-first. The dude could average 35 points, easy, but instead is a league leader in assists.

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