Magic And Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

Dir: Ezra Edelman, 2010. Starring: Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird. Narrated by Liev Schreiber.
Magic And Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

From Leni Riefenstahl‘s controversial Olympia to Pumping Iron to Hoop Dreams, great sports documentaries often tell us more about society and the times than the actual sport. Ken Burns' epic Baseball is equally important as a history of 20th century America as it is for its bats and balls. In recent years ESPN and HBO have been at the forefront of excellent sports documentaries, ESPN with their outstanding 30 For 30 series and HBO has continually produced great feature length docs, Magic And Bird: A Courtship of Rivals is no exception.

Fascinating as both a study of two athletes, complete opposites who went from mortal enemies to friends, it also establishes how their rivalry helped to transform the NBA and save it from financial disaster. It also sharply touches on hot button issues that the two men represented or found themselves thrust into the middle of, race and race relations and later, tragically, AIDS.

Opposites may be an understatement. Though both Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird came from disadvantaged families and were hard-working, exceptionally competitive, and supremely dedicated to basketball and the team concept, everything else about them was different. Magic was a charismatic African American with a million dollar smile that oozed charm and craved the spotlight, while Bird was cold and distant, unattractive, and apparently charmless. They would match up in the 1979 NCAA final game, the most watched basketball game ever, and begin a decade long rivalry. In the pros, Bird would play for the working class Boston Celtics, while on the other coast, Magic would shine for the more glitzy Los Angeles Lakers, an offense that became known as Showtime. They would transform the sport and bring their unselfish play. Every year in the 1980s either the Lakers or the Celtics reached the NBA finals with Magic winning five titles to Bird’s three. But each man was constantly aware of the other and often jealously used the other as a measuring stick for his own greatness.

Before Bird came into the league one fan says on camera that he didn’t enjoy the game as much because there were not enough white players. Boston already had an ugly racial history as inner city school busing had caused violence and a nasty racial conflict in Boston in the '70s giving the city a deserved racist reputation (a decade earlier basketball super star Bill Russell brought the city 11 titles but off the court endured ugly racial harassment trying to live in the city). Many basketball fans and followers would consider Bird’s Celtics the “white team” because they had a higher number of white players on their team than most. Bird was tagged as “the Great White Hope,” a label he eschewed and refused to identify with, though years later he was forced to confront it when he was called out as overrated by two Detroit Piston players (after losing to Bird) - they claimed if he were black he would be just another good player, a rap Magic and Bird’s teammates took offense to, as do the record books.

In Lansing, Michigan, Magic was also affected by the effect of racial school busing. It’s pointed out that as a high school student Magic single-handedly helped to defuse the racial tension between white and black students. When an issue or conflict would start to rise, the school’s principal would reach for the young Magic to bring the two sides together. A leader was born on and off the court.

Eventually, at the height of their rivalry, the two men did a commercial together. Bird refused to come to Hollywood, so it was shot at Bird’s home in the sticks of Indiana. Magic charmed Bird’s family and eventually, alone, the two men talked for the first time and realized how much they had (and didn't have) in common. A quiet understanding and respect grew and an unspoken friendship begun. Their rivalry still continued, but now occasionally they might have positive words to say about the other to a reporter. By the end of the decade Bird’s extremely deteriorating back issues slowed him down and then the shocking news that Magic had contracted HIV brought his career to a screeching halt.

The film follows the book When the Game Was Ours with Bird, Magic, and Jackie MacMullan the credited authors. Magic And Bird: A Courtship of Rivals uses fantastic archival footage, going back to their high school games, and a number of talking heads add context (including Magic’s bud Arsenio Hall and NBA butt kisser Bryant Gumbel), but most interestingly are the thoughts of Bird and Magic themselves. We are used to a reflective Magic, but hearing a still ornery Bird share his side of the tale is particularly fascinating. Seeing a more sensitive side to Bird, especially in the details of Magic’s disease prove eye-opening. Magic tears up as he recalls Bird calling him, hoping he’s okay. Magic says it’s then when things went wrong, he knew who his true friends were. Being from Detroit, in this era I actually hated both these teams, but I’ve acquired a better appreciation for them now and a whole new appreciation for what friendship can mean.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 28, 2011 5:23pm
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