Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had a great rivalry back in the 1980s, but were Bird and Magic’s battles part of the best player rivalry ever?
The evidence is indisputable. No other set of players have gone at each other head to head the way Bird and Johnson did back in their primes, and as a result, it’s easy to crown them as the best player rivalry.
This rivalry didn’t even start in the NBA. In fact, Bird and Johnson started duking out in college when Bird was of Indiana State and Johnson was a member of Michigan State.
The whole rivalry started when Bird’s Sycamores lost to Johnson’s Spartans. Bird was left heartbroken and at the time he said it felt like it would be “impossible” to get over the loss. Several NBA Finals battles later, it’s safe to say things have changed.
Site of one of the greatest moments in US sports history: The NCAA Championship game pitting Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. pic.twitter.com/3AYzpF18Rg
— Too Bright For Your Gaslight (@LNSmithee) August 10, 2019
Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson Truly Is The Greatest NBA Player Rivalry
Player rivalries are sometimes hard to form in sports. In the NFL, you had Brady vs. Manning, but even then, it wasn’t a true player rivalry because they never actually played against each other.
However, what Bird and Johnson had was truly special. During 1980s Bird and Johnson would see each other in the Finals three times, including back to back matchups in 1984 and 1985 with the other matchup taking place in 1987.
The Celtics took the first series 4-3 with Larry Bird winning Finals MVP. The Lakers would get their revenge next year beating Boston in six games with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar winning Finals MVP.
The Lakers would win the tie-breaker too winning in six games once more in Bird and Johnson’s last Finals matchup. Magic Johnson would also win Finals MVP in that year.
While both players were always out to beat each other on the court, Bird and Johnson have developed an extremely tight bond over their years of competing against each other. Magic Johnson sat down with Rick Riley for an interview with ESPN and talked about a story which showed how friendly this rivalry could be:
“Larry was just so smart. He attacked you from so many different angles. And with Larry, you had to guard him five and 10 feet past the [3-point] line. Five feet past the line was nothing for Larry. One time, I was hurt. I was on the bench. Larry comes by during warm-ups and says, ‘Don’t worry, Earvin. I’m gonna put on a show for you.’”
Well, did Bird make good on his promise? He did in fact as Johnson recalls:
“I think he scored 40 that night, and I think he only missed two shots. He’d get that walk goin’ and that blond hair floppin’, and you knew you were gonna be in for a long, long night.”
Player rivalries like the one Johnson and Bird had are hard to come by in today’s game. The other biggest player rivalry you could think of throughout NBA history is probably Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas, but even they didn’t play in the kind of games Bird and Johnson did. This truly is the best NBA player rivalry in history.