Thoughts on Magic & Larry, Book and Film Versions
I have now consumed the recent Magic Johnson & Larry Bird media which is essentially complementary: the book (written with Jackie MacMullan), When The Game Was Ours, and the HBO documentary film, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.
The main thing I would say is that sometimes subject matter trumps all else. The saga of Magic & Bird is such bankable material that I'm not fully sure how to evaluate the book and movie as works of art. They were both among the most satisfying pieces of nostalgia I can remember. The book was such an enjoyable walk down memory lane that I was literally humming the NBA on CBS theme song in my head as I read at times.
[Note: NBC/Tesh's Roundball Rock will always be an NBA on CBS ripoff to me:]
With a story that I knew in such deep detail, I was surprised that there was still new footage to see and new nuggets to read - I was surprised that there were still elements of the Magic & Bird story which were revelations to me.
What was especially satisfying was when the film brought visual life to unique elements of the book (even though they were produced independently from one another) with rarely-shown footage. The footage of Magic and Larry playing together in the World Invitational Tournament as college players in the summer of 1978 was downright breathtaking to me. I'd love to watch a show which just features all of the footage of them playing in this tournament! (There wouldn't be that much, as remarkably, they both came off the bench, as U.S. head coach Joe B. Hall favored his Kentucky players.)
Other notable elements from the book that we saw in the film included the (somewhat) hard foul that Bird took on Magic in their first matchup as pros, Magic's failures in the clutch in the 1984 Finals, and the general scene around the Converse commercial filmed at Bird's place in French Lick, Indiana in 1985, which was a turning point in the Hall of Famers' relationship.
In general, it seems like when we see a Magic or Bird highlight reel these days, we get the same iconic moments and b-roll over and over, so it was cool to get some lesser-seen footage of the two, especially from their early days as pros.
And, as the filmmakers provided background for why the NBA had fallen out of favor with the public in the 70s, it was truly shocking, given the modern context, to see multiple fight scenes with overhand punches thrown, or the Maurice Lucas-Darryl Dawkins square-off in the 1977 Finals. The famous Bird vs. Dr. J fight from the '80s was also in there.
At the heart of Magic & Bird: Courtship of Rivals were the words of the two protagonists themselves. With the good ol' days now a generation behind them, both men spoke with candor.
As much as the film hit all of the major notes of the Magic-Bird rivalry, a book can of course delve into much greater detail, so there was definitely much more to learn in When The Game Was Ours. Some of my favorite little tidbits were the following (alert: possible small spoilers ahead, though there is much greater detail in the book):
-- Perhaps the most surprising revelation to me was that Bird took oral steroids intermittently in the 1991-92 season due to his excruciating back pain. He stopped once he committed to the 1992 Olympics team, well in advance of the Barcelona games, but was still sufficiently concerned of lingering traces that he is quoted as saying that drug testing in Barcelona was "the most stressful part of the Olympics."
-- People might forget that Magic was booed in L.A. after being blamed for the firing of coach Paul Westhead in a celebrated incident in the 1981-82 season. The funny thing to me is that Magic was frustrated because Westhead wouldn't let Magic play a running game. Westhead is only the architect of the craziest up-tempo games ever seen in the NBA ('90-91 Nuggets), the NCAA (Loyola Marymount) and even the WNBA (Phoenix Mercury), yet he wouldn't let Magic run (he wanted to pound the ball into Kareem). Unreal.
-- There was a lot of fortune in getting the storied rivalries in both college and the pros, as both players easily could have ended up elsewhere. Bobby Knight had a long shot to pair the players at Indiana, but he alienated Magic on a recruiting visit, and Bird lasted just 24 days at IU as a young Hick from French Lick who was overwhelmed by the big university. Bird had dreams of possibly playing for Kentucky, but coach Joe B. Hall didn't think he could get his shot off in the SEC, and cut off his recruitment of Bird.
In the pros, Magic nearly jumped to the NBA in 1978 after his freshman year, meeting with the Kansas City Kings, but unable to come to contract terms. In 1979, Lakers owner Jerry Buss had to overrule those, including Jerry West, who preferred Sidney Moncrief.
Bird was drafted by the Celtics in 1978 even though he didn't join the league until a year later in 1979, due to an arcane draft rule that no longer exists. The Pacers could have picked the homestate kid, but the franchise was struggling and couldn't afford to wait a year for a player. After Larry said he wasn't coming to the league in '78, Indiana traded the no. 1 overall pick to Portland. After failing in their attempts to recruit Bird to the pros immediately, the Blazers opted for Mychal Thompson, and planned to pick Bird at 7... just after Red Auerbach snagged him at 6. Not quite as bad as Bowie-over-Jordan, but yet another major draft what-coulda-been for Portland.
-- I had no idea how much Magic hung out with (then-new) Lakers owner Jerry Buss when he first arrived in L.A. I find any mention of their joint escapades so entertaining that I think I could read a separate book on the topic. A sample: "Buss brought lots of women with him on their excursions, and he'd dance disco, the waltz, and the tango with them for hours. When he got tired, he'd turn to Johnson and say, 'Earvin, dance with these ladies.'"
-- Other Olympics notes I'd never heard before: Magic's blunt telling of why Isiah was left off the '92 Dream Team was well-covered back in October, as Magic said, "Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics. Nobody on that team wanted to play with him."
But I had never heard the gossip that Barkley dished about the 1996 team. In lamenting how things had changed since Larry, Magic and Michael had set the tone for the Dream Team by checking their egos at the door, Barkley was quoted as saying that 1996 "was one big ego fest. Guys actually boycotted practice because they weren't happy with their playing time. It was ridiculous."
There was also some good stuff about the legendary Dream Team scrimmage in Monte Carlo prior to the Olympics, long rumored to be some of the best basketball ever played. Jordan said in the book that it's "the most fun I've ever had playing basketball." Part of me would desperately love to see that scrimmage, but part of me wonders if it could ever live up to its legend, and might be better left alone as unseen lore.
-- Magic's T-cell counts were so low upon his HIV diagnosis that his doctors gave him a maximum of three years to live. Still jarring to think back to those days when we expected that we were going to watch Magic, in the words of Arsenio Hall in the film, "get skinny and die."
-- In the wake of an All-Star Game attended by 8 zillion people, it's funny to go back to 1982, with David Stern recounting how he had to give away tickets to that year's All-Star Game in New Jersey, even with a matchup of young Magic and young Bird.
-- And finally, with the book ending in the present day, I was highly amused at Magic recounting how shocked he was to see Lamar Odom return to the Lakers hotel a few hours prior to Game 2 of the 2008 Finals with several shopping bags in hand after spending a hot June day around town.
The most interesting omission in the book to me is that Bird still won't address a reported bar fight in 1985 which many have believed caused a finger injury that caused a playoff shooting slump, which may have cost the Celtics a championship. Bird's history of avoiding the subject was covered in the Boston Globe in October. Interestingly, in the book, Bird deeply regrets the 1985 loss, and places much of the blame on Cedric Maxwell for falling out of shape and motivation after signing a new contract in the summer of 1984.
The only real problems I had with When The Game Was Ours were several glaring factual errors, which I found distracting. Among the errors are claims that:
-- The Pistons clinched their 1988 series win over the Celtics in Boston, to chants of "Beat LA". [Um, they clinched in Detroit.]
-- Prior to his first game vs. Michael Jordan in MJ's rookie year (1984-85), Bird is quoted in conversation with Bulls coach Doug Collins, asking what the arena scoring record is. [Collins didn't join the Bulls until 1986-87.]
-- Pat Riley was redeemed in 1985 after a "series of crushing losses to the Celtics." [Other than 1984, I don't when Riley had previously met the Celtics, as either player or coach.]
-- Michael Jordan left North Carolina after his sophomore year. [It was his junior year. Maybe minor, but c'mon, it's Michael Jordan.]
There are more, but they shouldn't take away from the book as a whole. It's a fun, engaging read all the way through, much as the movie is one I could (and probably will) watch over and over again.
I'm not trying to convince you that the Magic & Bird book/movie are Breaks of the Game and Hoop Dreams, but with their bankable, can't miss characters and storylines, they are undeniably essentials for any NBA fan to read and watch.