Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The First Chapter in the Bird-Magic Rivalry

I find it ironic that the college basketball national championship game in 1979 is still, 35 years later, the highest–rated college basketball game ever televised.

Because I didn't see it. I've never seen it — only highlights.

In those days, I was working at a self–serve gas station, and I had to work that night. I remember listening to the game on the radio at the station, but I didn't see any of it. I could only imagine what was happening in the host town, Salt Lake City, based on what I heard.

It was between Michigan State and Indiana State, the first matchup of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in what became a classic NBA rivalry. As USA Today observed five years ago, it was the start of something special.

But that is the sort of observation that can be made in hindsight. Those are easy.

For example, it is easy now to say that Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana were destined to be four–time Super Bowl champs, but I remember when they both broke into the NFL. All eyes were on others, but, in the course of their careers, Bradshaw and Montana turned struggling franchises into winners.

The same is true of Magic and Bird. At the end of the '80s, it was possible to look back at their epic postseason confrontations and realize that their rivalry had been the kind of thing you rarely find in team sports — a rivalry between two individuals. There were other players who played, of course, but Magic and Bird got the attention.

I guess every NBA team has been a rival of the Celtics since the days of Bill Russell, and every NBA team has been a rival of the Lakers for nearly as long, going back to the days of Wilt Chamberlain. Likewise, fans have to choose sides when the two teams meet, and most of them are likely cheering for a team they never support during the regular season.

I'm not an NBA fan — in fact, I'm really not much of a basketball fan — so I was spared having to make that choice and could simply enjoy watching them play.

You know, it is kind of amusing when I think back on that first encounter between Magic and Bird 35 years ago.

I don't recall the hype that preceded the game. I'm sure it was marketed as some kind of duel between future NBA legends, the kind of hype that accompanies many collegiate confrontations.

That kind of buildup doesn't always prove to be true. At the time, of course, it probably doesn't matter, and few probably remember it years later. Potential doesn't always coincide with reality.

But, in this case, it did.

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