Russell v. Chamberlain, Only Different

February 1, 1982

In the '60s, it was the preeminent rivalry in pro basketball. Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain. No one will forget the wars those two goliaths waged, and it didn't seem to matter whether it was a regular-season game, a playoff or an All-Star game. Now in the '80s, one has to suspect that the rivalry between the Celtics' Larry Bird and the Lakers' Magic Johnson is just beginning to warm up, perhaps to Russell-Chamberlain proportions. True, Bird is a forward and Johnson primarily plays guard, but their all-round skills are remarkably similar.

"We're the same type players," said Johnson, who came within inches of being a hero and instead wound up a loser as the East topped the West, 120-118, yesterday in the 32d annual NBA All-Star game. "We're big-game players. We both like the pressure. We both seem to play better under the pressure.

"We definitely have respect for one another. The things Larry can do are just unbelievable. He just beats everybody upstairs because he plays a smart game. We're much alike and we respect each other on and off the court." Bird walked away with the Most Valuable Player Award. His contributions for the East--19 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and a steal--speak for themselves. But Bird's success didn't for one minute diminish the respect he has for Johnson.

"I think he's a great player," said Bird. "We're very similar in the things we can do. We both like to move the ball up the court, shoot, rebound and get assists. I personally think he's a better passer than I am and is quicker. I'm a better shooter and I play more inside. I enjoyed watching him play in the game today. I try to study him and see what I can learn. He's a great player." In fact, had Johnson (16 points, 7 assists for the West) sunk a layup with three seconds left instead of missing, the game might have gone into overtime, and he might have wound up as the MVP.

But he accepted the outcome philosophically.

"I don't feel bad about what happened today," he said. "It's no trouble for me. If we tie, we tie. If not, look forward to next year. It's the season that counts, not an All-Star game. "Was I looking for a three-point play? You can't do that. You think about getting into position and shooting, and then you have to shoot. If you can get fouled, get fouled. My first thing was just to try to get to the basket. (The East's Michael Ray) Richardson made me pull up sooner than I wanted to. I wanted to take it to the basket a little bit further, but he came to help and I had to shoot out a little further than I wanted to. It almost went but hit the rim. That's just the way it goes."

There was a time when Johnson and Bird were less than kind in the things they said about each other on and off the court. Johnson's Michigan State team beat Bird and Indiana State for the NCAA championship in 1979, and Johnson took the Lakers to the NBA title in his rookie season. Bird brought the Celtics to the summit last year. Now they realize that their rivalry is becoming something very special. And with that realization has come mutual respect.

"I think it's toned down a lot," said Johnson of the cool feelings. "I think it's gotten where we can talk and be friends. Early on, it was really intense. But now it's changed. Somebody is going to win or lose, that's just the facts, and there is no need for us carrying that off the floor. We've become more friendly. "It doesn't matter to me if Bird got the MVP. I knew he was going to get it, either him or Julius (Erving). They both played a great game."

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