It's May 1984: Who was Considered Better -- Bird or Magic?

May 1984

When the pros talk about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, they babble like school kids. A group of experts asked to analyze the two stars then pick one produced answers that were almost identical. Bird is a better scorer and rebounder, while Magic is more versatile and a better playmaker. However, when pressed hard, most expressed a slight -- emphasize slight -- preference for Bird. "Both belong in another world," raves Dick Vitale, a former coach of the Detroit Pistons and now an ESPN analyst. "They play on another level. When God made these two, he came up with something very special.

"My all-time NBA team is Dr. J and Elgin Baylor at forward, Kareem at center and Oscar and West at guard. But if Magic and Bird continue the way they're going, they will bump two guys and join that team."

A 6-9 guard -- point guard no less -- is a freak.

"I said on TV that the best two point guards in the game are Isiah Thomas followed by Maurice Cheeks," Vitale said. "But before Laker fans screamed, 'What about Magic?' I said, 'He's just a player. That's P-L-A-Y-E-R. He can do everything.'

"Same with Bird. They're both so multi-dimensional. They both can contribute in so many ways. They can score, they can rebound, they can hurt you in the open court with their passing ability, which is very rare in guys their size. They have such great court awareness. And the weird thing is that you're talking about two guys who aren't jets, great leapers or pure shooters. But they're so fundamentally sound."

And so hard to defend against.

"The usual strategy against a superstar is to double up on him to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible," Vitale said. "But you pay such a terrible price when you try that against Magic or Bird. With their court sense, peripheral vision, passing ability, and height to see over defenders, it's awfully hard to double up on them."

The two also excel in the intangibles, according to Vitale.

"Their attitudes are so contagious," he said. "A lot of superstars have real chips on their shoulders. They pout and sulk. But these two guys obviously love to play, and as a result, there's no envy or jealously on the part of teammates. Camaraderie is so important in basketball because the game is based on players' reactions to each other, to their chemistry."

OK, Vitale, we're putting a gun to your head. Pick one.

"Oh, boy. That reminds me of when I was a kid and used to argue Willie Mays against Mickey Mantle with my friends. You can't lose with either. I'll tell you, if I had either one, I wouldn't be on TV, I would be back coaching. I've been known to screw up some players, but you can't screw up those two."

Quit stalling, Vitale, my trigger finger is getting itchy.

"I guess I would give the edge to Bird, though I'm not sure why. Maybe he's a little better rebounder and defender. But give me either, and I'll sleep soundly at night."

Pat Loughery, coach of the Chicago Bulls who moonlights as CBS analyst, feels strongly both ways.

"You leave after playing the Celtics and say to yourself, 'Gee, Bird is the best.' Then you play the Lakers and leave saying, 'Gee, Magic's the best.' They're that equal."

Loughery was asked to compare the two category by category.

Rebounding: "Bird statistically, but remember, Magic's playing guard. Very even."

Shooting: "I personally think Bird's a superior outside shooter, but (Laker Coach) Pat Riley told me that, statistically, Magic's their best shooter from 18 feet out. But a lot of teams give Magic the outside shot, while no one gives it to Bird."

Ball handling: "Magic by a little, but Bird's awfully good for a man 6-9. Thing is, Magic is 6-9, too, which is easy to forget because he plays like he's 6-3."

Passing: "Equal, though Magic does more of it."

Intangibles: "Equal. There are no better leaders. Both are very well liked by their teammates. It's a tremendous plus, because lots of stars aren't leaders."

OK, Kevin. Now, the gun is at your head. Whom do you take?

"Out of college, I would have taken Magic because of his better speed and quickness. But the lack of those qualities hasn't bothered Bird a bit, so now I would flip a coin. Send me either one and I would be delighted. I'm not being evasive, that's an honest answer."

Billy Cunningham, coach of the 76ers, said, "Neither man is superior. Bird is a better perimeter shooter and overall offensive force in creating opportunities for himself. Magic is a better passer in the open court, better at running and handling the break. But it's very difficult to find a weakness in either of them. No one man is going to stop either of them.

"But I think their No. 1 quality is that they make their teammates better by about 10 percent. It's their attitude. They're completely unselfish. All they care about is winning. If they have to score five points to win, they'll do it. If they have to score 40, they'll do it. Anything is takes. They're both Hall of Famers, and I would put them among the top 10 players who ever lived."

OK, Billy, hands up. Choose one or eat leaden death.

"Flip a coin, and I wouldn't care if I won or lost because either way, I'm going to win a championship at some point."

Stu Inman, GM of the Portland Trail Blazers, laughed when asked who the better player is. "It's always fun to debate, but it's moot. My judgment is that if they're not already there, they will be ranked among the top 10 ever to play this game. Julius Erving is a marvelous player, but he's not in their category. The only category I wouldn't rate them excellent but as merely good is on defense.

"They're flat-out the dominant players on their teams. You can argue Kareem, but Laker magic comes from Magic with his ability, warmth and enthusiasm. And no one will know how good the other Celtic players are until Bird leaves. I remember we had four All-Americans with Bill Walton, but when Walton left, all of a sudden, they weren't All-Americans any more, just nice players."

Slap, smack. Pick, Inman, or you're a goner.

"Forced against the wall, I would give an ever-so-slight edge to Bird. The guy is incredible the way he directs his team from the forward position. I've never seen a forward so dominant in influencing play from that position.

"Both are exceptional passers, but I might give a slight edge to Bird. Same for making fewer mistakes and ability to shoot, although their ability to score is about equal. Bird can't jump a lick, yet anticipation, timing and blocking out make him a very good rebounder. Magic, of course, may be the greatest rebounding guard in history."

Greatest ever. Two of top 10 players in history representing clearly the league's two best in a best-of-seven showdown beginning today. Basketball fans can't wait.

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