Riles Appreciated the Rivalry
"HERE, look at this," the Los Angeles Lakers' coach, Pat Riley, said one recent afternoon as he sat in his bright and spacious office at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. He handed his visitor a large black-and-white photograph. "Isn't it something?" he asked.
The photo was tattered along one edge because it had been torn from a book. Otherwise, it was well-preserved. It showed two basketball players, frozen during what is called the transition game - a time when possession of the ball is changing from one team to the other.
One of the players in the photo has the ball and is sprinting up the court, toward the camera. His left hand is on the ball, which is in midair. But he is glancing over his left shoulder at the other player. The other player's eyes are focused on the ball and his arms are pumping furiously. There are eight other players on the floor sprinting and jockeying around for position on the play, but for this single, captured moment, these two men - Larry Bird with the ball and Earvin (Magic) Johnson chasing him - seem all alone.
Riley said he did not know when the picture was taken nor the result of the play. "That's part of what's great about it," he said, taking the photo and pinning it to the bulletin board behind him. "It could have been any game, anytime, and anything could have happened. Look at 'em. Two of the greatest. Isn't it something?"
It was. It was also a photo that was quite apropos, for not since the days when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain dominated the game have two players been so closely identified with each other as are Bird, the dazzling forward of the Boston Celtics and Johnson, the Lakers' equally dazzling point guard.
"They're simply two f the all-time greats," said K. C. Jones, the coach of the Celtics. "They're so alike, but they're so different. Earvin's black, so that those who want to can identify with him, and Bird's white for those who want to identify with him. Earvin's a great passer, rebounder and scorer. Larry's all that and he can shoot better than any big man I've ever seen. Magic's strength is pushing the ball up the floor. When he's in control, there's nobody like him.
"They've got such creative imagination on the court," he added. "People sit there and marvel at what they can do."
Yesterday, in the opening game of the National Basketball Association's championship series, Bird, who had averaged 27.5 points in the playoffs and was the Celtics' leading scorer in each of the last 11 games, had only a pair of field goals and 12 points midway through the third period with the Lakers ahead by 83-63. But with Johnson on the bench with 4 fouls, Bird led a 24-9 spurt with 8 points to close the margin to 92-88. But the Celtics never caught up, losing the first game of the four-of-seven-game series, 115-109, in Boston. Bird finished with 24 points and Johnson had 18.
Johnson and Bird come from different backgrounds. Johnson was raised in Lansing, Mich., and was a legend before he left high school. Bird learned the game in a town called French Lick, Ind. "It's as small as it sounds," said Bird.
But even then, their games were strikingly similiar. Both were, and still are, passing wizards - "Bird must see the game in slow motion," said Jan Volk, the Celtic vice president - but each also has the skill to finish the play himself. Bird is the better shooter. At 6 feet 9 inches tall, he may be the best shooting big man ever. Magic's strength is in executing the fast break. "No one pushes the ball up the floor like he does," said Jamaal Wilkes, a teammate. "Just be where you're supposed to be and he'll get the ball to you."
Their relationship began on March, 26, 1979, when they met on the basketball court at the Special Events Center in Salt Lake City for the national collegiate title. Johnson's team, Michigan State, dominated Bird's team, Indiana State, 75-64.
On that night, Johnson, who, at 6-8 - an inch shorter than his current height - was every bit the magician. He scored 24 points and controlled the game. By contrast, Bird was caged. After carrying a three-year, 30-point scoring average into the title game, he was limited to 19 points. As the game ended, Johnson unveiled his boundless energy and enthusiasm to a national television audience by hugging his teammates and despensing a round of the then seldom-used high- fives, all with that now-famous smile. Bird cried.
As pros, they've played against each other only 10 times because the Lakers and Celtics meet only twice each season. Their teams have split the games. The first time they met Johnson's team won easily once again, but there was one intense moment late in the game when Johnson drove the lane and was rudely met by Bird. They collided and then just stared at each other for several seconds.
Later, when Bird was asked about his relationship with Johnson, he was terse. "I don't go out to dinner with him," he said. "I just know him on the basketball floor, and that's it. If he thinks he's going to drive the lane and I'm going to lay down, he's crazy. I've got a job to do. If he's going to come down the lane like that he'd better hold on."
Nothing very much has changed over the years since then. They acknowledge each other's greatness on the court, but not much else. "I still don't know him very well," said Johnson, whose effervescent style is another difference between him and Bird, who has an intense, workman- like air about him when he plays. "They remind me of the old players," said West. "Neither one of them is a great leaper. But their minds are such that they make the game easy for them. It is an easy game. They play basketball the way it should be played, by making people appreciate the team concept."
That their teams have faced each other so few times has not kept their careers from being intertwined. Bird is the word back East, and there's Magic in the West. Ask any expert to name the game's best center and he'll nominate either Moses Malone or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"But put 50 basketball minds in a room and ask them to pick a player to start their team, 25 of them will choose Bird and the other 25 will pick Magic," said David Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner.
"They give kids a different perspective on the game," West said. "Instead of working on dunking, which I do not think has had a positive impact on the game, kids learn that it's just as valuable to be able to make a layup with three guys coming at them, or to thread a bounce pass through two defenders on a fastbreak.
"They're thinking players. And they play the kind of game that kids can emulate. You can't copy the things Julius Erving does. That's a very different level. But these guys are all about fundamentals and hard work. They've definitely had a positive impact on the league."
But Bird, at age 27, and Johnson, at age 24, have done more than establish themselves as two of the game's most gifted stars. They've also become two of the sport's better drawing cards.
"They truly put people in the stands," said Volk.
If that's true, then basketball is getting its dollar's worth as the Celtics and the Lakers meet for the N.B.A. championship for the first time since 1969.
"Everybody's been talking about us being in the finals ever since we came into the league," said Johnson. "Me and Bird. The Lakers and the Celtics. It's what everybody's wanted to see. Now, they're gonna get it."
In the 1960's, the Lakers and Celtics established themselves as the league's premier franchises by developing the sport's first truly national rivalry. They met in the finals seven times between 1959 and 1969. The Celtics won all seven.
It is worth recalling just how it came to be that two of the game's greatest players wound up on the rosters of two of the game's greatest teams.
In 1978, the Celtics had their worst season in 28 years. They were 32-50, giving them the sixth selection in the draft. Bird was only in his third year at Indiana State because he had to sit out a season after transferring from Indiana. But under a rule that was rescinded that summer, he was eligible to be selected in the 1978 draft because his original class was graduating. But the selecting team might have to wait a full year for him to play.
Red Auerbach, the architect of the Celtic dynasty, took a chance and selected Bird. The Celtics suffered through an even worse 29-53 season as Bird compeleted his eligibility. But since signing Bird, they have never won fewer than 56 games. And they won the N.B.A. title in 1981.
Johnson's gleaming smile ended up in the land of sunshine through a different route. The Lakers were a respectable 47-35 in 1978-79 but were entitled to the first-round choice of the New Orleans Jazz as compensation for the signing of the free-agent Gail Goodrich, a former Laker all-star whose career would end after that season. The Jazz's 26-56 record earned the Lakers the No. 1 pick, which they used to select Johnson.
Johnson was signed in New York on the day of the draft. Ten days earlier, after what Bird's agent, Bob Woolf, called his "hundred-day war" with Auerbach, Bird had signed with Boston.
"Every year we got there against them, people felt we had a chance to win," Jerry West said about the Lakers meetings with the Celtics. "And some of them were close. It made for great interest and it appealed to the fans and media like nothing had ever done before. It was a special time for the N.B.A."
As a 13-time all-star and basketball's leading career-scorer in the playoffs, West has much to recall. He reached the finals in nine of his 14 seasons with the Lakers. Six of those final series were against the the Celtics. And six times, the Lakers lost. Those series provided the sport with some of its finest moments and performances.
"The first thing was that we had both coasts involved," said Jones, who was a member of the Celtics from 1959 through 1967. "And it was the same type of an intensity every year, just like we are now with Philadelphia, only this was on a bigger scale. And the way it seemed, all games seemed to come down to either one or two points, or there'd be overtime. It was at that kind of high level every night. It was the best."
The final meeting - until this season - came in 1969 and the Celtics won, 4 games to 3. The triumph was considered to be something of an upset because the Celtics were facing a Laker team that had obtained Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers. With him, the Lakers had ravaged their opponents during the regular season and were supposed to do the same to the Celtics.
Elgin Baylor, West and Chamberlain were all outstanding as the Lakers routed the Celtics by 13 points in the fifth game and took what appeared to be an insurmountable 3-2 lead.
The series came down to Chamberlain against Russell, who was in his final season. "It was like they were putting all of their many battles into one final stand," West recalled. "They went at each other with everything. Wilt was amazing. But Russell took everything that came at him."
After winning Game 6 in Boston, the Celtics built a 17-point margin at home in the Forum in the seventh game. "We thought that would be enough," said Don Nelson, the former Celtic forward who is now the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. "But I guess we should have known. I wish I could have watched some of that because I think it was some of the greatest basketball ever played."
Slowly, the Lakers fought back and with time running out, West hit a long shot that sent the game into overtime. One of the fans who went delirious in the stands was a tall youngster who had just graduated from nearby U.C.L.A. "I remember how West just reacted like he was in a fog," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "His teammates were congratulating him and he was just kind of staggering back to his bench and looking up at the clock to see if it was true."
"I really couldn't believe it," said West. "From the angle, I couldn't really tell, but the reaction of the crowd and my teammates, well, I just had to check the scoreboard myself."
"I thought for sure they'd win after that," said Abdul-Jabbar.
They didn't. The Celtics won, 108- 106, in overtime.
"I was just 9 years old," Magic Johnson said. "So I couldn't really follow it like if I was a fan. But I did read about it and people tell me it was really something."
"I really didn't follow the game too much back then," said Bird, who was 13 in 1969. "But just being around Red and K. C. and playing at the Garden in front of these fans and under all those banners let's me know how it was."
Basketball followers are excited by this year's final. "People will be interested in the matchup even though Johnson and Bird don't play against each other on the floor," said West. "But I hope it doesn't overshadow the team aspect of the series. Because of expansion, the league hasn't really had a rivalry like that one, other than Boston-Philly. It's going back to the good old days. I know I've had to hear about them for years."
Both players are also eagerly looking forward to the meeting, and both seem genuinely enthralled be the sense of history. "We're both about the same," Bird said before yesterday's game. "He really tries to help his teammates. I won't be thinking about what's happened before between the teams while I'm playing, but I know it's important."
"Larry knows what he has to do to win," said Johnson. "I know what I have to do for us to win. But we won't get into a personal thing, trying to outdo each other. That's not our game. Besides that wouldn't be fair to all the people that expect the Lakers and the Celtics - not just us - to put on a great show. That's what makes this so great. You've got two very knowledgeable teams and crowds on both ends who remember what happened before." Johnson smiled broadly. "It's gonna be great," he said. "Just great."
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