Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Magic versus Bird

When the Game Was OursWhen the Game Was Ours by Jackie MacMullan

The 1980s was a golden era for the NBA and that is largely due to the two great legends of that era, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. When the Game Was Ours follows the zigzagging storylines of how these two men's basketball lives intertwined, dating back to the late 1970s when Magic and Bird played together on a collegiate all-american team months prior to taking the court against each other in the 1979 NCAA finals. Their story progresses through their peaks in the 1980s as Magic and Bird trade off NBA championships year after year while taking the NBA to new heights in the process--capped off by the two former adversaries playing together as teammates once again on the 1992 Dream Team.

The NBA was a pretty mediocre entity prior to Magic and Bird. And its been pretty ho-hum since. Before Magic and Bird you had Kareem and Dr. J. Since then you've had Shaq and Jordan. But despite the individual talents of the superstars that came before and after, nothing has come close to creating the excitement or capture the imagination like the Magic-Bird rivalry did.  It is unique in sports history.

When the Game Was Ours goes into detail about this rivalry and in doing such it expresses how the cultural fascination of Bird versus Magic went far beyond what took place on the basketball court. There are many storylines involved--for instance the obvious story of how the competition between these two men actually pushed each other to attain greater hieghts--but from this story of clashing titans emerges a story of clashing cultures. From outward appearances these two men seemed to be products of conflicting cultures: Magic was Hollywood showtime, he loved the limelight, he loved signing autographs and hanging out with pop stars like the Jackson 5. Bird on the other hand, was the down home Hick from French Lick, who garnered the adolation of the lunchpale/hardhat crowd as he refused to drink expensive beer and looked for side entrances to avoid crowds in public places. Magic had grown up as a black kid who was bussed to a predominantly white suburban school. Bird had rarely left his rural hometown while growing up. But beyond the surface both men developed a drive to win that far surpassed their peers. They both grew up dirt poor in neighboring states (Michigan and Indiana) and they both endured incredible tragedies throughout their lives, from the suicide of Bird's father to the contraction of the HIV virus by Magic.

This clash of cultures worked itself out night after night as these two maestros conducted one masterpiece after another on the basketball court, and in the process defined an era. The 1980s were the dawn of the cable tv revolution. It was the decade that gave rise to multi-million dollar endorsements for sports athletes. It was the decade where the vices of our cultural heros were being fully exposed for the first time, from gambling to womanizing to drug abuse and cheating to rape and even murder.

Bird and Magic emerged from this decade as icons, cultural heros, true legends. But they couldn't have done that without each other. It was during the shooting of the "choose your weapon" shoe commercial at Larry Bird's home in 1985 when these two adversaries first began to form their lifelong friendship and it may have been then that they began to understand the fact that they were forever linked to each other and that their rivalry was something greater than their own inividual greatnesses. 

When the Game Was Ours is an easy read on a fascinating subject matter. It gets 3 out of 5 Wagemannheads.