Twenty-one years is a long time to put the greatest rivalry in NBA history on the shelf. While no one can forget the Celtics epic comeback in the 1984 Finals or the “Memorial Day Massacre” of the ’85 champs, a new generation of Lakers and Celtics—including league MVP Kobe Bryant and six-time All-Star Paul Pierce—will try to dust off the old legacy. And of course, there’s no one better to learn from than the faces of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Here’s what they had to say.
On how televised basketball has changed over the years
Magic: It was just great to be able to play against Larry so many times, as well as the Celtics. We knew that Boston was one of the most incredible teams that would run their offense to perfection. I thought that they were the best at running their offense and executing on their offense. And they always played a great team defense. They had one of the best individual defensive players probably to ever play in the league, that being Dennis Johnson, so I had to match-up against him. Boy, that was a tough match-up every time. And I knew that Larry Bird could beat us at any time. There was nothing that we could do with him because he was going to score, he was going to get his rebounds, he was going to get his assists, and then his will to win was higher than everybody else’s. He knew how to make his other players better. I think that, still today, nobody has surpassed him when it comes to that. It was just great to be able to be in that hated rivalry for so many years. But it’s really not about Larry and I now—it’s about what we built over the years.
Bird: When you think of the Celtics and Lakers, it doesn’t start with me and Magic, it goes back to the ’50s and ’60s with [Bill] Russell and [Wilt] Chamberlain. We had a period of a couple of decades go by before they got back in the finals against each other. I think it’s great for the league and it’s great for basketball. Like Magic said earlier, it’s their stage now. It’s the first time in the Finals for a lot of the guys. It’s going to be interesting to see how they perform because there’s going to be a lot of pressure on them. It’s going to be interesting to see how they handle it. [I’m looking] forward to [the Celtics] winning another championship.
On whether Bird and Magic were aware of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1960s when they were growing up
Magic: It’s hard to call it a rivalry when you don’t win. I mean, year after year, the Celtics kept beating the Lakers, and I think that it was an incredible series, but Bill Russell kept ending up winning, and I always admired Bill and Wilt Chamberlain, but Bill would always get the best of him, and my dad was a big Wilt Chamberlain fan. But it was hard to call it a rivalry because the Celtics always won.
Bird: On my side, I watched some of it, not a lot of it, but I was very aware of the history between Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The funniest thing now is Luke Walton and Bill Walton—Bill played for [Boston] and Luke was nothing but a die-hard Celtics fan, and now he’s playing for the Lakers. Paul Pierce grew up in L.A. rooting for the Lakers and he’s with the Celtics. This is going to be very interesting.
On how Paul Pierce would go down in Celtics’ history if Boston won this year’s championship
Bird: In Boston, they always talk about how many championships you won, and I think it’s very important for Paul to win one if he wants to be put up with the great ones. I think he is a fantastic player, and probably one of the best players to ever come through there. Boston’s been blessed with a lot of great players and a lot of great hall of famers over the years, and it’s really hard to put one guy on top of the other. We all still look at Bill Russell, so [he’s] always going to be number one there, and everybody else just falls in line.
On whether present-day players can understand the Lakers-Celtics rivalry as Bird and Magic did because of the lack of meaningful games in the last two decades
Magic: I think it was always hard, when you play for an organization for as long as Larry and I [did], to not see them do well. But every great franchise must go through down times. Both franchises went through down times, and now they’re back. A mark of a true and great franchise is whether they can come back, and both of them have come back, and come back in a big way.
Bird: They’ll definitely have something to play for that’s never been played for, especially on the Boston team, because even through they’re great players and have great stats over the years, they haven’t been able to get to the finals and play for the big prize. They can’t wait around until the second or third game until they get comfortable and start playing again. You can’t let games go by and waste them. This is not the time to lose your confidence.
On whether the style of play that Bird and Magic epitomized—constant running and passing—will ever be seen again.
Magic: Well, you have to remember that when we played, it was all about running and going up and down the court. We built our team, basically by watching the Celtics, because Larry and them had so many shooters but not only on the court but also on the bench. They ran with a purpose in terms of scoring and getting it to their main man, and letting him make the decision. On our part, the Lakers got it in my hands, and we were all about running. Makes or misses, it didn’t matter, we were coming at you because we knew that’s how we could win. Our game was up and down. Can it come back? Yes, it can, because now you’re seeing all these great point guards coming to the league. When you think about Paul, you think about Tony Parker, you think about Williamson. It’s on and on—you’ve got all these point guards, not only in the West, but also in the East too. It’s better basketball. It’s more fun for everybody when you’re up and down. That’s what the game is missing.
Bird: Whoever got the rebound would take the first two or three dribbles up the court, to advance the ball as quick as possible. And a lot of times on made shots we would give it out and try to advance the ball three quarters of the court, a quarter of the court above the free throw line or the hash mark to get the break running and try to get some defense sucked in the paints. This gives you better movement, the court’s open. The one thing we thought we might have had over the Lakers, if we could ever get them in a half court game. [Magic laughs]
On the Bird-Magic personal ‘rivalry’ and the team rivalry
Magic: Well, it’s funny, because I really didn’t have a personal rivalry against Larry. It was always the Celtics versus the Lakers. We never really guarded each other, so it wasn’t really a personal rivalry, in terms of “I’m trying to go at Larry” or something. Larry and I were always the focal point. When Larry beat us for the first time in the ’80s, I was devastated. I went into hiding for about a month. I was so mad and upset, because the Celtics beat the Lakers once again. That made us 0-8 or 0-9. It was hard. And then we got a chance to come back in ’85, and finally beat them. For me, it was the Celtics and the Lakers.
Bird: There’s no question about that, it wasn’t about me and Magic, it was about our teams. I know our guys were into it. They talked more, they always had some say, they come up with nicknames for the Lakers players, and everything was geared towards getting to the Finals. Some of it was just completely out of control, but they knew the history behind it all. It was never really between me and Magic. It was always Celtics and Lakers. It was how we were taught.
On their most memorable moments from the ’80s
Bird: Mine was, obviously, ’84. We got beat in the first game, went into overtime in the second, felt we got lucky to win the game, got blown out in the third game. Then we had to change our tactics and try to play a rough game. All the guys really turned the clock on him and played a different style and played a rougher style to change the series. I thought that was pretty incredible on our part. We did whatever we could just to stay in the games because they were running us out of the building just about every night. For us to win the ’84 championship was pretty mind-boggling to me, the way that they dominated us early in the series.
Magic: It was ’85 for me—the Celtics actually taught us that we had talent, and we were great, but we weren’t mentally tough enough. So we had to become mentally tougher, and that happened after ’84. We probably couldn’t have won back-to-back if we didn’t learn from them that we had to go to another level.
Watch the NBA Finals beginning June 5 at 9 pm EST on ABC.