Nate: Today we’re talking about the book “When the Game Was Ours” by Magic Johnson & Larry Bird with Jackie MacMullen. I’ll start off by saying that one of the things that stood out to me the most in this book was the dynamic between Bird and Magic, how competitive they were with one another, and how they were completely driven by each other to be better players and find a way to beat one another. My earliest memories of the NBA are of Magic and Bird winding down their careers and the ascendency of Michael Jordan, so I wasn’t fully aware of just how intense their rivalry was on a personal level with one another, and how much general dislike they had for one another at first, even though they each respected the other’s game.
Dave: Their rivalry definitely transcended just about everything. It spilled over from them, to their teammates, and finally to the fans. Being a Celtics fan, it always seemed as though you had to beat the Lakers to be a real champion when Bird and Magic were playing. When the Celtics beat the Rockets, it almost didn’t seem like a true championship because of that. As far as their dislike for one another, it all seemed to kind of stem from their first meeting in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game when Magic and Michigan State beat Bird and Indiana State. The book shows how, in Bird’s eyes, Magic took something away from him, and he was always trying to get that back. And when the Celtics finally beat the Lakers in ’84, Magic felt he needed to get it back from Bird. But their relationship evolved from one of dislike, to respect, to admiration, and finally genuine friendship.
Nate: It seems as though they finally realized, once they actually met and had a chance to talk, that they could relate to each other on a level no one else could.
Dave: Absolutely. No one was as driven as they both were, and that gave them a bond they couldn’t really find with anyone else on their teams, or in the entire NBA.
Nate: The other thing some younger people might not realize is how important Bird and Magic were to bringing the NBA to the level it’s at now. While reading the book, I was reminded of how insignificant the NBA was when they joined the league in 1979. In Magic’s rookie season, when he played in the Finals, the games weren’t shown live.
Dave: That’s right. They were tape delayed and usually aired after the ten o’clock news. It’s hard to believe when you look at where the game is now. A lot has changed, and it all started with the two of them.
Nate: There’s a lot of discussion in the book about Magic and Bird’s college years and the 1979 NCAA Championship Game. There were a lot of interesting tidbits about both of them, their college years, and particularly their runs with their teams through the 1979 season and NCAA Tournament. I know you were going to school in southern Indiana during that time, so you were already familiar with much of the excitement surrounding that game, and I went to Indiana State, so the Bird lore is very familiar to me as well. But it was still a good retelling of the story of ’79 for anyone who isn’t aware of what transpired during that time.
Dave: I agree. Like you said, I was there during that time, and I had the privilege of being able to go up to Terre Haute and see Bird play a few times, but you do get a good sense from the book how the rivalry began and how their college careers cultimated in that championship game in 1979.
Nate: What else stood out for you in the book?
Dave: I enjoyed the coverage of the 1992 Dream Team, and especially a story told about how Magic, Bird, Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley were sitting around talking about winning championships, and who had the best championship team of all time. Apparently Bird finally stopped the conversation and told Ewing and Barkley to leave because they hadn’t won any championships and had no frame of reference.
Nate: And they did.
Dave: Yeah, they got up and found something else to do. I guess it would have been hard to argue the point because Bird was right.
Nate: It was interesting how Barkley is quoted in the book as saying what a huge difference there was between The Dream Team and the 1996 Olympic Team. He said that the 1996 team was all about egos – who was getting the most shots and padding their stats in the boxscore, whereas The Dream Team was completely unselfish. Despite the fact that it was probably the greatest compilation of basketball talent ever assembled, they played as a team. And Barkley credits Magic and Bird with bringing that dynamic of respect to the team and keeping everyone accountable.
Dave: That’s right. Barkley said it was the greatest basketball experience of his life being on that team, and largely credits Magic and Bird for making it that enjoyable. I’ll tell you the one other thing that really stuck out to me in this book was the whole deal with Magic finding out that he was HIV positive. Not only what he had to go through personally, but the way he was treated by some of his teammates and others around the NBA. When I was reading it, I realized how far we’ve come in our understanding of HIV and AIDS, and how uneducated people were in the early ’90s when the news broke.
Nate: I couldn’t agree more. It was also interesting to hear how negatively Isiah Thomas reacted to Magic being HIV positive, and how that completely soured their relationship even to this day.
Dave: Yeah, we went from Magic and Isiah kissing before each game of the Finals to now never speaking to each other.
Nate: And I didn’t realize Isiah was hated as much as he was by the rest of the NBA. I knew he rubbed some people the wrong way, but the level of hatred toward him was surprising to me.
Dave: Except for Bird’s Mom.
Nate: That’s right. Isiah was her favorite player from his time at Indiana up through his Bad Boy days with the Pistons. Even when he said unfavorable things about Bird, he was still her favorite. So, what was your overall impression of the book?
Dave: I enjoyed it. Of course, I love the game of basketball, and especially the NBA game. And I also have a great deal of respect for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. I thought Jackie MacMullen did a great job of laying out the rivalry between the two men, the teams they were a part of, and also showing how they laid the groundwork for the success the NBA has enjoyed over the last couple of decades.
Nate: I completely agree. If you’re a basketball fan, or even just a general sports fan, I think you would enjoy reading “When the Game Was Ours”, with its look inside the minds of two great competitors, and all of the anecdotes Bird and Magic share that you would likely never have a chance to hear about anywhere else.