Why Larry Bird Was The Only Player Magic Johnson Ever Feared

It was back in April 1978 when Earvin "Magic" Johnson first encountered Larry "Joe" Bird on the basketball court. And even then the first stirrings of a monumental rivalry that would soon help popularize the NBA and transform the game began to percolate. "I'm not going to let this guy upstage me," Johnson thought to himself, according to "When the Game Was Ours," the 2009 book they co-wrote.

At the time, Johnson and Bird were on the same team. They were both playing in the USA Men's World Invitational Tournament — a made-for-television round-robin featuring teams from around the world — and hadn't met before the event, according to Sportscasting and "When the Game was Ours." The next time they met was in March 1979 when their college teams faced off in the NCAA Division I championship game. Before the game, Johnson was worried. "Oh my goodness, what are we gonna do to contain Larry Bird?'" he recounted in 2009, according to NCAA. "We had never seen a player like Larry Bird."

Johnson and Bird meet again in the NBA 

As it turned out, during Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's first matchup, Johnson didn't need to worry so much, since he came out on top. On March 26, 1979, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Johnson helped his Michigan State University Spartans beat Bird's undefeated Indiana State Sycamores, 75-64, per NCAA. Bird was off his game, making only seven of 21 shots from the floor and five out of eight from the foul line, according to Sportscasting. Johnson, on the other hand, made eight out of 15 from the floor and only missed two of the 10 shots he took from the foul line.

The history-making match-up lit a fire between the two players that began to burn brightly in the coming years. By the end of 1979, Magic Johnson was with the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird was busy helping turn the Boston Celtics' season around (he would end up winning Rookie of the Year), per Britannica, when they faced off for the first time in the NBA, on December 28, 1979.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's rivalry heats up

Again Magic Johnson bested Larry Bird. The Lakers won the game 123-105, per Basketball Network. But in the coming years, Bird would continue to develop into one of the best players in NBA history and one of the most intimidating on the court. Bird, at 6-foot-9 and brimming with confidence, had an unstoppable shooting ability and averaged 24.3 points, 10 rebounds, and 6.3 assists a game during his 13 years with the Celtics, according to Britannica. He would lead the Celtics to three NBA championships, was named league MVP three times, and was an All-Star 12 times, per Britannica.

Magic Johnson believed Bird was such an excellent player it was "frightening." He would tell ESPN that when he played, "Larry Bird was the only one I feared." Johnson's career stats are just as impressive. He remains the all-time leader in assists at 11.2 per game and scored 17,707 points, 6,559 rebounds, and 1,724 steals, per Biography.

A friendship blossoms

They maintained their heated rivalry during the 1980s even as they understood they were pushing each other to be the best they could be. "I could never have a close relationship with my opponents," Bird told the Daily News in 2009. "When I first got to play against Magic, there was a hate factor there. It was more than just dislike." 

After the filming of a 1985 Converse commercial they were both in, they had lunch at Bird's house, which helped put out the fiery relationship they'd developed. "Larry and I sat down for lunch, and I tell you, we figured out we're so much alike. We're both from the Midwest, we grew up poor, our families [are] everything to us, basketball is everything to us. So that changed my whole outlook on Larry Bird," Johnson told NPR. In 1992, they found themselves once again on the same team during the Olympics as members of the U.S.A. Dream Team that easily bested the competition to take the gold medal, and over the years they have become very good friends.