Magic Johnson's Friendship With Larry Bird Explained

Thanks to HBO's hot new sports dramedy, "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty," people are talking about one Earvin Johnson Jr. once again. Of course, we all know him much better as Magic Johnson, and even casual fans are aware that he led the Los Angeles Lakers to glory in the 1980s — to be specific, that's five NBA championships while quarterbacking the Purple and Gold's "Showtime" offense (via Basketball-Reference). And we also shouldn't forget Johnson's rivalry — and later friendship — with the Boston Celtics' superstar forward from the same era, the "Hick from French Lick" himself, Larry Bird, who won three NBA titles and, much like Magic, has an enviable list of individual accolades to his name. All these things undoubtedly helped them earn their rightful place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Any discussion of Johnson and Bird's relationship should start with their college days, with Johnson starring for the Michigan State Spartans and Bird doing the same for the Indiana State Sycamores. Per Bleacher Report, the two were highly-recruited basketball stars in high school who opted to play college ball in their respective home states, and their rivalry was on full display at the 1979 NCAA men's basketball championship game, where the Spartans defeated the Sycamores, 75-64. But how did their friendship emerge from what was once a contentious on-court relationship?

They had mutual respect while playing for a college all-star team

Back in 1978, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were two of America's finest college basketball players. However, they were seemingly barely aware of each other until they were both named to a college all-star team that competed in the World Invitational Tournament in April of that year. Shockingly, neither of these future legends got a lot of playing time; the team's coach, Kentucky's Joe B. Hall, appeared partial toward his own Wildcats players, guys like Jack Givens, Kyle Macy, and Rick Robey who didn't do much of note in the NBA. But it was evident that Bird and Johnson had tantalizing potential, which they both recognized in each other while executing a play against the Russian team. Bird and Johnson were showing off the brilliant passing skills that would later set them apart from their NBA peers, and the play ended with Johnson scoring a quick layup on an assist from Bird.

"It was an incredible three seconds of basketball," Johnson related in the book "When the Game Was Ours," as quoted by NPR. "It was boom, boom, boom! I'm thinking, 'Man, I love playing with this guy!' And believe me, the crowd loved it too." Bird, while less effusive in public, was similarly impressed with Magic, as one of the first things he did after returning home was to tell his brother Mark that he had "just seen the best player in college basketball."

Their rivalry intensified once they made it to the NBA

To understand why Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were considered the NBA's saviors when they turned pro in 1979, one has to remember that the league was in dire straits in the late '70s. The perception was that the NBA was too Black for white fans to enjoy (via Bleacher Report), and it didn't help that many players were allegedly doing a lot of drugs, especially cocaine. Plus, there were no real, long-lasting rivalries to speak of, as eight different teams won titles in the 1970s, with only the New York Knicks (1970, 1973) and Boston Celtics (1974, 1976) repeating. 

The Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers — bitter rivals dating back to the late '50s — didn't face each other at all in the NBA Finals that decade, but that was to change very soon, with Boston drafting Bird at No. 6 in 1978 despite the fact he was returning to Indiana State for one more year, and Johnson going first overall to the Lakers in 1979 after just two years in college. Their star power helped turn the NBA's fortunes around, and while doing so, their old rivalry became even fiercer now that they were playing for — and leading — their respective pro teams to great success.

Speaking to NPR, Bird said that he and Johnson "rekindled the fire" of the long-running Celtics vs. Lakers feud, and that their own personal rivalry "caught the imagination of everyone in America." Johnson, meanwhile, admitted that he and Bird disliked each other during their first few years in the NBA. "I even hated him more because I knew he could beat me," he explained.

A Converse shoe commercial helped break the ice

As opposing on-court leaders of two of the NBA's best teams, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had no love lost for each other as the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry made the NBA feel relevant again in the early '80s. But in 1985, both men made the first steps toward forging an unlikely friendship when Converse invited them to shoot a shoe commercial in Bird's hometown of French Lick, Indiana. Johnson was apprehensive at first because he and Bird never had a serious conversation at that point, and while he agreed to do the commercial, the two superstars didn't talk to each other during the actual shoot (via NPR). But when Bird invited Johnson to have lunch at his house, they both realized that they could at least be civil toward each other away from the court.

"His mom gave me the biggest hug and hello, and right then she had me," Johnson recalled to NPR. "Then 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 went on to admit that many of his Lakers teammates were "shocked" that he and his fierce rival actually had broken bread.

That said, it was "back to business" after the shoot, according to Bird, as the rivalry between top teams and star players continued, almost as if nothing had happened over at the Bird residence. "You don't want to get too close to a person because you will get a little soft," he told NPR.

Johnson turned to Bird after his HIV diagnosis

It's one of those "where were you when you heard the news" moments — Magic Johnson announcing on November 7, 1991, that he had tested positive for HIV and that he would be retiring immediately from the NBA. Before he made that announcement, the Lakers point guard decided to break the news to a few select people, and one of those individuals was Larry Bird. According to Johnson, he chose to speak to his old Celtics rival because he could count on his support when he needed it. 

"It was probably one of the worst feelings you could ever imagine," Bird told NPR. "It was very difficult. We played against each other for a long time. At that time, HIV was known to be a death sentence. But for some reason, when he told me he was going to be fine, I believed him because everything he's ever said had really come to be true, as far as winning and winning championships."

Further elaborating, Johnson said that his friendship with Bird, at that point, was one where they didn't have to talk every day. But he also recognized that they were both willing to step up whenever one of them needed something. "As strong as I appeared to be, I still needed a friend to just say, 'Hey man, I'm here, I'm supporting you. Just do what you got to do to be here for a long time.'" Johnson explained.

Their friendship has remained strong in the years since

In the decades that have passed since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were respectively leading the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics to dominance, their friendship has thankfully remained intact. By 1992, Magic was close to a year removed from retirement while Bird, who was dealing with a nagging back injury, was just about to call it a career. But they teamed up for what Bleacher Report called a "celebratory lap," helping Team USA's "Dream Team" run roughshod over the competition at that year's Summer Olympics in Barcelona. At Bird's retirement party in February 1993, Johnson presented a Lakers jersey to the Celtics icon, with the inscription reading, "To the greatest basketball player ever, but more importantly, a friend forever," per the Los Angeles Times.

Johnson and Bird continued to celebrate their friendship, as well as their rivalry, in more recent years; along with journalist Jackie MacMullan, they co-wrote the 2009 book "When the Game Was Ours." They were also announced as co-recipients of the NBA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, and their banter at the NBA Awards ceremony was proof positive of how far they've come since that fateful lunch after the Converse commercial shoot. "Man, I think we pushed each other to greatness," Johnson told Bird at the event. "And everyday I watched your box score ... thank you for pushing me, and I hope I did the same for you."