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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

Were going to spend some time revisiting one of the greatest rivalries in the history of basketball: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

For more than a decade, they dominated the game, first in college and then in the NBA. It was the stoic versus the showman. For the Celtics, the big-nosed blonde whose intense personality matched his intense play as a forward.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

Unidentified Man #1: With three seconds, Bird will try another jumper and hit it at the buzzer. Bird has 60 points.

(Soundbite of cheer and applause)

NORRIS: And for the Lakers, the smooth point guard with the mile-wide smile who made even the most difficult moves look easy.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible), oh, gets away. What a pass, hello, caught it.

(Soundbite of cheer and applause)

NORRIS: Now, maybe Bird would have still soared without Magic pushing him, and maybe Magic would have still been magical without Larry Bird, but the NBA would not be where it is today without the rivalry that elevated the entire league. Its all detailed in their new book. Its called "When the Game Was Ours," co-written with Jackie MacMullan.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird both sat down with me recently, and from listening to them, its clear they are now very good friends, but back in the day, that rivalry was real.

Mr. MAGIC JOHNSON (Former Basketball Player): Well, we disliked each other. It didnt help that we played in an NCAA championship game, and now, we got to see each other in the NBA, and one is for the Celtics, one for the Lakers because once we entered into both of those teams, they hated each other, the organizations already. So, even our teammates made sure that we hated each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LARRY BIRD (Former Basketball Player): Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: I mean, were so competitive anyway that there was a dislike there. I even hated him more because I knew he could beat me.

NORRIS: You know, some people look at the two of you and the way that your relationship has evolved over the years, and theres still this question: How much of that rivalry came from the two of you and the competition between the two of you, and how much of it was manufactured by the league?

Mr. BIRD: Well, you got to go back in the 50s. We just rekindled the fire, but we did it in a way where we caught the imagination of everyone in America.

NORRIS: And I want to talk to you about a turning point in your relationship, and it seemed to be that moment when the two of you got together for the taping of the Converse shoe commercial - and before we go on, I think itd be interesting if we just took a listen.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: I heard Converse made a pair of Bird shoes for last years MVP.

Mr. BIRD: Yup.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, they made a pair of Magic shoes for this years MVP.

Mr. BIRD: Okay, Magic, show me what you got.

Unidentified Man #3: The Bird shoe, the Magic shoe. Choose your weapon from Converse.

NORRIS: We just heard the audio, so you dont see the visual, but Magic, youre in the limousine, and you jump out, and, you know, youve got the two shoes, and eventually, they change the wording of that, choose your weapon. But for a time, that commercial was legendary. How much did they have to convince both of you to get together to go to Indiana to tape that commercial?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, for - you know, it was, yeah. It probably

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRD: I was in Indiana.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: I know.

NORRIS: It didnt take much convincing for you.

Mr. JOHNSON: It was probably more for me than for Larry. You know, you got me going to his hometown, and Larry and I had never really sat down and had a conversation. So Im nervous. You know, Im nervous. Its like Im going crazy, like whats going to happen?

And we started shooting the commercial, and we really didnt say anything to each other. We were just, you know, doing our lines and everything. And the real moment - and Im sure Larry would agree - was when we went up to the house for lunch. And his mom gave me the biggest hug and hello, and right then, she had me.

And then, Larry and I sat down for lunch, and I tell you, we figured out, you know, were so much alike. Were from the Midwest, we grew up poor, our families is everything to us, basketball is everything to us, you know, those type of things, and so, that changed my whole outlook on Larry Bird.

NORRIS: in the book, they describe this meeting between the two of you, and they said that when you left, that Larry Bird seemed like a real down-to-earth guy, and you thought to yourself, huh, we could end up being friends one day. But then you had to go back to your teammates who were, like, you did what?

Mr. JOHNSON: I know.

NORRIS: You went to his house?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: I know. Believe me, everybody was shocked, right?

Mr. BIRD: Well, thats one of the things that I was always nervous about when I played in the NBA. I always thought you had to keep the edge. A lot of the things you do, you dont want to get too close to a person because you will get a little soft. But once me and Magic left that commercial shoot that day in Indiana and once we got with our teams, all that was forgotten until we retired.

NORRIS: Theres a chapter in this book thats called "November 7th, 1991."

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. JOHNSON: Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.

NORRIS: The chapter begins with the words: Youve got to call Larry. And thats Magic Johnson asking his agent at the time to call Larry Bird. Magic, there was a short list of people who you said had to know before you went before the cameras to make that announcement. But among all of your basketball colleagues, why was it so important to make sure that Larry Bird was at the top of that list?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, you know, probably for all the reasons weve been talking. Wed been connected to each other since college. I knew that he would want to know and also want to know from me, and Im glad that I was able to talk to Larry and let him know that Im going to be okay, and I knew he was going to be supporting me. And Im just glad that I was able to reach out to him.

NORRIS: Larry Bird, do you still remember that phone call?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, thats something that Ill never forget my whole life. But you know, we had a game that night and I had my routine where Id come home from shoot-around, Id have my lunch then go take a nap and (unintelligible) it. When I started to lay down there, the phone rang, and it was probably one of the worst feelings you ever, ever could imagine. 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 hes ever said really come to be true. I feel a little bit better, but still I was a gamer. I always liked to play in the games. I liked - I love game day. I couldnt wait to get down to the gym. But when I got that call, thats the one time that I can honestly tell you that I didnt feel like playing.

NORRIS: What did this period do to your friendship? It sounds like it deepened your friendship, and I ask this question because I wonder, within the pages of this book, if theres a lesson about the power of friendship.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think that, you know, both Larry and I are very strong, strong-willed, strong-minded. Sometimes, that armor is weakened, and as strong as I appeared to be, I still needed a friend to just say: Hey man, just do what you got to do to be here for a long time. And thats I leaned on Larry Bird for that. We got a friendship - you dont have to talk every day, and we dont. And then when we do get together, when I see Larry and I get that pound and I get that hello, Im good, you know? It takes me through my next year or two, you know, until I see him again.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you. Its been a pleasure.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

Mr. BIRD: Thank you.

NORRIS: Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. They were talking to us about their careers and the new book, Larry Bird, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, "When the Game Was Ours." The book was written by Jackie MacMullan.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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