Thursday, May 19, 2011

Defying Categorization: Bird and Magic

When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league in the 1979 entry draft, they brought the charisma and entertainment of the historic, most-watched, college finals game to the struggling professional league. Not only did their popularity rejuvenate the professional game from a media attention perspective, Larry and Magic rebuilt the historic franchises of the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, and changed the way the game itself was played.

The league was ruff and tumble back in the early eighties, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had to be warriors in many ways, battling through physical defenses and regular emotional altercations. Late in their careers, Larry fought through a misaligned back, while Magic contracted the HIV virus. As fierce competitors on and off the court, they defied stereotypes that were rampant in the league. The NBA was still seen as somewhat of a sideshow, marred by violence, and prejudice against what a predominantly white TV audience saw as aggressive blackness. Neither player wanted to be defined by the colour of their skin, and their sanctuary was on the court where they could compete man-to-man. In Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, John Turturro says, “Magic, Eddie, Prince, are not niggers. I mean they're not black…” and in Space Jam, Bill Murray says, “Larry’s not white, Larry’s clear.” Larry and Magic could not be defined by the urban dictionary of their time.

Their skills on the court developed in similar fashions. Despite appearing as physical opposites, their court-awareness and passing skills are virtually unrivaled by any other player, of any size, before or since. And when their teams needed them to play big, they hauled in rebounds. Magic’s legend includes him stepping into Kareem’s spot at centre and playing all five positions in the NBA finals, as a rookie. Bird revolutionized the game by incorporating the three-point line into his game, one of the first players to master the strategic use of the long-distance shot. This all-around game led to 138 career triple-doubles for Magic (second all-time), while Larry finished with 59 (fifth all-time), and were rewarded with a combined eight championships and six MVP awards. 

Positional play had become a norm in the 1970s NBA, where specific players were asked to perform specific roles such as ball-handler, shot-blocker, scorer, rebounder, etc. Attempts to assimilate athletic forwards from the ABA (absorbed three years prior to Bird and Magic’s time) clashed with crafty ball-handlers and dominating big men from the NBA. Players were compartmentalized. Larry and Magic defied categorization, and played a multitude of roles that formed the grounds for positional-defying talents such as Michael Jordan, Akeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and their global appeal impacted players such as Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili.

Unlike soccer or hockey, which designate a goaltender with specific skills to develop, basketball players must play all positions and perform all tasks. Baseball’s transition between offense and defense is controlled and mediated by umpires, unlike the NBA’s fluid transformation of offensive to defensive mentalities. In football there is an offensive and defensive line, a quarterback and a kicker, further segregating duties, which are performed by the best all-around players and athletes in the NBA. Magic and Bird cemented this winning strategy of do-it-all forwards who rebound, pass, defend, score, and lead their team in every way possible eschewing individualism for team success. The legends of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are inseparable, and their games and stories revolutionized the modern NBA game.

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