- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 8, 2009

By Larry Bird, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jackie McMullen
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 352 pages

Given the global popularity of the NBA today, it is easy to forget that at one time the game had such a meager following that its championship games were televised on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. because their ratings weren’t strong enough to warrant prime time coverage.

Then Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson came along.

Their first-rate playing skills and intriguing personalities helped fuel not only a strong personal rivalry between them and between their respective teams, Bird’s Boston Celtics and Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers. Their success, combined with the marketing prowess of NBA Commissioner David Stern, changed the game forever.

While Bird and Johnson have discussed that era in their own memoirs, in “When the Game Was Ours” they give their combined perspectives on the period.

The basketball legends collaborated with veteran sports columnist Jackie MacMullan (who worked with Bird on his memoir “Bird Watching”) and wrote it in the third-person. So Bird’s and Johnson’s voices appear as two of the many in the narrative.

The least revelatory parts are those that focus on the authors’ on-court performances. That’s because there has already been so much written about the subject that there isn’t a great deal to add.

It contains the obligatory descriptions of the key games and of the stars’ contrasting playing techniques. And what numbers they amassed: 39,498 career points, 15,836 assists, 15,533 rebounds and 3,280 steals.

“Yet the numbers don’t begin to explain their impact on the game. When Bird called it quits, the NBA emitted a collective sigh,” Ms. MacMullan writes.

Their successes resulted in both being inducted into the Hall of Fame and leading their teams to numerous championships: five for Johnson’s Lakers and three for Bird’s Celtics.

The best parts of the book are those that discuss the personal relationship between the players. While they were fierce rivals from the time they met as college players (and were stars of the teams that competed for the 1979 NCAA championship), they didn’t dislike each other. Their personalities and backgrounds were quite different: Bird is a white introvert from small-town Indiana who was the product of a broken home, whose father killed himself and whose mother struggled to put food on the table. Johnson is a black extrovert from Michigan’s capital, Lansing, who had two supportive parents.

Gradually they developed a great respect for one another and are now friends, though not close ones. They appear to have a better rapport than other great sports rivals, such as baseball greats Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

At Bird’s retirement ceremony, Johnson said “there will never be another Larry Bird. You can take that to the bank.”’ Bird said that he “did have incredible respect for Magic — more than anyone else I ever competed against.”

When Johnson was diagnosed as being HIV positive, Bird was one of the first people he called.

“I felt like someone had sucked the air out of my lungs,” Bird recalled. “I had this terribly empty feeling, like how I felt when my dad took his own life.”

Bird was supportive of Johnson’s criticisms of the first Bush administration’s lackluster efforts to combat AIDS and HIV.

“I was glad he quit. Sometimes people just want to use your name,” Bird recalled. “I figured he’d get a lot more done doing it his way.”

Johnson was touched by Bird’s support, especially given the reaction of some NBA players, who insinuated that Johnson had gotten the virus from homosexual sex.

The book spends a great deal of time chronicling Johnson’s efforts to raise awareness of HIV through his foundation and numerous media appearances.

“When I was diagnosed with HIV, there was no such thing as an open conversation about AIDS. People didn’t want to discuss things like that. So my mission was, ‘Okay, let me change a few perceptions,’ because I could see the look on people’s faces, when they met me,” he recalled.

Since their playing days, the men have taken different paths. Bird has been a coach and team executive while Johnson has been a successful entrepreneur.

The two don’t see each other all that often, but long after both are gone, their names will be inextricably linked.

Those wanting a behind-the-scenes look at their relationship and its impact on the game of basketball will find “When the Game Was Ours” to be a worthwhile and enjoyable book.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on sports, history and politics.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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