How The Magic-Bird Rivalry Got Started

On May 29 1980, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics won the NBA rookie of the year award narrowly beating out Los Angeles Laker, and rival, Magic Johnson. This was one of the first battles in a legendary rivalry that lasted throughout the 1980s. In this post, we’ll look back at each player’s rookie season, and see how they helped change the NBA, bringing it to new heights of popularity. 


The Magic-Bird rivalry truly began the year before during the 1979 NCAA championship. Heading into the final matchup, Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans were favored over Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. Michigan State would beat Indiana State 75-64, securing their first ever national championship. The game itself drew immense interest from fans, becoming the most watched basketball game (and that’s combining both non-professional and professional) ever at the time.

1979 NBA DRAFT  

The 1979 draft was held just a few months later on June 25th 1979, with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls in line for the first overall pick. Originally, The New Orleans Jazz had the first pick, but gave it to the Lakers in an exchange for future hall of famer Gail Goodridge. Both the Lakers and Bulls finished in last place within their conference the year before and at that time, the order of draft picks was decided by a coin flip. The Lakers won the coin toss, and they selected Magic Johnson as the first overall pick of the 1979 draft. Johnson, who had just finished his sophomore year in college and decided to leave two years early, signed to the Lakers with a $600,000 contract.

Larry Bird had actually already been drafted by the Boston Celtics the year before, in the 1978 draft, as a junior in college. Bird, who was thinking about staying in college for one more season basically told the Celtics “…I think you better… chill out.” Well The Celtics chose Bird anyways as the number 6 pick in the first round, but Bird instead decided to stick with his plan and played his senior year of college basketball. This was a risky move for Boston, because the team could have lost the exclusive signing rights to Bird after he decided to stay in college one more year. Bird had the option to reenter the draft in 1979 and be picked by another team, if he wasn’t signed by the Celtics pirot to the start of it. 

During the team’s negotiations with Bird, Celtics general manager Red Auerbach’s initial signing offer was deemed too low by Bird. Auerbauch pushed back by saying that he wouldn’t pay Bird $400,000 more than the Celtics current highest paid player (who was Dave Cowens at the time). Larry Bird’s agent told Boston that Bird had no problem reentering the draft if he wasn’t paid what he wanted. By April 1979, two months before the draft, the two sides came to an agreement and a five year deal worth 3.25 million dollars was signed by Bird and the Celtics. At the time, the deal made Bird the highest paid rookie in the entire history of team sports.

Not long after the deal was signed, the NBA moved to change the drafting rules to prevent teams from drafting players before they were ready to sign. This change would be known as the Bird Collegiate Rule.


Before the start of the 1979-1080 season, The Celtics were coming off a 29 wins and 53 loss record the year before. The Celtics would finish the 1980 season with 61 wins and 21 losses, which was a record one year turnaround for an NBA team at that time.

In Bird’s first game, he scored 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists against the Houston Rockets in a 114-106 win. A month later, he recorded his first career triple-double with 23 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists in a game against the Detroit Pistons. Later in November of ‘79, Bird had his first 30 point game, in a game against his home state Indiana Pacers. 

The Lakers franchise on the other hand, went through quite a bit of change. Businessman Jerry Buss had just bought the team from the previous owner Jack Kent Cooke, and installed a new head coach in Jack McKinney. Magic Johnson joined already established star Kareem Abdul Jabbar, in creating a unique style of play featuring no look passes and fast paced scoring. This was the beginning of the “Showtime” Lakers that would last throughout Magic Johnson’s Laker career.

Part of the Lakers early success was due to head coach Jack McKinney’s running style offense. Even though the Lakers had one of the best point guards in the league in Norm Nixon, McKinney moved Nixon off his normal position and played Magic Johnson as a point guard instead. 

However, just 13 games into the season, Jack McKinney was seriously injured after falling off his bicycle and hitting his head. Paul Westhead seen here holding a team meeting in an abandoned school, was an assistant coach under McKinney and he stepped in as interim coach, while continuing to push McKinny’s offense oriented style of play. Throughout that season, Magic led the league in triple doubles and the Lakers would finish the season with 66 wins and 22 losses, winning 19 more games than the season before. 

Bird and Magic’s first game against each other in the NBA came on December 28, 1979. The game was played in Los Angeles at the Great Wester Forum, and the Lakers cruised to a 123-105 win against Boston. Magic Johnson outplayed Bird, by scoring 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. With Bird scoring 16 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists.

Both Bird and Magic were selected to the 1980 NBA All Star Game, and the All Rookie team, with Magic Johnson averaging 18 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 2.7 steals  per game that season. Bird finished the season with averages of 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. 


Even though the statistical matchup between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson at the end of the season was very close, Bird was voted rookie of the year by a pretty wide margin. Out of 66 possible votes, Bird won with 63 first place votes leaving Magic receiving the only three other first place votes. Bird became the third Celtic all time to win the award, with Dave Cowens last winning the award for Boston in 1970.


The Celtics would end up sweeping the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, but would fall to Dr. J and Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals .

Magic Johnson would help lead the Lakers all the way to the NBA finals that year, in a matchup against the 76ers. The Lakers would beat Philadelphia in 6 games, to win their 7th NBA Championship. 

When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the NBA, it helped renew a long standing rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers that dates back to their first NBA finals meeting in 1959.  Over the next ten years the two teams would face each other 7 times in the finals, with the Celtics winning every match up. 

Bird and Magic would go on to face each other in the NBA finals three times in 1984, ‘85, and ‘87. Bird’s Celtics won the first finals matchup in ‘84, while Magic’s Lakers won the last two. Both players would help the The Lakers and Celtics become dominant forces throughout the 1980s, with both teams winning a combined 8 championships.

By the mid 80’s both players had become two the most popular players in the sport, which is best exemplified by this 1986 Converse commercial where Magic randomly shows up in a limo to challenge Bird to a game of 1 on 1. 

Their real life Head to head statistics were basically mirror images of each other. Both players played for 13 NBA seasons, were each selected to the all star game 12 times, both won 3 league MVPs each, both were named to 9 All NBA first all teams, and were both selected to 10 All NBA teams. 

Looking back at the NBA during the 1980s, it was a revolutionary time as it’s extremely rare to have two all time greats, coming into a sport at exact the same time, and squaring off against one another for years. The NBA prior to Magic and Bird entering was a vastly different league, with declining game attendance and struggling for TV viewership, In fact some of the playoffs and finals were not even shown live, and were shown on tape delay at a different time. Mainly because the finals just couldn’t compete with most primetime TV shows for ratings. The Magic and Bird rivalry would help change all of that, ushering  in a new era of basketball in the NBA. They ignited brand new interest in the game, while capturing new fans worldwide, and helped make the game what it is today. 

So that does it for this post on legendary rivals, what did you guys think about Larry Bird winning rookie of the year over Magic Johnson? Let me know in the comments below! If you’ve enjoyed this post make sure to hit the like button and feel free to share it with anyone else who might also enjoy it. For more Sports History, check out my YouTube channel, and check out my other articles which are posted a top of this page.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: