The Steele Drum

November 23, 2009 10:05 AM

Magic and Bird: Then and Now, As Good As It Gets

87212049.jpgIt had all the makings of a curmudgeon's convention. Bobby Knight was there, riffing on the various shortcomings of college basketball today. Billy Packer was there, too. So was Gene Bartow, who coached in a national championship game against John Wooden. George Gervin, of a different era of the NBA. Even perpetually overlooked legend Travis "Machine'' Grant, who played back when some Southern colleges still weren't recruiting blacks. And, of course, a theater full of coaches from days gone by - way, way by.


Hall of fame ceremonies, by definition, should be about the good ol' days, and the one for the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame Sunday night in Kansas City was one defined by a golden era. The marquee names in the induction class made their reps in a single game 30 years ago that has been credited with changing the nature of the sport. But no matter how tempting it would have been to turn the night into a session of griping about how these kids today couldn't carry these guys' jocks, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird managed to bring their careers, started and ended long ago, back to life and connect it to what makes basketball great and will keep it great for years to come.

Even Packer couldn't deny that. As he joined Johnson and Bird on stage in the historic Midland Theater near the end of the two-hour program, he referred to the title of the pair's new book, When the Game Was Ours, and thought it was insufficient. "You guys are what the game is now,'' Packer said. "It's not just what it used to be. What you two are, is what basketball is today.''


It was a heartfelt recognition of how unique and eternal Magic and Bird are, and how just not watching them play, but being around them, made you fall in love with the game. Even seeing replays of their 1979 NCAA championship game, when Johnson and Michigan State beat Bird and Indiana State, reminded you of how they made themselves and every game they played a must-see event. Only Magic and his coach (and fellow Hall enshrine) Jud Heathcote would insist that it was a gem of a game, but even as Bird struggled against a defense that made him a one-man team, it was obvious that both of them had a special quality about them that defied what appeared to the naked eye - even Packer's, as he had to admit - to be fairly limited pure athletic ability.


Bird was slow, and Magic couldn't shoot. Bird could shoot, really well, but a lot of forwards could shoot well. And Magic trying to play the point at 6-foot-9? Ridiculous.


What raised them both a level above the rest? Both would do absolutely anything, whatever it possibly took, to make themselves better, to make themselves the best, to make their entire team better - to win. That, all agreed, was something that couldn't be measured with a stopwatch or ruler, or quantified by stats. Magic even said that had circumstances been different, had he left school a year earlier and landed with the then-Kansas City Kings or had the Bulls won the infamous coin flip over the Lakers a year later, he believes he could have helped them win; it was just easier with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his side. Bird, meanwhile, apparently was prepared to just play as much and as hard as he could until somebody made him stop.


They both were asked about their legacies. "That we loved the game, and we still do, and that we played with passion and heart, and we made our teammates better,'' Johnson said. "I love the game of basketball and I always will.''


"It's not only what I think, it's what the fans think,'' Bird answered. "It's really their game. We had a great opportunity to play the game we love. Not only in high school and college - I still can't believe I got paid to play the game I loved.''


It's not an easy formula to duplicate it. Some have done it since their heydays; some are doing it right now. Some did it before they showed up on the scene. Very few did it while they played. Those who have done it, and will do it, become immortals. When Magic and Bird did it, nobody could touch them, and three decades after their legendary first meeting and more than a decade after their last, they still exemplify basketball at its best and demonstrate the possibilities of what it can be.


Not just what it used to be.

(Photo: Getty Images/Sports Illustrated)


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