Didn’t matter that he was a fellow Hoosier – fond of calling himself “the hick from French Lick” Indiana. And, although I also thought Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight was the biggest jerk I’d ever seen step on a basketball court, I wasn’t impressed that Bird passed up the chance to play Knight’s stooge at IU, landing at scrappy little Indiana State.
I hated Bird because I thought he was the guy white people used to try taking basketball away from black people.
Perhaps that’s why I fell in love with HBO’s new documentary on the rivalry between Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, called Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.
Because HBO’s film doesn’t shy away from the awful truth of how fans projected their ugly baggage about race onto two athletes who were fierce competitors for completely different reasons. And the comprehensive, incisive, unflinching way the film describes this time makes it one of the best sports documentaries I’ve seen in quite a long while.
“Most black players at the time were racist,” admitted Cedric Maxwell, a black player who eventually learned to respect Bird when the two competed on the Boston Celtics in the 1980s. “We did not think you could find a white guy (who) could play better than any black guy.”
Basketball fans will note that the film’s biggest achievement comes early; Larry Bird talks. At length. About things even friends have rarely, if ever, heard him talk about.
His father’s suicide. His impatience with attempts to turn him into the “great white hope” who would draw white fans back to basketball. His pleasure at dominating players dumb enough to underestimate him because of his race, his humble roots or his private ways.
This basketball legend, renown for keeping the press distant as the length of an NBA center’s arm, even reveals his emotions at learning longtime rival Magic Johnson had the HIV virus, which Bird compared to the feelings he had when his father died.
“The day that I heard about Magic, it just sort of changed my love for basketball…it shook me up,” said Bird, explaining why he had to call Johnson himself after hearing of the diagnosis. “I wanted to hear it from him…probably didn’t believe it.”
In the film, tears fill Johnson’s eyes while remembering that phone call, which came from a man he’d fought bitterly for college championships, NBA titles and more.
“When something happens to you…then you find out who really your friends are,” he said. “You figure all those battles, all those things we had to go through as warriors…here’s this man who says, ‘You know what? You’re okay.’ That was the greatest moment for me, too…To have him check on me.”
There are many more great moments in Magic and Bird, which traces the lives of both players from their earliest childhoods, to their college triumphs, clashes in the NBA and beyond.
Comic Arsenio Hall and longtime Johnson pal dishes on the benefits of hanging with a player who became one of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities after his attitude transformed the moribund Los Angeles Lakers. Later, Hall reveals how some friends – naming former NBA star Isaiah Thomas – hurt Johnson after his HIV diagnosis by suspecting he was gay.
Former NBC anchor Bryant Gumbel, who covered the 1979 NCAA championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State which kicked off the rivalry between Bird and Johnson, used a choice 8-letter expletive when refuting the notion that Michael Jordan “saved” basketball by bringing crowds, attention and sponsors.
“B—s–t,” said Gumbel. “Magic and Bird saved the NBA.”
Journalist Charles Pierce chortled while noting that, though heated rivals, both Bird and Johnson played similarly as team-oriented basketball geniuses who had similar impact on moribund teams. “They were two halves of the same brain,” he said.
On the surface, that sounds outlandish. Bird was an introverted, hard-nosed, rough-playing white guy from a small Indiana town playing in Boston. Magic was a charismatic, smooth extroverted brother who savored trips to the Playboy mansion and enjoyed his status as the prince of Hollywood.
So when the two of them met, again and again, fighting for championships in the ‘80s, clueless fans like myself – fueled by the very deliberate marketing efforts of the league and others – saw their conflict as the Great White Hope against the Great Black Talent.
(My favorite illustration of this in the documentary was a brief moment from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, when white guy John Savage unknowingly bumps into militant brother Giancarlo Esposito while wearing a Celtics jersey.)
“I always felt the press was biased in favor of Larry Bird…it always felt to me like they were going to make Larry the hero,” said Hall. “You’d see somebody score and Larry would be in a cast in a suit on the bench and they’d say ‘Larry Bird made that possible, a couple weeks ago when he told that guy he could do it.’”
Magic & Bird describes how both men ignored all that nonsense to focus on what really mattered; beating the guy each of them saw as their only real rival in the NBA.
Later, we see a friendship build during, of all things, a commercial shoot featuring both men at Bird’s French Lick home. And by the film’s end – after Hall has admitted he thought Johnson was delusional to think he could survive long with HIV – Bird and Johnson admit they have a unique connection that survives distance, years without contact and retirement.
“We got this connection that’s never goin’ be broken – right to our graves,” said Bird. “They’ll be talking about this 100 years from now.”
In the end, Magic & Bird is as much about us as it is about the subjects – the truest mark of a great sports documentary. Call up HBO at 8 p.m. Saturday and see what I mean.
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at www.blogs.tampabay.com/media.