Friday, March 11, 2011

Larry Bird VS Earvin Johnson

 There have been many great individual rivalries in sports through out the ages which have seen great players compete against each other in ways which brought out the best in each other. These being the kind of matches in which one was never really sure who would come out on top but one could always count on seeing great encounters as well as magnificent displays of talent and skill from both players. As examples of such rivalries one might refer to Connors VS. Borg (tennis), Russell VS. Chamberlain (basketball), Evert VS. Navratilova (tennis), Senna VS. Prost (formula one), Ali VS Frazier (boxing) and Bird VS. Johnson yet in a strange way though these last two were competitors; they almost never actually had to go directly against one another. It being a case of Larry Bird playing small forward while Johnson played guard which meant that unlike Chamberlain and Russell, who were on each other all the time; Johnson and Bird did not player against each other so directly yet by leading their teams did create a strong rivalry.

 The year was 1980 and the truth was that basketball had lost a lot of its popularity since the 60s with players like Russell and Chamberlain having retired and the newer generations not having been able to capture the imagination of younger audiences. Of course there were great players like Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving (Doctor J) yet interest in the league and basketball in general were in decline. It perhaps being a case that Abdul-Jabbar though admired for his skills was not really one who was liked by the public. Abdul-Jabbar being a very shy man who was not very friendly with fans as he preferred to keep his solitude. It being at this time that two great players came out of college in the same year and in fact, it was their universities which met in the final with Johnson's team beating Bird's team; to win the national championship.
 As for myself at the time, I was 13 years old and the truth is that I had never really been a basketball fan by any stretch of the imagination. Basketball being a game which I did not follow on television as I neither liked the game, nor disliked it and playing it was definitely something which I was and still am utterly incapable of doing. This not only due to my limited height but my lack of any talent which might allow me to either dribble the ball or shot it or even pass it. It being a case that when I did play the game in summer camp, I was the only one allowed to travel due to the fact that if this had been called against me; it would have been called all the time and would have really slowed down the game. I, in fact liked playing the game in spite of not having any ability for it yet it was in this year that I started really watching basketball.
 It being in the spring of 1980 that a lot of the talk in American sports was about two rookie players in the NBA, Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson who had brought a new energy in to the game as well as talent to go along with their personalities and competitiveness. This also being a year in which sports programs could not get enough of Darrel Dawkins and the two backboards she simply shattered. As they would show these videos over and over, Dawkins in fact being the first player in NBA history to perform this act which though not one of great basketball skills; did make a big impression on a lot of people.

 I will never forget the first time I saw Larry Bird play. It was in game two of the final of the Eastern Conference between his "Boston Celtics" and Doctor J's "Philadelphia 76ers" and as I watched the game, I noticed that Bird brought a new kind of excitement to the game which had not been there before or at least not that I was aware of. Bird by being very competitive though perhaps not as graceful as Doctor J (or later Michael Jordan) had brought something new to the sport and in fact was making things very hard for Doctor J. As the two fiercely played each other. Doctor J, in fact also giving Bird a hard time as these two had to face each other directly yet Bird despite being only a rookie was able to play Doctor J and do it well.
The game seemed interesting and for the first time, I actually started enjoying basketball as I never had before and even became a fan of not only Larry Bird but the sport. I, for my part did not know much about the game back then apart from the basics that a basket was worth two points and that a free throw only one while a shot from past a certain line was worth three points though this was something which had just been implemented that very year. Regarding Larry Bird, however I could see that he was interesting to watch not only because he could shot and score but because when he had the ball; he moved his whole team. This meaning that at times he would pass the ball and make it easy for someone to score yet he also seemed to have an energy about him which ignited all those around him. Bird being active when getting rebounds or going after loose balls or whenever playing defense. Bird being a player of such enthusiasm that it not only captivated his teammates but whole audiences both in the stadium as well as on TV. Larry Bird and the Celtics went on to win that game and though Doctor J showed great moves in going for the basket much in the way Jordan would later; it was Bird who made the game interesting not only for his quality of playing the game but just his presence on the court and the way he seemed to push his team.
 The Philadelphia 76ers went on to win the next two games of the 4 out of 7 series to set up a fifth game back in the Boston Garden which unfortunately the Celtics would also loose. I however did not see games 3 and 4 of this 7 game series yet saw the fifth game which eliminated the Boston Celtics and sent the 76ers in to the final and though I was upset the Celtics had lost; I had became not only a fan of Larry Bird and the Celtics but the NBA which in a way was being revolutionized.
 The Boston Celtics, despite not having won the NBA championship or even made it to the final, could at least feel better about themselves as a team for having made it to the Eastern Conference Final and having had the best record in the NBA. Also as further cause for optimism; was the fact that they had failed to make the play offs in their last two previous seasons. The Boston Celtics, in fact being a franchise which in the opinion of many had been living on the championships of the past yet it was Larry Bird to change all that. Larry Bird even picking up "Rookie Of The Year" honors as well as being named to the "All-NBA First Team" yet apart from all of this he in a way became Doctor J's rival. It being a case of two great players with completely diverse styles going against one another which created an interesting rivalry with some preferring Bird over Doctor J or Doctor J over Bird yet this was not based on Bird's being white or Doctor J's being black but more on generation. This meaning that those of my generation most likely would prefer the younger Bird while those of the previous generation would prefer Doctor J; in these very heated battles which in 84 even led to a fist fight between the two of them.

 The Philadelphia 76ers made it to the finals where they would be meeting the Los Angeles Lakers, who also had a rookie sensation of their own in Earvin "magic" Johnson. Johnson having done for the Lakers what Bird had done for the Celtics. "Magic" Johnson bringing a new life not only to his team but to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Lew Alcinder) who though a great player was past his prime yet found a fountain of youth in a playmaker like Johnson; who was able to deliver the kind of passes he needed to score almost at will with his trademark "skyhook". Magic Johnson in a way had rejuvenated Abdul-Jabbar, who was already a well established star yet despite all his achievements had only won one NBA title and had not been in a final in a long time. It being Johnson, who not only brought a new enthusiasm to the Lakers but to Abdul-Jabbar as well, who with Johnson's arrival become much more approachable.
The series was a memorable one with Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar going up against Doctor J and Dawkins. This in fact being the first time in my life, I had ever seen an NBA finals along with the excitement which went along with it. As for Magic Johnson, he gave a display of all the talents he possessed. As he was able to lift his team to victory, thanks to his play making ability which brought out the best in all those around him. Johnson also in a way being in part responsible for Abdul-Jabbar getting the MVP for that particular year. The Lakers took a 3-2 lead in the series yet it was in Philadelphia, in game six where Magic Johnson made history when he replaced the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center. It being in this game in which he scored 42 points as the Lakers won their first NBA title in a long time yet perhaps more important than this was the fact that Johnson, like Bird; had brought something new in to the game.
 Johnson adding a new enthusiasm for the game which definitely had not been there in a long time and where perhaps Bird was more fierce, Johnson was more dynamic yet both contributed greatly in their first year in ways that went far beyond what they did on the court. It in a way being strange how Bird gave new life to Doctor J by becoming his rival while Johnson did the same for Abdul-Jabbar by being the player to get the ball to him under the hoop. Bird and Johnson, certainly had been what the league needed and where they had a lot in common as players. Both of them being great passers and shooters; they were also team players who thought of passing before shooting. All of which making the game more exciting. As it made scoring more then just shooting the ball in the net or going up for a lay up. As it had been up until that point but it made the whole play which preceded a basket a spectacle. Johnson did not get rookie of the year honors nor did he make the First All NBA team yet he did manage to get an NBA championship ring as well as being named MVP of the final series.
 By the start of the 81 season, basketball had been brought back to life as attendances were up along with TV ratings. It in a way being a whole new game with Bird and Johnson, who had given the sport almost a whole new look and feel. As baskets started to be celebrated with high fives while fans cheered both in the stands and in front of their TV screens when their favorite team scored. I even awaited the start of the NBA season with great enthusiasm for the first time. As I wanted to see Larry Bird and the Celtics go one step further and get to the NBA finals which hopefully they would win but naturally before doing this they would have to get by Doctor J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the play offs.
The regular season went by pretty much the way the previous year had gone with the Celtics getting the best record in the league which would give them home court advantage through out the play offs and the finals should they get that far. As for the Lakers, "magic" Johnson's absence was clearly felt as they barely made the play offs and were eliminated in the first round by a hard playing Houston Rockets team led by their star center; Mosses Malone.
 Larry Bird however did not experience such injuries and took his Celtics, now with the help of Kevin McHale to a repeat showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals yet like the previous year the Celtics went behind 3-1 in their best of 7 series. The Celtics were on the verge of elimination yet managed to win game five in the Boston Garden and game six in the Philadelphia Spectrum by a score of 100-98. This despite trailing at one point in the match by 17 points and Larry Bird having only hit one of his first seven shots from the field. It being in typical Celtic fashion that they came back to win a thriller after trailing through most of the game. This despite Larry Bird not playing his best at the start yet he would end up with 26 points and 15 rebounds in a dazzling display which let me see for the first time; the emotions which a great basketball game could generate. This game also breaking an 11 game loosing streak for the Celtics at the Philadelphia Spectrum.
 It was after this game that I became a Boston Celtic fan for sure and it in a way was strange in that I was living in New York at the time and had never even been to Boston yet they were and have remained till this day my favorite basketball team. Game seven, the decisive one would be played at the Boston Garden and though I felt the Celtics would win. I was all too aware that Doctor J and the rest of the 76ers which included Bobby Jones along with Darrel Dawkins would not just give them the game. It being another game in which the Celtics had to come back from behind yet managed to do it just like they had in the previous game to become just the third team in NBA history to come back after trailing by 3 games to 1.
It had been a brilliant series with the 76ers and though the NBA finals against the Houston Rockets were slightly disappointing. As they did not hold the same drama as the Eastern Conference finals yet they did serve to see Larry Bird win his first NBA championship with the Boston Celtics. I, for my part had never really cheered about American sports up till then yet it was a great moment for me to watch the Celtics become World Champions.
 By the time the 81-82 season started, I had moved to Argentina yet much to my surprise though looking back, it was to be expected; the NBA had become so big that its games were even being transmitted all over South America. Naturally, I was still a Celtic fan and again like in the previous two years, the Celtics ended the season with the best record only to meet the 76ers in the eastern conference finals and like in the previous years they fell behind by 3 games to 1. It being the Celtics to come back to win games 5 and 6 like they had done the previous year yet unlike in 81; were unable to beat the 76ers in game 7 which ended their season while the 76ers went on to the finals where they again lost to the Los Angeles Lakers by 4 games to 2. I remember being disappointed that the Celtics had lost yet I knew there would be other finals and championships for what was now my favorite team. I even started reading about players from the past such as Russell and Cousy who played for that historical Celtics team which won 12 out of 14 titles from 1957 to 1969.
 The 82-83 season was not a particular good one for the Celtics as they not only failed to finish the season with the best record in the league but were rudely swept in the play offs by the Milwaukee Bucks; who beat them in four out of four games. I even remember seeing fans in Milwaukee waving brooms during the fourth game in which the Bucks unceremoniously eliminated the Celtics. I however in all sincerity do not believe that the Celtics would have had any chance against the 76ers in that particular year. As there was no way that Doctor J, who was still in his good years and Mosses Malone along with the rest of the 76ers would be denied. The 76ers going on to get a measure of revenge against the Lakers, whom they demolished by 4 games to 0 in the finals and thus giving Mosses Malone, Doctor J and company a well earned title. It having been the 76ers who in fact had been in 3 out of the last 6 finals only to come up short on all three occasions however they were not going to be denied in 83.
My name is Gianni Truvianni, I am an author who writes with the simple aim of sharing his ideas, thoughts and so much more of what I am with those who are interested in perhaps reading something new. I also am the author of the book entitled "New York's Opera Society".

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