“When the Game Was Ours” is a book that chronicles the lives, careers, rivalry, and ultimate friendship of basketball Hall of Famers Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird.
Co-written by the former hoop legends with Boston sports columnist Jackie MacMullan, the book focuses on the men’s impact on the game of basketball and how their personal rivalry helped elevate the game. Their story began in the 1979 NCAA Tournament, continued into the National Basketball Association (NBA), and culminated as teammates on the 1992 United States Olympic Gold Medal-winning “Dream Team” in Barcelona.
The book is a compelling look into their contrasting styles as well as the similarities they shared. Johnson was the flashy, outgoing “Magic Man,” who brought Hollywood “Showtime” to the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Bird was the fundamentally sound, stoic “Hick from French Lick” who restored “Celtic Pride” to the Boston Celtics. The fact that Johnson is Black and Bird is White punctuated the differences further, in the eyes of many observers. Their similarities stemmed from their Midwestern backgrounds (Johnson was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan; Bird was born and raised in French Lick, Indiana), passion for the game, great work ethic, and competitive obsession with winning.
MacMullan illustrates how that competitive spirit helped each man drive his respective team to the NCAA finals, as Johnson’s Michigan State University Spartans took on Bird’s Indiana State University Sycamores the spring of 1979. Because of the contrasting styles of the players, their teams and the added element of race, the 1979 NCAA Championship game still ranks as the highest-rated college basketball game ever watched on television.
“I think it’s obvious,” says sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, who helped cover the tournament for NBC in 1979. “Although this was a great match-up with two quality teams, if Larry Bird were a gifted Black ballplayer from Chicago, this game would have lost some of its luster.”
Johnson’s Spartans beat Bird’s Sycamores with the Michigan State guard garnering tournament Most Valuable Player honors. Bird was crushed and still regards it as his greatest defeat.
“When the Game Was Ours” examines how the impact of the 1979 game caught the interest of non-basketball fans and helped to generate interest in the NCAA Tournament that has become known as “March Madness.”
Bird and Johnson’s autumn 1979 arrival in the NBA brought in a throng of fans from their college game.
“One was the urban Black kid,” said national sports columnist Frank Deford. “The other was the manure kickin’ countryboy from Indiana. You put one (Johnson) with the Lakers, the other one (Bird) with the Celtics. I mean, that was perfect. That’s Central Casting.”
Each filled voids–real and imagined–that the NBA was experiencing at the time. Both brought the playmaking aspect back into focus, as fans and players began to recognize and cheer great passing. Johnson incorporated an unabashed enthusiasm for playing that influenced his Laker teammates and fans in the stands as well as those watching television or listening on the radio.
Bird, for better or worse, represented a Great White Hope for the NBA. “The NBA is essentially a Black sport being run as a White business,” said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson’s Laker teammate. “All of the owners are White, as are most of the ticket purchasers. A great majority of the league’s players are Black, which can create a marketing problem. Good White players can give White fans faith. Larry Bird can be a White fan’s fantasy alter ego a whole lot easier than (any Black superstar) can.”
Bird was never comfortable with the “White Hope” designation. “I was never trying to make a statement or whatever,” he says. “I was just trying to help my team win.”
Regardless, he provided a superstar player for White fans to connect to.
“When the Game Was Ours” also spotlights Johnson and Bird’s classic NBA Finals confrontations in the 1980s, proclaimed by many as the NBA’s “Golden Era.” With the appointment of marketing-savvy David Stern as league commissioner in February 1984, the finals were shown live and in prime time on national television for the first time since the early 1970s.
The Celtics and Lakers battled in the grueling, exciting seven-game 1984 series, with Bird and the Celtics prevailing. In two of the next three years the Celtics and Lakers would meet in the finals with Johnson and the Lakers winning in 1985 and again in 1987. The book spotlights how these match-ups generated unprecedented revenue into the league that less than a decade earlier was deemed struggling.
Physical ailments brought a close to each man’s career. Back problems ultimately ended Bird’s career in 1992. His pain was so great that, unable to sit on the bench with his teammates, Bird took to laying on the sideline in front of his team when he was not in the game.
As a bachelor with a fondness for women during his career, Johnson contracted HIV and made international news when he announced his retirement due to the disease in November 1991. An attempted comeback by Johnson was stifled when league players, both Laker teammates and opponents, expressed concern about playing in games with Johnson because of fear of contracting HIV from him.
In the book, Johnson and Bird discuss how the success of each drove the other. Additionally, each expressed the surprise they had in discovering that they actually liked each other and the things they shared in common. They also fondly recall their time together on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.” “When the Game Was Ours” is enjoyable, informative reading for basketball fans and those without an interest in the game.