I grew up watching and loving basketball in the 80s! They were formative years for me as I was playing high school basketball and watching my beloved Lakers battle the Boston Celtics throughout the decade. It was one of the fiercest rivalries of all time! Two dynasties who hated each other and at the same time loved playing each other just so they could show who was the more dominant team. ESPN just recently created a 30 For 30 film about this rivalry, and it took two nights to tell the whole story.
What made this rivalry even better was that the two best players in the NBA were leading their teams into battle: Magic Johnson for the Lakers and Larry Bird for the Celtics. This rivalry began in college and climaxed with the two of them facing each other in the NCAA Championship, which was the most watched game of all time! I was a Magic Johnson fan when he was at Michigan State and became an even bigger fan of his when he joined the Lakers. While I was a foot shorter than him, I was a point guard like him, and I tried to emulate his moves, passion for the game, and his incredible no look passes.
At this point in time in basketball history, you chose a team and rooted for that team, which meant that you despised the other teams and players that were trying to beat you. While I have come to appreciate Larry Bird over time, I did not like him at all when he was competing against Magic and the Lakers, because he was a Celtic! He and his team were trying to take out “my team” – sometimes literally – and I hated that! After watching the ESPN 30 for 30 film and reflecting on almost every moment that I remember watching intently during those championship years, here are at least 3 things that both Magic and Bird taught me about Race, Competition, and Resiliency:
- Race – The emergence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson brought out feelings, emotions, and conversations about race during a very fragile time in the history of the NBA. Attendance numbers were horrible for NBA games, and they could not find sponsors or even get the NBA Finals shown on live TV in prime time. I watched many Lakers playoff and finals games on tape delay, meaning they were previously recorded and joined in progress because the network decided the TV show M*A*S*H was more important than my team. Both Larry and Magic entered the league at the same time and brought energy and passion to the game that renewed interest from the fans. The unintended consequence is that part of their rivalry split the country along racial lines. This was never the intent of the two players. In fact, both Bird and Magic saw themselves as great basketball players, not players of a certain color. Growing up in Memphis, I had always seen basketball as a way to transcend race. When we played, the key question was: “Can you play?” If you could play basketball, you were accepted and respected regardless of the color of your skin. Bird and Magic taught me to understand this even more and showed that you did not have to put an extra adjective in describing a player that was of a certain color or race – they were “great basketball players!” Period! I have always applied this in my life when I see people, similar to what Martin Luther King articulated in his “I Have a Dream” speech and definitely what God intended when he created us all!
- Competition – Magic and Bird pushed each other to be the best they could be. Based upon their passion for the game and their incredible work ethic, I learned how to work hard on my game and compete, loving every moment in the process. Every time I practiced, played a driveway pick up game, or played in a real game, I treated it like Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I also learned that in order to compete well, you focus on what you do well and not the strengths of the other person or team. Competition is all about bringing your best on game day and not worrying about what the other team may or may not do – a lesson the Lakers learned through defeat in 1984 and then success in 1985 and 1987 against their bitter rival.
- Resiliency – For some reason, I never saw height, speed, or any other physical trait as a limitation to what I could accomplish on and off the court. I know a lot of this mindset was reaffirmed in me by watching Bird and Magic play the game. Bird was doubted at different times in his life, including by his own teammates when he first joined the Celtics, based on the color of his skin and his “perceived” lack of speed and jumping ability. Larry quickly dispelled these perceptions and myths to become one of the greatest basketball players ever! And Magic was called “Tragic” at one point in his career based on a couple of failed moments in the 1984 Finals. Yet, both of them had a courageous heart and an indomitable will to win! Bird was famous for telling the other team the exact play the Celtics were going to run and what he was going to do to win the game and then going out and doing it. And Magic came back to beat the Celtics twice after the bitter 1984 defeat and win 5 overall championships in the 80s by demonstrating leadership and a mindset of “I’m not going down like this!” In fact, Magic won both the league and finals MVP trophies as well as the NBA Championship in 1987 based on a resilient mindset.
There are many things that we can learn from Larry Bird and Magic Johnson both individually and collectively. I am grateful for their passion for the game, their desire and pursuit to be THEIR best and THE best, their work ethic, and their intense will to win. I am also grateful for the life lessons they taught me and the love of a sport that has helped me develop as a leader on and off the court.
My encouragement to you is to apply these same lessons in every part of your life to be the best you can be, to show mutual respect to others, and to be resilient when setbacks say you can’t have a pathway to success!
Finally, being a Magic Johnson and Lakers fan, I could not resist ending this post without including this clip of Larry acknowledging Magic’s greatness after a Finals win for the Lakers!
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