Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are two of the most iconic NBA superstars to ever play basketball. Fans today know them as shrunken former ambassadors of the game, as well as close friends. However, fans who watched basketball in the 1970s and 1980s know that things weren’t always so pleasant between the duo. They have become quite competitive with each other in their many battles.
Many don’t realize that the thing that ultimately broke the ice between the two was actually a shoe commercial they starred in together. Let’s take a closer look at their epic rivalry and the publicity that transformed them from mere rivals to respectful adversaries.
The beginning of the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson
Even before arriving in the NBA to play against each other, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson faced each other in college. Bird led the Indiana State Sycamores against Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans in the 1979 NCAA Men’s Tournament Finals. Johnson’s team emerged victorious, but a new rivalry was born.
Bird would land on the Boston Celtics while the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Johnson. Both teams saw immediate returns from their picks. Bird and Johnson revitalized both franchises during their rookie seasons, turning them into powerhouses seemingly overnight. During the 1980s, the teams met three times in the NBA Finals, with Johnson’s Lakers winning two while Bird’s Celtics won one.
By the end of their career, Johnson had won five titles with Los Angeles while Bird had won three with Boston. This could still be the greatest one-on-one rivalry in basketball history. Plus, it was pretty chilly for the first few years until the two reunited under rather unique circumstances.
The Converse ad that helped Magic and Bird become friends
According to the Basketball Network, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird got together in 1986 to film a commercial for Converse. Converse was the sneaker company the two players had a shoe deal with. It’s safe to say that if it weren’t for their common sponsor bringing them together, they probably wouldn’t have hung out that day.
Johnson recalled being disturbed that Converse filmed the spot at Bird’s house in French Lick, Indiana. “I didn’t want to go to Indiana,” Johnson recalled, adding, “I was going to his house too. I protested.
Larry Bird took Magic Johnson to lunch at his mother’s house
After concluding the first part of commercial filming, the two began to see each other less as rivals and more as human beings who had a lot in common.
What really sealed the deal on the duo’s friendship was when lunchtime rolled around. Magic Johnson prepared to retreat to his trailer alone for lunch, but Larry Bird didn’t hear of it. At Bird’s insistence, the couple went to Bird’s mother’s house in French Lick. There, his mother welcomed Johnson as if he were part of the family.
“His mother greeted me on the porch,” Johnson recalled, noting the warmth with which he was received. “It was a ‘Mom Bird’ hug as my mother hugged me.”
Johnson added that the two really got to know each other as people rather than basketball players, saying, “I got to know Larry the man that day, and he got to know Earvin.”
From there, mutual respect was cemented. Since then, Bird and Johnson have gotten along very well off the court. The two even found themselves as teammates during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. To this day, they consider each other friends. So if it hadn’t been for that fateful day at French Lick, the basketball world might have been robbed of one of its great friendships.
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