Magic Johnson and Larry Bird got together for a conference call with reporters prior to the start of the NBA Finals to talk about the rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics and how their personal rivalry in the 1980s revitalized the league and the rivalry between both teams.
MAGIC JOHNSON: First of all, it's always a pleasure to get with and be on the phone with Larry. I think we both, when we came into the NBA, into our perspective teams, we probably both didn't know that we would jump-start the NBA to what it is today, that we would be able to play for two storied and historical franchises like Boston and Los Angeles. Then to be able to take the league ... I'm sure Larry will laugh at this, too, when I first played in my rookie year in the championship, it was tape-delayed. The league has really moved upwards and forward. It was just great to be able to play against Larry so many times, as well as the Celtics.
I think the main thing is we were a team. We knew that Boston was one of the most incredible teams, would run their offense to perfection. I thought they were the best at running their offense and executing on their offensive end.
Then on their defense, they always played a great team defense. They had one of the best individual defensive players probably to ever play in the league, that being Dennis Johnson. I had to match up against him. Boy, that was a tough matchup every time.
But I knew that Larry Bird could beat us at any time. I knew that he was one player, nothing we could do with him because he was gonna score, he was gonna get his rebounds, his assists. Then his will to win was higher than everybody else's. The thing that I tell people that Larry had that was probably unmatched with anybody, he knew how to make his other players better. I think that still today nobody has surpassed him when it comes to that. Also being so smart at the game, knowing how to play the angles, knowing how to always be on balance.
It was just great to be able to be in that heated rivalry for so many years (laughter). But the main thing is that the cities disliked each other, the teams disliked each other, but we respected each other because we knew they were so talented of a team and also well-coached.
Then on the other side, we felt we were the same way. I'm just happy to see these new Lakers in the championship with these new Celtics because it's not really about Larry and I now. It's about what we, of course, have built over the years, but now this is their stage. It's Kobe's stage, Garnett's stage, Paul Pierce's stage, Ray Allen, Odom's stage. They will take advantage of it. It's Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson's stage.
Even though the names have changed as players and coaches, when you think about the most fans around the world who watch basketball, if you ask them what team would they want to see in The Finals, they would pick these two teams.
LARRY BIRD: Briefly here, if you really look at the history of the NBA after The Finals, the Celtics and Lakers were combined for half the championships that have been played over the years. When you think of the Celtics and Lakers, it don't start with me and Magic, it goes back to the '50s and '60s with Russell and Chamberlain. We had a period of a couple decades go by before it really got back into The Finals against each other.
I just think it's great for the league. It's great for basketball. I think both teams last summer made great deals to put their teams, give them an opportunity to get back to The Finals. They're there now. Like Magic said earlier, it's their stage. I really felt bad about doing this press conference because I felt that it's really the players of today's game. That's what they should be focusing on. It really doesn't matter what happened in the '80s or '50s, '60s. It's what's happening now. It's in the big stage. First time in The Finals for a lot of the guys. It will be interesting to see how they perform because there's going to be a lot of pressure on them. There's going to be some situations that they never have been in as far as the media, the pressures at crucial times of the game. It's going to be interesting to see how they handle it.
Over the years, being able to play against a guy like Magic Johnson, it's really an honor to play against the Lakers of their greatest teams ever put together in this league. It was extraordinary, great competition. It was battles every game. You knew if you didn't play good, your team wasn't going to win.
I just feel very honored being able to be in an opportunity with the great teammates that I had to compete against a team either better or on an equal level as we were. It was an extraordinary time. I'm really happy for Danny Ainge and the Celtics. I look forward to them winning another championship.
QUESTION: Larry, as an old Celtic, do you think the old Lakers/Celtics got into Kevin McHale's decision to grade Kevin Garnett to Boston?
LARRY BIRD: I don't think so. I think after they went through the summer and really thought about it, Garnett at that time didn't want to leave, Kevin didn't want to trade him. I think other people got involved at the last minute and decided it was probably the best way to go: young, try to rebuild it. Danny Ainge, knowing Danny, he was in Kevin's ear every day and probably the last one that called got him.I think Kevin really likes the layers that Boston had and that's probably why the deal was made.
QUESTION: Some of the players that are in this series have talked about their memories of the Celtics/Lakers when they were little kids. You would have been probably about the same age during the rivalry in the '60s. Do you have any memories? Were you aware of the rivalry when you were growing up?
MAGIC JOHNSON: On my side, it's hard to call it a rivalry when you don't win. I mean, year after year the Celtics kept beating the Lakers. I think it was an incredible series. Bill Russell kept ending up winning. I always admired Bill and Wilt Chamberlain, but Bill would always get the best of him. My dad was a big Wilt Chamberlain fan. But it was hard to call it a rivalry because, you know, again, the Celtics always won.
LARRY BIRD: Well, on my side, I watched some of it, but not a lot of it. I was very aware of the history between Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The funny thing now is Luke Walton, Bill played for us in '86, Luke was nothing but a diehard Celtics fan, now he's playing for the Lakers. Paul Pierce grew up in L.A. rooting for the Lakers, and he's with the Celtics. It's going to be very interesting.
QUESTION: Larry, Paul Pierce is probably going to go down as one of the greatest scorers in Celtics history. Obviously on the Boston team, you're defined by your championships. If Boston was to win this title, where in your mind would he go down as far as the greats?
LARRY BIRD: In Boston, they always talk about how many championships you won. I think it's very important for Paul to win one if he wants to be put up there with the great ones, even though I think he is a fantastic player, probably one of the best players to ever come through there.
Boston has been blessed with a lot of great players, a lot of great Hall of Famers over the years. It's really hard to put one guy on top of the other. I can tell you every player that went through there that made the Hall of Fame, we all still look at Bill Russell. He's always going to be No. 1 there. Everybody else just falls in line.
QUESTION: Has it been hard or surprising for you to kind of see this rivalry fall to the side? They haven't played meaningful games against each other. Do you think these players can understand the rivalry the way you guys did?
MAGIC JOHNSON: I think it's always hard when you play for an organization as long as Larry and I have played and not see them do well. Every great franchise must go through downtime. Both franchises went through down times. Now they're back. A mark of a true and great franchise is whether they can come back. Both of them have come back, and come back in a big way.
Will they understand the rivalry? Trust me, when that ball goes up on Thursday, they'll understand. It might not be understanding what we went through, Larry and I, but they'll have their own rivalry because it's for all the marbles, it's for everything. It doesn't matter whether they understand the rivalry or not. They gonna create their own new rivalry, right, on Thursday night.
LARRY BIRD: I agree with that. I think these young men will have definitely something to play for that they never played for, especially on the Boston team, because even though they're great players, had great stats over a lot of years, they haven't been able to get to The Finals, play for the big prize.
I think they have an opportunity. They can't wait around till the second or third game till they get comfortable to start playing again. You can't let games go by and waste it. You got to get after it right away. That's one thing they'll have to figure out Thursday night, is every game means something. There's going to be a lot of highs, a lot of lows. This is not the time to lose your confidence.
QUESTION: I've been watching the '84 finals games on ESPN Classic this week. I've been struck at the difference in the style of play. You were pushing the ball up-court on a rebound, on a made shot. Guys were taking quick shots. There wasn't much isolation. Nobody dominated the ball, not one guy. Looked like a more exciting, more enjoyable, freer way of playing the game. What do you think of the way the game is played today? Can it ever get back to what it was in the '80s. If so, what is it going to take to get it back to that?
MAGIC JOHNSON: You have to remember, you know, when we played, it was all about running and going up and down the court. We built our team basically watching the Celtics because when we saw Larry and them, Larry and them had so many shooters, not only on the court but also on the bench. They were coming in with Danny, Chris Ford, Sichting. You can go on and on and on. Not only could they rebound, not only could they defend, but then they could get out on a break. They didn't run as fast as us, but they ran with a purpose. Their purpose was to get it in Larry's hand and let him make a decision, after D.J. had brought it down the court.
They ran with a purpose in terms of scoring and getting it to their main man, let him make the decision. On our part, the Lakers got it in my hands. We were all about running on makes, on misses, it didn't matter. We were coming at you because we knew that's how we could win. The Celtics had a lot better halfcourt team than we had because so many guys could score. Of course, we really had two dominant halfcourt players in James Worthy and Kareem. They had three guys that could really dominate.
Our game was up and down. Can it come back? Yes, it can. Now you're seeing all these great point guards coming into the league. When you think about Paul, you think about Tony Parker, you think about Williams at Utah, you know, it's on and on. You have all these point guards not only in the West but also in the East, too. I think you're starting to see it becoming more and more up and down.
We looked at the East, and probably the Celtics started this, now they're running more. It's not like we've seen in the last three and four years. Larry can probably talk more about that than I can. I've seen the East now pick up the pace, too. It's better basketball. It's more fun for everybody when you're up and down. But we must get more shooters, the Larrys and Paxsons. We don't have enough guys shooting it. I'm talking about on a consistent basis it seems like. That's what the game is missing now that we finally got point guards back in, not scoring point guards, but pass-first point guards.
LARRY BIRD: If you notice in some of them games back then, any rebound, whoever got the rebound, maybe other than Parrish and McHale, whoever got it would take the first two or three dribbles up the court to advance the ball as quick as possible. A lot of times on made shots, we would get it out and try to advance the ball three-quarters of the court, a quarter of the court, above the free-throw line, the hash mark, to get the break running and try to get the defense sucked into the paint so the trailers would be involved, just get your better movement. The court's open. We were a running team.
The one thing I thought we might have had an advantage on the Lakers, if we could ever get them in a halfcourt game, our strength. The rebounding, the kicking it to Magic, always on the move, never went and got the ball, standing still, he was always on the move. That put as lot of pressure on the defense. Easy baskets, I don't know how many fast breakpoints we averaged back then. Got a lot more easy baskets. If you can get it down quick, get the defense off balance, get some mismatches. I think the game can get back like that. Obviously you have to have players. Both of us played with Hall of Fame players, too. The game probably looked a little different because of the talent we had.
MAGIC JOHNSON: ne more point on that. A lot of times you may say an outlet, but the ball never touched the ground. I watched some of those games, Larry. A lot of times it was up, somebody's hands, up, down the court, another pass, layup. It never touched the ground. That's what made, when we played, beautiful. When you could see that ball not touch the ground, that was beautiful basketball.
QUESTION: Both of you guys had won a title before you played each other in The Finals. Was it special playing each other? What was it like for the other guys on the team? Was it always special for Lakers to play the Celtics?
MAGIC JOHNSON: Larry and I, I don't know if we -- it's funny because I really didn't have a personal rivalry against Larry. I'm sure as for him, it was always the Celtics versus the Lakers. We never really guarded each other. So it wasn't really a personal rivalry in terms of, I'm trying to go at Larry or something. I think it was, again, Larry and I were always the focal point. But Larry made a good point. When you think about the Hall of Famers, it was really Larry against Cooper to me. It was always that. It was James Worthy and McHale. It was Parrish and Kareem. My rivalry really was with D.J. in a sense. That's how I looked at it.
But when Larry beat us the first time in '84 I think it was, you know, I was devastated. I went into hiding for about a month, sat in the dark. I was so mad, upset, you know, because the Celtics beat the Lakers once again. That made us I think 0-for-8 or 0-for-9. It was hard. We got a chance to come back in '85, finally beat them. I don't know if Larry and I ever just had it personal between each other. For me it was more just the Celtics and the Lakers.
LARRY BIRD: Yeah, there's no question about that. It wasn't about me and Magic, it was about our teams. Your question about our teammates, I know our guys were into it. They talked more. They always had something to say. They came up with nicknames for the Laker players. Everything was geared to getting to The Finals. Some of it was just completely out of control. They knew the history behind it all. Obviously they wanted to play good and they wanted us to win. My teammates were into it. Yeah, there was a lot of talking going on, no question about that. It was never really between me and Magic. But it was always the Celtics and the Lakers. That's really how we were taught.
MAGIC JOHNSON: That's right.
LARRY BIRD: My coach was (K.C.) Jones. It was never about individuals; it was always about the teams.
MAGIC JOHNSON: Pat Riley was the same way. Our team was into it, too. I forgot to mention that. I mean, big time. We didn't sleep for two weeks playing 'em (laughter). We talked about it every day. Actually, Larry probably will feel the same way, during the regular season, that's all we watched. Where are the Celtics? Did they win last night? Basically at the end of the day, Larry, I'm sure you can say this, too, we didn't even celebrate the Western Conference final. That was nothing to us. It was about winning the championship. It was about, where is Boston; looking forward to playing them. That's how our team was, because we always wanted to play the best, and that was the Celtics. Same way here.
LARRY BIRD: I can remember when Ralph Sampson hit that shot in L.A. to beat them with one second on the clock, I know all of us felt down a little bit because we weren't going to be able to play the Lakers again (laughter).
MAGIC JOHNSON: That's funny. We felt the same way when you guys lost against Detroit or whoever (laughter).
LARRY BIRD: I don't remember the losses, I only remember the wins.
MAGIC JOHNSON: You still crazy, LB (laughter).
QUESTION: The more I talk to players, it seems obvious the less they seem to know about who came before. We asked Mike Brown to talk about LeBron in context with Oscar Robinson. He said, I'm 30 years old, I don't know that much about Oscar. How much would it help players, coaches, to actually watch the best teams of years past and see how they did it?
MAGIC JOHNSON: Well, I don't think it matters really. Players today, I mean, they feel like this is their team, their game, they want to do it their way. I mean, everything has really changed. When Larry and I played, the shoe deals were small. Most guys didn't have one. Now it's crazy.
When we played, there were no earrings or tattoos. Now if you don't have one, you look odd. When we played, the shorts were hot pants, and now they're, what, below the knee almost. Things just change. The money we made versus what they make today, the game has to evolve and it has to be their game. So I think they shouldn't have to look at us to make their game today. What they should understand is somebody did build this game before them, but other than that, just like Larry and I understood somebody built the game before us. The only thing we want to do, what the players should do, is try to leave the game in the hands of those coming after them in a good way, in a great way, like Larry and I did. We could feel good when we retired, the game was in great shape. We enhanced the game. That's what these guys should try to do on their own level, on their own stage, not try to be like Larry and I.
LARRY BIRD: If you play for the Lakers and Celtics, you're drafted by them, it's not going to take long for the media or the fans to let you know who came before you. I know with the Celtics, we had Russell around, Havlicek. History followed you around. You were very aware of what was going on. As you got into the league for a couple years, you knew all about the history. Whether you knew it before you got there or not, you were going to learn about it. A lot of the writers that we had covered Russell and Cousy, all them guys; had stories about them during the playoffs. They taught you the history pretty quick. When two teams like that have that much history, it don't take long to figure it all out.
QUESTION: Could both of you give your personal highlight of a Lakers/Celtics Finals. Magic, I assume it's the sky hook. Larry, what was yours?
LARRY BIRD: Well, obviously in '84 when the Lakers were controlling -- we got beat in the first game, went into overtime in the second, felt we got lucky to win the game, got blown out in the third game. We had to change our tactics, try to play a rough game, a halfcourt game, against them. Just watching how all the guys really turned the clock on them, played a different style, played a rougher style to change the series, I thought that was pretty incredible on our part. A lot of people didn't like how it turned out. But we had to do whatever we could to stay in the games because they were running us out of the building just about every night. For us to win the '84 championship was pretty mind-boggling to me the way they dominated us early in the series.
MAGIC JOHNSON: I think it wasn't for me about the sky hook, it was '85 really. When Larry just explained what happened in '84, the Celtics actually taught us that we had talent, we were great, but we weren't mentally tough enough. So we had to become mentally tougher. That happened after '84.
That's what really started us to win the championships after that, '85, of course '87, back-to-back. We probably couldn't have won back-to-back if we didn't learn from them that we had to go to another level. So '85 was special for me, not shooting the sky look in '87, because if we don't do it in ‘85, we can't get to '87. '85, especially the way I think I performed in the closing minutes of a couple of those games, so with me able to rebound in '85 to lead us, and Kareem having an unbelievable series, it was great. So '85 had to probably be my special moment.
QUESTION: If you go back to the '87 postseason, you obviously had such a hard road to get there. Do you see any similarity between how the Celtics have had to get there this year? And, Magic, were you aware how worn out they were coming into The Finals and did you try to take advantage of that?
LARRY BIRD: We were in The Finals four years in a row. That takes a toll on your body mentally and physically. Four years in a row, really not a lot of time in the summer to recoup. When we got to '87, the Lakers had a better team than we did. They proved that. I know McHale cracked his ankle early in the playoffs. I don't know whether it was the first or second round. Parrish had all kinds of ankle problems. We wasn't up to par. But that's what it is. You got to come to play and you got to do your best. That was a rough series for us because of some of the things that we had happen to us along the way. I can remember we didn't win in sweeps or in six games. A lot of them went seven games. A lot of times that toughens you up, too. It was unfortunate when we got in The Finals, we wasn't quite at full strength, but we still had the desire and competitive edge to try to beat 'em.
MAGIC JOHNSON: We knew they had some injuries, so we wanted to run, we wanted to keep that pace up. Also, too, they had a short bench, we felt. We saw that the starters were playing a lot of minutes, so we felt even if we didn't have the lead in the first half, it wouldn't matter. If we just kept the pace going, we could wear them down. And we did that. But you can never just think you gonna win even if they got injuries. We knew we still had to play. Larry gonna always get his guys ready to play. They were ready to play. You saw that. It still took us, you know, that shot at the end to go up 3-1. Actually, that game, if you can recall, Larry, you guys were leading most of the game. We just came back in the fourth quarter to really steal the game and go up 3-1.
Then even in the closeout game, Larry and them were leading all the way into the third quarter. They were leading at halftime. Even with the injuries, they played hard, they executed. They still played their game. But they just ran out of -- I think they were just tired and couldn't keep up with us getting into the fourth quarters of those games.
QUESTION: Larry, can you talk about how your rivalry in the '80s helped shape the game, make it what it is today.
LARRY BIRD: Well, you know, like he said early in the press conference, a lot of games were tape delayed. David Stern took over in '84. We got into prime time. Both teams were playing at a high level. If you remember in '83, Philadelphia had a great team. Jordan comes into the league along with Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Stockton. We had a bunch of talent coming in in the mid '80s. They were young, but still had a lot of star power to them. Their games were developing.
From then on, once we got up to '87, ‘88, Detroit had some great teams with Isiah Thomas. Michael took over. There's a bunch of talent that came in that period of five or six years and took the league to another level. Even now the league is healthy. Our ratings are up double-digits. The Celtics and Lakers are in The Finals. It's nothing but good for the league.
QUESTION: Larry, your thoughts on how you think Red Auerbach would feel this week and also with Phil Jackson having an opportunity to break his record? And for Magic, Kobe Bryant, what he's had to go through in the last year, kind of how he's come through a really rough year to be in the spotlight, if you feel like this is his game.
LARRY BIRD: There's no question that Red would be proud of what's transpired there in a short period of time. He was all about winning, all about championships. He built the Celtics. That was his body of work, you know. Red Auerbach is a Celtic. He'd be thrilled to death right now, probably wouldn't be able to sleep, be as nervous as the players. It would be great for him. I just wish he was around to see it.
MAGIC JOHNSON: I think from Kobe's side, I know that last summer was just a tough summer for not only Kobe but I think the organization. But I think that he's probably happy, just like the Laker organization, that nobody got traded, that we held strong. Mitch did a wonderful job of staying the course. Kobe was right in airing that he was disappointed that we wasn't headed in a championship direction. He had to be patient. You saw what happened with Bynum and Farmar, Sasha, all those guys got better over the summer to, I think, Kobe's surprise. Then Mitch pulls off I thought ... you know, signing Fisher was probably the biggest thing we did. Still, I think Trevor, you might be seeing him in this series.
Then Kobe got that feeling that once Gasol got here, he could win a championship. He'll be playing for it starting on Thursday. I think, also, Kobe has had an unbelievable MVP-type season, and that's why he won it. Then right now he's having an MVP-type playoffs up and to this point. He's been on fire. He's been playing. He's focused. He's determined. All Laker fans and basketball fans are happy we stayed with the Lakers. What a show it's going to be with all these superstars that we have, stars that we have on both the Celtics and the Lakers side. I think the fans are going to be in for a treat.
Last point I want to make is that a lot of fans that watched Larry and I, that probably were not watching the NBA quite as much, are going to come back and watch this Finals because they want to see what the Celtics and the Lakers are going to do. Then, Larry, also, too, what I like, the league is back to selling franchises, not individuals. So it's great that we're talking about the Celtics and the Lakers again, not individuals. We had got away from doing that. The NBA is only going to grow through also celebrating the franchises, not just the individuals.
QUESTION: You've talked a lot about your Finals. Can you talk about the present Finals. Where do you think it will be decided? Who do you think will win it?
LARRY BIRD: It's gonna be decided by who plays the best, who can handle the pressures of being in the championship series. There's so much that goes on that the outside world don't see. It's all the little things that you have to be on top of. It's key free throws that are missed. I think it's just gonna go down to who plays the best. One thing I see in this series that could hurt the Celtics is Kobe Bryant has been there before, he's won three championships. He'll be a steadying force for the rest of the players. They look up to him so much. When things get tough, he might be the one that can pull them through.
MAGIC JOHNSON: Yeah, I think when you look at it, it's going to come down to -- you know Kobe is going to play well and you know Paul is going to play well. It's going to come down to Garnett and Allen and Gasol and Odom. Those four guys, whoever wins the battle on their side; the bench. You got two different scenarios: those two guys and the benches. So whoever wins those battles, I think, gonna end up winning because it's always the other guys. It's just like with Larry and I, it was always the other guys. You knew Larry was going to do his thing, I was going to be able to do my thing. I think this series is going to be the same.
QUESTION: Can you talk about the Converse commercial you shot. You both mentioned you didn't have a personal relationship before. Tell me how that changed, how your relationship has grown since then.
MAGIC JOHNSON: The great thing is his mother could cook very well (laughter). We were standing there. We went up to Larry's house. His mother cooked lunch. We had a great time. We had never really talked for any length of time. When we went up to his house, also we were standing in between takes, we were able to start talking, and lunchtime, we were able to talk, get to know each other. We were both from the Midwest. Both from families that are close. I really got to know him as a man, not just the great, great basketball player.
I think it changed my view as far as Larry is concerned. I've always had the highest respect even back when we played in the world games when Hall didn't start either one of us. Remember, Larry, we killed the starters. We were on the second team and we always beat the starters in scrimmages.
I'm glad I finally got a chance to know him, him and his wife, his family. He got to know me. Now we're getting ready to come out with a book together next year. So we've been doing things and keeping in contact with each other. Larry is a good friend. Have nothing but the highest respect and love for him.
LARRY BIRD: You know, back in '84 when we shot that commercial, we really didn't know each other. We played in one All-Star Game together. When the ball went up, when we played against each other, everything was off. I mean, we were competitive. We wanted to win. We did whatever we had to do to get ourselves prepared. I know in the summertime, no matter how we finished up, I geared everything to playing The Finals against the Lakers. That's how I spent my summers. You hear guys going out and having dinner together before the games. That was never gonna happen, believe me, because we were too competitive. Leave all that stuff for the summertime.
We did get to know one another. I had a lot of friends of mine were big Magic fans, thought he was the type of player you'd never be able to see again. I had so much respect for him, how he handled himself, how his teams played. He was the man with the ball. He was making the decisions. It all started in '84 and it's carried on now to 24 years later.
MAGIC JOHNSON: Exactly.