The Lakers won 123-105, with Magic (23 points, eight rebounds, six assists) prevailing in the statistical battle against Bird (16, three, three). Not that they were one-on-one rivals—then or ever. They were never directly matched up. Bird was a forward. Magic was a guard. They might occasionally meet as the result of a defensive switch, or cross paths if one of them was back defending against a fast break, but they never guarded each other. "About the only time we talked on the floor was on a switch," Bird says. "He'd be on me, and I'd say, 'Hey, I got a little one.' "
"Always," confirms Magic. "He'd say, 'Bring it here. I've got this little one on me.' "
This was not Russell versus Chamberlain, a nose-to-nose, navel-to-navel war. Bird and Magic's battle instead took on a can-you-top-this flavor. "He got me real good one time," Magic says with a laugh. "I was back on a fast break, and somebody kicked the ball out to him, so I had to run to get Larry on the wing. Larry says, 'What arc you running out here for? You know it's too late.' And he buries it in my face."
During their first three seasons as pros, the rivalry was, in fact, a disappointment, primarily because Magic wasn't healthy. A knee injury and later a sprained ankle kept him on the sidelines for three of his first five games against the Celtics, and he was a shell of himself in another, during which he limped around for 20 minutes. So it was that Magic was a spectator on Feb. 11, 1981, when Bird put on one of the best performances in Forum history. The Celtics looked like no-hopers before the game. They had lost in overtime the night before in Seattle and were delayed getting to L.A., arriving at their hotel only five hours before tip-off. Moreover, Boston playmaker Tiny Archibald was out with a leg injury. Magic or no Magic, this one looked like a Laker lock.
But Bird didn't think so. Says Magic, "Before the game Larry came over to me and said, 'Earvin'—he never calls me Magic—'sit back and enjoy the show.' "
Bird was transcendent. He had 36 points, 21 rebounds, five steals and three blocks. He made 15 of 17 shots. He broke up three L.A. fast breaks. And when it was over, Jerry West walked into the Celtic locker room and said admiringly, "Bird was always two thoughts ahead of everyone else."
At the beginning the rivalry between Bird and Magic was somewhat obscured by the fact that there was already a longstanding Boston-L.A. rivalry, going back to the days of Russell and Baylor, Havlicek and West. And there were other marquee players on the floor: Abdul-Jabbar, McHale, Parish, Jamaal Wilkes. There was also the Lakers' Michael Cooper, a player Bird respected second only to Magic. "No one guarded me better than Michael Cooper," he says.
The Lakers won the NBA championship in 1980. Then the Celtics won it by defeating the Houston Rockets in the Finals in '81. L.A. won again in '82 and lost in the Finals to the Philadelphia 76ers in '83. So it wasn't until '84, Bird and Magic's fifth season in the league, that the Celtic-Laker rivalry returned to the ultimate venue, the NBA Finals. This series occurred one year into the commissionership of David Stern, and it was a marketing dream for a league on the rise. "When you have the Number 1 and 2 teams meeting in a championship, that's terrific," said Stern. "And when you have the tradition of Boston and L.A. and the great stars these two teams have, it's almost more than we should be permitted to hope for."
Laker coach Pat Riley had often dismissed regular-season games as "meaningless" because their outcomes so often turned on the vagaries of schedule, travel and injuries. True enough, but Celtic and Laker players and coaches acknowledged that each working day they checked out how the rival on the other coast had done the night before. "I only meant that nothing happening between us in the regular season affected the playoffs," says Riley. "Believe me, I would grab the paper in the morning and see how they did. I'd say, 'Ah, Indiana got 'em last night.' "
"When the new schedule would come out each year," says Magic, "I'd grab it and circle the Boston games. To me it was The Two and the other 80. During the season I'd check out Larry's line first thing. If he had a triple double, I knew what I'd want that night. But what would get me would be his big ones—say, when he had 20 rebounds. I'd say, 'I'd better get me 20 assists tonight.' "