The Boston Globe called it “the single most-awaited game in Laker history.” Looking back on it, it might’ve been the most important one for the trajectory of the association. Because “If Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did not save the NBA, they most certainly performed CPR on it,” and it all started on December 28, 1979 — their first head-to-head matchup in the NBA.
Bird and the Celtics‘ were in town to play Magic and the Lakers as a part of their six-game road trip, which started with the Philadelphia 76ers ending their seven-game winning streak. After a bounce-back victory over the Clippers, Boston was looking to go on another streak, and standing in their way were the guys wearing purple and gold.
The Lakers were on the second night of a back-to-back and were looking to continue where they left off after beating the Jazz 124-116 the day before. Up until that point, their performances fluctuated, and gaining any momentum was of the utmost importance for the 26-13 Los Angeles Lakers.
Magic, Kareem, and Co ended up beating the Celtics 123-105 after being in control for the entirety of 48 minutes. Their victory was never called into question thanks to the great performance by a 6-9 rookie point guard, who finished the game with 23 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals, leading his team to their 27th win of the regular season. The rest of the Lakers starters all scored in double digits; Jamaal Wilkes had 22, Norm Nixon added 17, and Jim Chones had 16. Kareem Abdul- Jabbar finished the game with 15 points, 18 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks.
Cedric Maxwell led the Celtics balanced scoring display with 19 points. Tiny Archibald, Chris Ford, and M.L. Carr also scored in double figures, along with Larry Bird, who finished the contest with 16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals in 40 minutes of action, making Magic Johnson the unanimous winner of their first-ever head-to-head matchup as pros.
Tomorrow we’ll forget about this game. We’ll be so far away from here. You’ve gotta keep moving. In a few days, we’ll be home, and we won’t even know what night we played the Lakers.Larry Bird, NBA
Over four decades later, we still remember the Celtics going up against the Lakers on December 28, 1979. Because this wasn’t your regular Friday night basketball game, this was the birth of a rivalry–the one that would change the NBA landscape forever.