There is perhaps no better rivalry between two players in the history of the NBA than the one between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The two greats were fierce opponents on the court and even better friends off the court, as they both changed the course of NBA history. But the fun fact is, their rivalry began already in college. And where else than in the National Championship Game.
The first of their many epic battles came in March 1979 in Salt Lake City, as Magic’s Michigan State faced Bird’s Indiana State for the NCAA title in a game that would be and remain to this day the highest-rated TV college basketball game in history. Bird and Indiana were undefeated that season with 33-0 and coming in confident into the game.
But when you have a player like Magic on your side, anything is possible, as Michigan would jump into a lead from the start and maintain it to the end of the game, shocking the undefeated Sycamores by winning 75-64 and winning the NCAA Championship. Magic led the way with 24 points, while Bird, on the other hand, had his lowest-scoring game of the season with 19 points on poor efficiency.
Bird and Magic still remember that game vividly, as they spoke about that night on numerous occasions:
“Everything that was written was Bird vs. Magic, Magic vs. Bird, that whole thing, and it wasn’t Indiana State vs. Michigan State anymore, it was Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson…This guy is gonna be a nag or a torn in my side for a long time. I was so emotionally drained, I never felt that way after playing anybody, and so I knew that this was gonna happen for a long, long time.”Magic Johnson via NBA
“We knew we was going to play against a great team, Michigan State. By watching them on film, I knew it was going to be the best team we played against all year, but winning 33 games in a row, you sort of take teams light, and I don’t know if I was prepared as I should have been for that game cause I didn’t have a good game, I shot like 7-20 from the field, and our team relied on me to score, so if I had a week to go back I would prepare and be ready for that game.”Larry Bird, via NBA
Both of them would go on to have historic careers and battles amongst each other in the NBA, spiced up by the Lakers–Celtics rivalry. In conclusion, they faced each other three times in the NBA Finals, with Magic being better and winning two of those to Bird’s one. In total, Magic won five championships, while Bird won three, as they both engraved their names as elite players in basketball history. An iconic rivalry that started during “March Madness.”