Why Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson Could Change the Face of Pro Basketball, 1980

[Many people still remember flipping on their TV sets in March 1979 to watch Magic Johnson and Larry Bird face off in the finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Less vividly remembered is the following autumn and the buzz that followed these college rivals right into the NBA. 

This article, published in All-Star Sports’ 1979-80 Basketball Issue, reflects the popular mood back then that Johnson and Bird were no ordinary rookies. Though this article unfortunately relies mostly on college sources, offering little speculation on how both might fit into the NBA and transform the league, it does serve as a valuable time capsule of the Johnson-Bird rivalry as viewed now more than 40 years ago. 

Ken Rappoport, who had long career working the Associated Press sports desk in New York, has the byline. Rappoport passed away last October at age 85. I have a book that Rappoport published on the old American Football League displayed on a shelf next to my computer. I see his name every single day, which is a good thing. He had a wonderful life and career.]

“I can’t believe God created a 6-foot-8 man who can handle the ball like that.”—Joe Axelson, general manager of the Kansas City Kings, talking about Earvin Johnson. 

“From what I’ve seen of Bird, he’s not just one bird. He’s a whole flock.”—Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote on Larry Bird.

Not since Rick Barry came blazing out of the University of Miami some years back has there been such a stir in the National Basketball Association about a big man’s passing ability as there has been this year. Having one such bird is rare, indeed, but this time there are two. 

Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson are on opposite sides of the court artistically and temperamentally speaking, but the name of their game is the same. Where Bird and Johnson are concerned, the pass is the thing, and nobody in college—big man or small—did his thing as well last year. Now in the pros, they’re expected to do even better things—Bird with the Boston Celtics and Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers. 

No less an authority than Al McGuire, the ultra-successful Marquette coach-turned-commentator, terms Johnson “the greatest passer I’ve ever seen in the game.” And Red Auerbach, architect of 13 NBA titles with Boston, rates Bird right up there with Celtic great Bob Cousy. “He’s a big Cousy. He’s the best passing big man I’ve ever seen. I never thought I’d compare anyone with Cousy, but Larry Bird has those great hands and great vision,” says the Celtic general manager.  

More intimate observers of these two wunderkinder feel that Bird and Johnson will make a significant impact on the NBA, to the point where the pass is once more elevated to an art form equaling the level of the jump shot and the excitement of the slam dunk. Jud Heathcote, Johnson’s coach at Michigan State, for one claims that the NBA hasn’t seen a pair like this pass through in a while. 

“College ball has always had great passing,” Heathcote points out, “but we haven’t seen lately the really great passers. You’ll see two or three really great passes in a game, but not eight or nine all from the same guy. Up till now, it’s just been routine assists.

“It’s been a long time. Rick Barry played, and was a good passer, but was primarily a good shooter, and Oscar Robertson was a great passer . . . but to find two players the size of Larry Bird (6-foot-9) and Earvin Johnson (6-foot-8), there has never been a pair of passers as good in college ball.”

Rarely have collegians been coveted by the pros as much as these two. Both were drafted before their time—Bird as a junior and Johnson as a sophomore. The Lakers got lucky right away when Johnson took hardship, skipping his last two collegiate seasons for professional ball. The Celtics had to wait a year before landing Bird. Both will reportedly be among the highest-paid players in the NBA after signing multiyear contracts for upwards of $600,000 per, in one form or another. David Thompson of the Denver Nuggets is said to be the league’s highest-paid player at $800,000 a year. 

The NBA’s two newest millionaires found their rainbows by diverse routes. Bird arrived from French Lick, Ind., which is as purebred country as its name implies. Ketchup was invented there, French Lick’s main claim to fame. Far better known is where Johnson hails from—Lansing, Michigan, a town flavored by the nearby presence of Michigan State. Different backgrounds notwithstanding, the players are as different as, uh, well, black and white, and not only because Bird is a forward and Johnson a guard. Bird is solemn sardonic; Johnson is expressive and enthusiastic. 

Bird’s associates at Indiana State swore by their teammate’s innate sense of humor, but he hardly showed it in public. There were, in fact, many times during Bird’s often-controversial career with the Sycamores when he was downright surly and rude to strangers, most particularly the press for whom he gained a singular dislike. The blond bomber played basketball expertly, but grimly, and rarely changed his expression while operating off the court. Bird’s life has been fraught with a series of personal tragedies, and he never trusted strangers who asked a lot of “nosy” questions. Bird was all-world as a player, but shut out the world in all other respects it seemed. 

“You gotta be careful what you say around sportswriters,” Bird once said in a rare interview in Amateur Sports, “because a lot of them want to find out what goes on inside you, the private you. They don’t want to know how good a basketball player you are. They don’t even want to talk about basketball. They’re interested in knowing who your girlfriend is, or they want to know . . . ‘Why did you work on a garbage truck?’ . . . I’m not saying all writers are like that, but there sure are a few who fit that image.”

As a result, Bird granted only television or radio interviews as time went on, because “they can’t change my words.”

Also, Bird honestly seemed disturbed that he was getting all the publicity. Frankly, he felt it might ruin team morale. “Why don’t you interview the other players at Indiana State?” was Bird’s oft-quoted defense. “They’re on this team, too.”

There were times, however, in Bird’s red-hot senior year at Indiana State when he was obliged by rank to stand in the uncomfortable glare of the spotlight. And it was usually at these times when the glare got too hot for him. In Chicago to accept the Associated Press Player of the Year trophy near the end of the 1978-79 season, Bird was unable to get through the ritual without publicly chastising a sportswriter who had written a critical column about him. He called the writer an unprintable name, and did it while the television cameras were rolling. Bird’s language, it seemed, was as straightforward as his basketball playing. 

And, regarding this ability, there was no way he could be criticized by anyone. While leading Indiana State to a 33-1 record last year, the ubiquitous Bird inspired only superlative comments. “If this guy has a weakness,” said Southern Illinois coach Joe Gottfried somewhat facetiously, “it’s that he can’t shoot the 20-foot jumper lefthanded.” Slick Leonard, coach and general manager of the Indiana Pacers, concurred in so many words: “I’ve seen two great passing forwards in my time. Rick Barry is one, and Larry Bird is the other. Bird seems to see guys before he even gets the ball.”

Coaches were not so much impressed by Bird’s statistics in his senior year, which were considerable at 29 points and 15 rebounds a game, as they were by other things. Noted New Mexico State coach Ken Hayes: “He’s the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. I’ve said it many times already. The thing that makes him unique is his complete play. He’s the best pure big man I’ve ever seen. He has an extra sense that he knows where everybody is. He’s super.”

It was this extra sense—this special “feel” of the court—that often provided Indiana State coach Bill Hodges with goosebumps while watching Bird on the wing. Hodges called him the “smartest basketball player I have ever seen.”

It was only by a stroke of good luck that Hodges had Bird under his care at all. Indiana State was not first choice for Bird, who tried big Indiana University (student population 31,500) and little Northwood (Ind.) Institute (160) before landing in Terre Haute. “He was very unsettled,” said Northwood coach Jack Johnson. “He had trouble attending class and was very undisciplined.”

Bird returned home to finish out what would have been his freshman year in college working for the French Lick parks department. But he found little solace for his broken life then, as things went even more sour. His father died, an apparent suicide. Larry later was persuaded to go back to school by the Indiana State recruiters and, while his basketball career soared, his private life skidded to an even lower ebb when a brief marriage ended in divorce in September of 1976. “I’m a lot smarter on the court than I am in life,” Bird confessed. 

At Indiana State, he was finally happy—and happiest when playing basketball. It was more than a game to this player who, according to one writer, was built “exactly like a tree trunk.” As Bird was to say many times thereafter: “Basketball is my whole life, and it will always be my life.”

On campus, “Bird was the word,” according to student proclamations, and little by little the world outside of Terra Haute began getting the word about this exquisite player. He redshirted in 1975-76—when the Sycamores managed a mediocre 13-12 season—then turned them into a basketball power overnight. 

In 1976-77, Bird averaged 33 points and 17 rebounds a game and led Indiana State to a nifty 25-3 record and a bid to the National Invitational Tournament. The following year, Indiana State carved out a fashionable 23-9 mark behind Bird and reached the NIT quarterfinals. And in 1978-79, the Sycamores’ Golden Boy guided them to 33 straight victories and No. 1 ranking in the country before losing to Michigan State in the NCAA finals. 

Magic Johnson helps cut down the net after Michigan State won NCAA title.

Ironically, it came to Johnson—the other all-world passer—to help bring Bird and his teammates down to earth. The player they call “Magic” had plenty of hocus pocus that night at Salt Lake City, while making Indiana State’s national championship dreams disappear. 

Johnson had been doing this sort of thing all season. When Michigan State had struggled at the start of the year and needed some special magic to turn things around, the ebullient guard provided it. The Spartans finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten championship and then ripped through the NCAA tournament like a berserk billiard ball. 

Johnson, of course, wasn’t the whole show for Michigan State. The Spartans had an extraordinary forward in Gregory Kelser. But Johnson was, indeed, the catalyst for the national champions. “He’s not the quickest or fastest and doesn’t jump as high as some,” said Heathcote about Johnson. “But I think he’s the most-complete basketball player in the game today.”

Johnson didn’t attract attention for his scoring abilities, although he did his share in that department. It was, rather, his flair for ballhandling and those fabulous no-look, thread-the-needle passes that inspired the applause and acclaim. Not only did they make Johnson look good, but others as well. A stuff shot is usually a one-man show; but a great pass makes at least two people look good: the passer and shooter. Johnson’s phenomenal abilities began changing the face of basketball in America, according to Heathcote. 

“Earvin has already had a great impact on Michigan State,” Heathcote says. “In fact, sometimes I see these high school kids almost passing too much. If these kids growing up have their sports idols and they can identify with them and emulate what they do best, that’s how they’ll play. If it’s Earvin or Bird, they’ll start thinking ‘Pass.”

Johnson is not just another player who makes the front covers of national magazines and everyone’s All-America list, however. He is a neon advertisement for basketball, a one-man public relations gang. Ever eager, bristling with enthusiasm, and wreathed in smiles, Johnson plays the sport as if he is having a ball every minute. And, actually, he is. 

“One thing I’m always going to do is have fun,” he says about playing in the pros. “There is a time for business, time for school, and time for fun. Basketball is fun.”

Bird underscored the basic philosophical differences between himself and Johnson when he said during the NCAA finals” “To me it’s a very serious game. I just can’t be laughing like he does out there.”

Johnson just wouldn’t be what he is without the emotional touch. Bursting with glee after doing one of his specialties on the court, Johnson is apt to slap skin, raise his fist, or break into a victory dance. 

“I’ve seen Earvin Johnson dance the whole length of the floor after his group had won a shooting contest in a vacant arena during a road trip,” said one writer during the 1978-79 season. “The guy is consistent—he’s always emotional. It doesn’t matter to him whether he’s doing his thing in front of 10,000 fans in Jenison Fieldhouse [on the campus of Michigan State] or playing a fun game of “horse” with Coach Jud Heathcote. He reacts vividly to every shot.”

And he’s constantly chattering on the court —talking to teammates and opponents alike, waving his muscular arms dramatically while giving his team directions. “He runs the team on the floor and the players listen to him,” points out Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps. “Sometimes they listen to him more than their coach, Jud Heathcote.”

About this aspect of his game, Johnson says: “I do try to run the team when I’m out there. I try to keep everybody cool, yet keep them fired up at the same time. I feel that’s my job—to quarterback the team.”

The year before Johnson arrived at Michigan State, the school could boast little basketball prowess, despite the services of the great Kelser. But just like magic, Johnson helped turn a 10-17 team into 25-5 and 26-6 his two seasons at East Lansing. His sophomore year was typically balanced with an average of 17 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.4 assists a game. However, Johnson meant more than statistics to the Spartans. “Every member of the team is a hero,” noted one Michigan State superfan, “but Magic is a legend.”

Johnson made some All-American teams as a freshman and just about everybody’s team as a sophomore. He was selected as a guard, his natural position, but could very well have been an All-America forward. He was listed at 6-foot-8 and 207 pounds, and to most opponents, he seemed bigger than that. 

“He has a sixth sense on the court,” notes Heathcote. “I don’t think anyone in the game is as good in that respect. He sees the entire court, knows when to pass and when not to. Few players have this. He often throws a pass that sets up an assist. The statistics don’t tell of his contributions. There are so many intangible things.”

As Bird was a beloved figure at Indiana State, so was Johnson at Michigan State. All signs pointed to this, including one literal one at an East Lansing motel that proclaimed: “If you believe in Magic, welcome.” There was almost as much an uproar there about Johnson’s decision to turn pro as there was excitement over the Spartans’ first national basketball title. One Michigan State booster even raised $1,200 for a full-page ad in the Michigan State News, in which he pleaded with Johnson not to go. “What does Earvin mean to us?” said one backer at the time. “My God, what did Eisenhower mean to the soldiers?”

But Johnson turn pro nevertheless. And it wasn’t only the money, he said, although being a millionaire at 19 would be nice. “I probably wouldn’t have come out [in the hardship draft] if this team hadn’t wanted me,” he said at a press conference announcing his signing. “The Lakers have one of the best centers in the league in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and it’s an outstanding organization.”

Johnson, it will be remembered, turned down a reported $1.2 million, multi-year offer from the Kansas City Kings in 1978. 

A point guard in college, Johnson is flexible enough to change his style in the pros. “I feel whatever they want me to do, that’s what I’ll do,” says the player with the omnipresent smile. “If they want me to share the point guard with Norm [Nixon], that’ll be okay; and if I play the off guard, that’ll be fine, too.”

Jerry West, last year’s Laker coach, believes that the Johnson-Nixon tandem will be one of the greatest backcourts in the NBA. “They’re both tremendously quick,” notes West, who was one of the NBA’s best guards ever. “They’re two players who can beat a press in a hurry, and that’s very important.”

Johnson will certainly give the Lakers a run for their money. Summing up the team, Johnson points out: “They’ve got a dominating center, and the other players don’t really have to do a lot; I think they started to run more at the end of last season, and that’s what I’d like to see them, us, do more—run with the ball, then set up and go into the big man whenever we can’t fastbreak.”

It is a splendid irony that both Johnson and Larry Bird wore No. 33 in college—the precise number worn by Jabbar, one of the NBA’s brightest stars. Both the Lakers and Celtics have good reason to feel that these two newcomers will match Jabbar’s number in more ways than one. 

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