CultureSaturday 03.26.22

How Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s Rivalry Shook the NBA

Want to show your appreciation for The Recount's coverage?
Tip us!Tip us!

Where would the NBA be without Larry Bird and Magic Johnson? The two joined the league in an era when the Finals were broadcast late at night, on tape delay. That would change once they showed up and started playing one another, as the duo dominated prime time.

Their very first meeting, however, wasn’t a pro ball encounter but a 1979 NCAA Championship Game. And yet it drew 40 million television viewers, garnering a 24.1 Nielsen rating that remains the highest ever for a basketball game of any kind. By comparison, the average TV rating for the NBA Finals last year was 5.1.

Bird and Magic were the two most exciting college basketball players at the time, and Larry Bird’s Indiana State was seeking to finish the season undefeated. But it would be Magic Johnson and Michigan State that would come out on top with a 75-64 victory, kicking off a rivalry that would last for another 13 years and transform the pros.

Bird and Magic were later drafted by iconic NBA franchises that had fallen on hard times — Bird by the Boston Celtics and Johnson by the Los Angeles Lakers. They faced off against each other in three epic NBA Finals in the ‘80s that set the sports world on fire and supercharged the NBA’s reach and popularity.

As LZ and Will discuss, it’s hard to overstate how much impact they had on the league — and how much money they made for so many people associated with the game.

The Long Game