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A Rivalry Revisited

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on the Lakers-Celtics history

Twenty-one years is a long time to put the greatest rivalry in NBA history on the shelf. While no one can forget the Celtics epic comeback in the 1984 Finals or the "Memorial Day Massacre" of the '85 champs, a new generation of Lakers and Celtics—including league MVP Kobe Bryant and six-time All-Star Paul Pierce—will try to dust off the old legacy. And of course, there's no one better to learn from than the faces of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Here's what they had to say.

On how televised basketball has changed over the years

Magic: It was just great to be able to play against Larry so many times, as well as the Celtics. We knew that Boston was one of the most incredible teams that would run their offense to perfection. I thought that they were the best at running their offense and executing on their offense. And they always played a great team defense. They had one of the best individual defensive players probably to ever play in the league, that being Dennis Johnson, so I had to match-up against him. Boy, that was a tough match-up every time. And I knew that Larry Bird could beat us at any time. There was nothing that we could do with him because he was going to score, he was going to get his rebounds, he was going to get his assists, and then his will to win was higher than everybody else's. He knew how to make his other players better. I think that, still today, nobody has surpassed him when it comes to that. It was just great to be able to be in that hated rivalry for so many years. But it's really not about Larry and I now—it's about what we built over the years.

Bird: When you think of the Celtics and Lakers, it doesn't start with me and Magic, it goes back to the '50s and '60s with [Bill] Russell and [Wilt] Chamberlain. We had a period of a couple of decades go by before they got back in the finals against each other. I think it's great for the league and it's great for basketball. Like Magic said earlier, it's their stage now. It's the first time in the Finals for a lot of the guys. It's going to be interesting to see how they perform because there's going to be a lot of pressure on them. It's going to be interesting to see how they handle it. [I'm looking] forward to [the Celtics] winning another championship.

On whether Bird and Magic were aware of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1960s when they were growing up

Magic: It's hard to call it a rivalry when you don't win. I mean, year after year, the Celtics kept beating the Lakers, and I think that it was an incredible series, but Bill Russell kept ending up winning, and I always admired Bill and Wilt Chamberlain, but Bill would always get the best of him, and my dad was a big Wilt Chamberlain fan. But it was hard to call it a rivalry because the Celtics always won.

Bird: On my side, I watched some of it, not a lot of it, but I was very aware of the history between Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The funniest thing now is Luke Walton and Bill Walton—Bill played for [Boston] and Luke was nothing but a die-hard Celtics fan, and now he's playing for the Lakers. Paul Pierce grew up in L.A. rooting for the Lakers and he's with the Celtics. This is going to be very interesting.


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