For sports fans who came of age in the 1980s, nothing in the known universe was as important as Bird vs. Magic. In a debate — "Who's better, Bird or Magic?" — you would have staked your life on your answer. The passage of time has only enhanced the legends.
We can look back now and understand how their simultaneous arrival into the league, their immense talents rivaled only by their shared competitiveness, saved the NBA from its twin epidemics of drug abuse and uninspired play. By the end of their run as the gods of the hardwood — Magic's time cut short when he contracted the HIV virus in 1991, Bird's retirement the following year largely the result of back injuries — Michael Jordan was well on his way to establishing himself as arguably the greatest player in history. But make no mistake: The '80s, when Bird and Magic ruled, were the golden era.
Perhaps more than any other sports rivals (with the possible exception of boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier), Bird and Magic are intertwined in history, and that rivalry and that history (as well as the friendship, both unlikely and unavoidable, that developed between them) are at the heart of a fascinating new book, When the Game Was Ours.
Though Bird and Johnson (with Jackie MacMullan) are credited as the authors, it is clearly MacMullan's book, as all but the introduction (by Bird and Johnson) is written in the third person, with the former Boston Globe reporter and columnist masterfully weaving the recollections of the two protagonists with those of dozens of observers, including teammates and family members. The book is at its most powerful when it hews close to its premise: the evolution of perhaps sports' greatest rivalry.
The Bird-Magic dynamic is so powerful that the book drags whenever MacMullan strays from it, as during a distillation of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
But MacMullan keeps those detours mercifully brief and soon returns to the action, which is not so much what occurred on the court as about what went on in the minds of these two titans.