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How Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the NBA

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Good Day Tampa Bay, 9 a.m. Monday, WTVT-Ch. 13: Fox's Tampa affiliate adds another hour to its well-rated morning program, creating a 5 1/2-hour show (4:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.) that already ranks as area TV's longest local morning show. The change also means Live with Regis and Kelly will no longer be so in this market, pushed back an hour to air at 10 a.m. I'm watching just to see if there's really enough news to fill that much space every day.

, Ti-NO

Rules of Engagement, returns at 8:30 a.m. Monday, WTSP-Ch. 10: This sitcom starring David Spade as a self-centered lothario hanging with a long-married couple and a pair engaged to be married unfolds each season like a comfy yet mothball-scented old overcoat. It's reliable and dependable, but do you really want to spend much time with it? In Monday's episode, Spade sends his long-suffering personal assistant to pick up a cell phone he left at a one-night stand. Bet you could write half the jokes sitting at home right now.

I'm hardly the world's greatest authority on sports. But I have watched one of the best sports documentaries I have ever seen on television.

It was HBO's amazing Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, a sprawling, 90-minute movie (debuting at 8 p.m. Saturday) that tells how the rivalry between Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird essentially saved professional basketball in America. According to the film, when Johnson and Bird met as rivals in college back in the 1979 NCAA tournament, the NBA was considered a haven for drug-using, egotistically playing thuggish black guys.

America's mainstream wasn't yet ready to embrace a sport seen that way, but a titanic rivalry that would echo the country's tensions over race, geography, temperament and culture would change all that in a heartbeat.

After Magic handed Bird a defeat in the college championships that he still stews over, the pair moved on to the NBA and redefined the league in their hypercompetitive struggle against each other.

Bird was a gangly white guy from Indiana playing for the Boston Celtics, and Johnson was a slick, personable guy anchoring the Los Angeles Lakers; but both played like mirror images of each other.

Here are five main reasons why this is one of the best sports docs I've seen:

Larry Bird speaks! As a fellow Hoosier, I have long recognized the laconic aversion to speaking publicly that has led French Lick, Ind., native Bird to say very little to journalists over the years. But in HBO's documentary, he talks about things even some friends say they have never heard him address, from the suicide of his father to his emotional response after hearing about Johnson's infection with the HIV virus. For sports fans, this is like watching J.D. Salinger sit down with Barbara Walters.

Everyone else speaks, too! Bryant Gumbel, who covered that 1979 championship for NBC sports, tells how Magic and Bird saved the NBA before Michael Jordan; longtime Johnson running buddy Arsenio Hall talks about thinking Johnson was in denial when he insisted he could survive HIV; journalist Charles Pierce speaks gleefully on the perils of those who mistakenly assumed the reserved and laconic Bird, who called himself "the hick from French Lick," was stupid.

It's honest about race. Bird himself tried to ignore the talk, but parts of the wider world seemed to love the notion of this gawky white guy from Indiana taking back basketball from the black men who ruled the sport. Better still, HBO delves into the racism on both sides, quoting Bird's former Celtics teammate Cedric Maxwell saying, "Most black players at the time were racist. … We did not think that you could find a white guy that could play better than any black guy."

Earvin vs. Magic. Johnson speaks candidly about the two personas he carried around; Earvin was the nice, fun-loving guy from East Lansing, Mich. Magic was the ego-filled, hypercompetitive Prince of Hollywood who liked dominating the nightlife the way he dominated the basketball court. "Earvin died about 25 minutes after the NCAA championship game," Pierce says, laughing.

It's honest about Johnson's HIV diagnosis. Johnson gets tears in his eyes talking about how some friends reacted to the news he had HIV (Hall said then-Detroit Pistons guard and longtime friend Isiah Thomas asked if Johnson was gay). For Johnson, who never believed HIV would kill him, quitting basketball was the worst part of the time. And Bird talked about feeling like he was reliving the death of his father, Powerful stuff for a documentary about two guys chasing a ball around.

Me and Randy: mirror images?

I'm stealing a page from my pal, fellow staff writer and editor Jay Cridlin, who wrote recently about his resemblance to country star Vince Gill. Like Jay, this issue has dogged me for years.

My resemblance to American Idol judge Randy Jackson.

Ever since a clump of workers at a HoneyBaked Ham store jumped out of the back room to swear I looked like the portly producer's twin brother, it's not a charge I even bother denying.

It wasn't always so. Back in the mid '80s, when Jackson was rocking parachute pants and a Mohawk during a brief stint playing bass in Journey, I was behind the drums in an Indiana band cranking out R&B tunes and signing a record deal with Motown.

Back then, we hardly looked like we belonged on the same planet. But since then, we've both developed the same, um, close-cropped hairline, distinctive glasses and generous waistline.

Jackson didn't seem to agree on our resemblance when we met at a Los Angeles press conference a few years ago. But then hotel security did a double take as I walked out of the meeting room, and his bubble of denial was gently popped.

Which doesn't help me understand the other case of mistaken identity I'm always dealing with — people confusing me with fellow Times columnist Ernest Hooper.

Check out the pictures. What do you think?

How Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the NBA 02/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 27, 2010 7:29pm]

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