NBA’s Two Best Players Are Still Creak-Along and Limp-Along

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Larry Bird is wearing goggles to protect a broken eye socket, another no-harm, no-foul NBA-style injury.

Magic Johnson sits on the sidelines these days and nights, fidgeting and stewing, waiting for a pulled groin muscle to unpull.

Bird has fingers that have been broken and left to mend at unusual angles. The factory warranty on his shooting elbow expired 800,000 practice jump shots ago.


Magic wears stay-warm elastic bands on his knees, which tend to creak like rusty railroad switches.

After games, Magic and Bird collectively use enough ice to cater a major cocktail party. For them, getting out of bed in the morning surely is not a task undertaken without careful planning and considerable facial contortion.

In this, their ninth seasons as co-saviors of NBA basketball, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson somehow stagger through the final third of the season, a series of pre-playoff survival exercises, games that tend to lack for cosmic meaning. They somehow do it with enthusiasm and style.

They somehow do it well enough to be the leading contenders for the MVP trophy in a league dominated by youth, speed and vertical lift.

Despite truly wonderful seasons by guys nicknamed Air, The Dream, The Glide, The Round Mound of Rebound, and The Human Highlight Film, the two best players are two old folks whose teammates call them Larry and Buck.

They are back-slapping buddies and squint-eyed rivals; they are as separate as two players can be, yet close as twin brothers.


They came into the league the same season and they have put together the greatest two-player career duel in sports history. Willie and Mickey had a nice thing going for two decades, and fans still debate Wilt vs. Russell.

But Magic and Bird have been like two great marathoners, running all 26 miles ahead of the pack, in lock-step. After nine seasons, you would think one or the other would move ahead a step or two, one wispy mustache edging ahead of the other.

But they both seem to age and mature and play at a pace set by synchronized biological clocks.

If they sang a duet it would be “Me And My Shadow.”

Stats? Bird is averaging 30 points and 6 assists this season, thus accounting for 42 points per game. Magic is averaging 20 points and 12 assists, thus accounting for 44 points. Bird, a forward, averages 9 rebounds; Magic, a guard, gets 6.

The other handy measure of greatness is results. The Lakers lead the league in wins. The Celtics are second. Career-wise, you could look up the championships. Or simply go to the Boston Garden or the Forum and look up.

Playing on separate coasts, meeting up only twice during the long season, Magic and Bird follow one another via television and newspapers. Each picks up the morning paper and turns immediately to the box scores to see how the other did.


They know that if they both stay healthy, or at least ambulatory, there is an excellent chance their teams will meet in the NBA finals. Again.

They are the league’s most valuable players.

“Where would the Bulls be without Air?” demand the loyal members of Michael Jordan’s MVP campaign staff.

The Lakers have provided the rebuttal to that debate point. They were within sight of an all-time league record for wins until six games ago. Before Magic’s groin became sore enough to sideline him, he was limping his way to near-nightly triple-doubles and the Lakers were pulling out routinely dramatic wins.

The Lakers were so good it was scary.

Then Magic had to sit and the Lakers instantly were downgraded from legendary to ordinary.

If Magic comes back quickly to his previous level of play, he will become the first player whose MVP award-acceptance speech should include a sincere thank you to a pulled groin muscle.

Publicity-wise, the race is probably even.

Some writers and other observers are saying Bird is having the best season of his NBA life. He is the subject of a current national magazine cover story, a lyrical ode to Larry Joe.

Magic, until his injury, was getting the ongoing publicity and exposure due the leader of the most glamorous team in sports. The results, as they say, were speaking for themselves.


Artistically, for Bird and Magic, this might be as good as it gets. Every athlete’s career has a curve, downward at the end. No athlete leaves at the very top of his or her game.

Soon, maybe next season, the inevitable decline will set in for Bird and Magic, probably at exactly the same time, on the same day.

But not yet. In their own low-altitude styles, they both dominate.

The quick kids can’t deny Bird the ball, and the tall kids can’t stop Magic’s junior-junior skyhook.

Nobody goes coast-to-coast like Magic, defensive rebound to spinning, jack-knife layup. Nobody has more tools to carve you up than cool-hand Larry.

Bird is the league’s best trash-talker, intimidating with his tongue. Magic’s enthusiasm still inspires his teammates and knocks opponents slightly offstride.

They don’t run fast, Bird and Magic, but in the race to the basket they still get there first, and they bring their teams with them. That makes them the best.