An old friend and rival offers a Bird’s-eye view of Magic Johnson’s new Lakers gig
Jim Buss has been relieved of his duties as the executive vice president of basketball operations. (Feb. 21, 2017)
One San Diego edition of the enduring debate about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson featured a kid who was five years old when he first encountered Bird.
He was seven when Bird came to his house to playfully infuriate him and his brothers by winning pickup games. He was in middle school when he’d implore his mother to call Bird’s house and ask him to sponsor a free-throw fundraiser. In his early 20s a brush with Bird in Indiana left him beaming so brightly his veteran Lakers teammates teased, “Oh look, Luke’s got a crush.”
Thinking about that still makes Lakers Coach Luke Walton smile.
Walton’s nostalgia for Bird vs. Magic is personal, but a warm reminiscence of that epic rivalry is shared by millions. The two NBA legends seemed forever connected through college and professional basketball, but their story paused for more than 25 years.
Then a phone call two weeks ago sparked basketball imaginations and set off a wildfire of hopeful longing. They were talking, perhaps competing, again. Maybe just like it was on the court in Boston or Los Angeles or Salt Lake City. Was this Bird vs. Magic III?
By phone from Indiana last week, Bird laughed heartily at the suggestion.
“The competition is there,” he admitted. “But it’s not like it used to be.”
Bird planned to call Johnson after the NBA trade deadline, just to congratulate his old friend on becoming the Lakers’ president of basketball operations. It’s the same title Bird has held for most of 14 years with the Indiana Pacers.
Johnson beat Bird to it. The phone call lasted less than five minutes, consisted mostly of small talk and might have touched only briefly on the fate of Indiana star Paul George.
“I wasn’t motivated to move Paul George at the deadline,” Bird said. “I can’t remember if it was even brought up or not. I don’t think it was. It’s all fake news anyway. You know that. Somebody’s gonna start it and [it] just was a snowball effect. [The phone call] was not about Paul George.”
They talked about their families, about how life had been. Bird, 60, called the 57-year-old Johnson crazy for trying this at his age.
I just thought I’d get back and get out of the limelight, and then I took the coaching job and next thing I know I’m in the front office.
Larry Bird, on returning to Indiana and eventually joining the Pacers
“He’s got a lot to learn,” Bird said. “But he took the challenge and I’m sure he’s ready for it. There’s just so much to learn about it.”
Bird knows about that firsthand. He had to learn how the salary cap worked with help from others in the Pacers front office. He learned the importance of planning three years in advance.
And one of the game’s greatest players had to learn about the helpless nature of being an executive. Despite preseason optimism, Bird’s Pacers are 32-30, currently the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. As a player he could fix in-game problems. Now he can only watch.
His advice for Johnson is to understand that.
“You can put a team together, what you think’s gonna be a pretty solid team on paper, and then when they get out there they don’t mesh well,” Bird said. “I’m sort of going through that this year. We thought we had a decent team that we thought could compete for the fourth or fifth seed. We haven’t played as well as I thought we would all year. That’s the growing pains. That’s the frustration about it.”
He and his fellow Hall of Famer don’t talk often these days. Bird isn’t much for phone calls.
They dominated their time in college and met in the 1979 NCAA championship game in Salt Lake City, where Johnson and Michigan State defeated Bird’s Indiana State team. Then Bird went to Boston where he won three championships, one of them over Johnson, and Johnson came to Los Angeles, where he won five championships, two of them over Bird. Their friendship started to bloom over a Converse commercial shoot, borne of mutual respect and similar aims.
As their playing careers ended they became friends, but their lives took them in different directions.
Johnson delved into the business world and remained in Los Angeles. He received overtures from other teams, but said last month he wouldn’t have come back to the NBA for any other organization.
Bird left Boston in 1997 and embarked on a new chapter in his home state of Indiana. He coached the Pacers for three years, and became president of basketball operations in 2003.
“All the fans I had out there [in Boston], I wanted them to remember me as a player,” Bird said. “… I’m a Hoosier. My best years of my life were in Boston. I just thought I’d get back and get out of the limelight, and then I took the coaching job and next thing I know I’m in the front office.”
Eventually Johnson and Bird will engage in real conversations about trades. It could happen this summer. There is mutual interest between the Lakers and George. USA Today reported that George is intent on joining the Lakers if he feels he can’t win a championship with the Pacers.
If that happens, Bird will remove his own emotions from the equation. Johnson, after all, is not the only friend in an opposing front office. His former teammate Danny Ainge is the Celtics president of basketball operations.
“I’ve been here for, I don’t know how many years, 12, 13, and I haven’t made a deal with Danny Ainge yet,” Bird said. “That should tell you something. I’ve always been closer with Danny, because I played with him for all them years, than Earvin.
“Talked to Danny about a lot of trades, but never did one. I just feel it’s gotta be a fair deal for both sides and we never got there. Maybe he thought it was fair, but I didn’t think so.”
Bird said he doesn’t worry about Johnson’s ability to succeed here. Johnson is smart, he said. Johnson understands basketball. Johnson, Bird believes, is bringing in the right people to help him. Bird spoke highly of Rob Pelinka, a player agent whom the Lakers have selected to be their next general manager.
“You gotta stay patient,” Bird said. “Gotta stay true to the game and true to the franchise, and if you do that you’ll have some success.”
Johnson’s office at the Lakers facility is across the hall from the kid who idolized Bird, now all grown up.
Nearly three decades after he fought with his friends, insisting Larry Bird was the greatest basketball player of all time, Walton finds himself squarely on the other side of the rivalry. When the Lakers drafted him out of Arizona in 2003, he stopped referring to the Lakers as the Fakers.
While Walton’s affinity for Bird hasn’t changed, Johnson is now a daily part of his life. Walton can see the engaging personality in Johnson that Bird avoided while they were playing, so as not to lose a competitive edge. The Lakers coach hasn’t asked Johnson for stories about the old days — there’s been no time for all that.
As much as he loved the rivalry between the two players, he doesn’t see this as a revival.
“I don’t think so,” Walton said, shaking his head. “I’m sure media will build it up to be that. Fans will enjoy reading about it. It’s not like Larry and Magic are competing on the phone and trying to duel against each other.”
When it happens, though, nostalgia might take over again.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli
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