They first met in the 1979 NCAA championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State. The players carried that rivalry to the NBA with the Lakers and Celtics. And each continuously tracked the other's progress as a way to measure his own.
They initially hated each other. But then they loved each other, out of respect for their talents, their work ethic, their Midwestern roots. The feelings morphed from respect to friendship after the two had lunch together at Bird's house in 1985 in between shoots for a Converse commercial.
The story lines were captivating enough to enhance the NBA's popularity in the 1980s. But enough to become the subject of a Broadway show? As "Magic/Bird" opens tonight at Longacre Theatre in New York, Johnson still is in disbelief.
"We're both pinching ourselves," he said recently on a conference call with reporters. "We're blown away by the fact that we're going to be on Broadway."
Johnson said he and Bird initially were hesitant about the idea, even if they had collaborated on a book with famed sports writer Jackie MacMullan, titled "When the Game Was Ours," which focuses on the depth of their rivalry and friendship. But after seeing the Broadway play "Lombardi," about NFL coaching great Vince Lombardi, they warmed to its producers, Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, following the same approach with their own story.
The NBA provided footage for the play to use. Johnson said he and Bird approved the way they would reenact scenes involving the NCAA title game, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and even Johnson's announcement that he had HIV. And the former Lakers star ensured that the actor portraying him, Kevin Daniels, received enough material that he could embody his charismatic personality.
"I told him to remember 'I'm a winner,' " Johnson recalled. "I wanted to win every game. And I love challenges. So he took those notes and I said, 'Larry and I were the same on the basketball court but we were a different person off the court.' Remember to just keep that beautiful smile going and that winning spirit and you'll be OK."
Johnson and the public will find out if he's right.