“He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”
- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.
Larry Bird was a tall, gangly motherfucker, and he knew it. At six feet nine inches tall, the Hick from French Lick slouched through life, his skin about a half inch too tight all over. He knew that if you gave life half a chance and it’d kick you in the balls, so best just to keep quiet, keep your head down, and focus up.
The only place his tangled up garden hose body could relax was on a piece of flat ground ninety-four feet long by fifty feet wide with a ten foot tall hoop at either end. In this 4700 square foot space, Bird stood tall and straight, eyes always on the basket, on the ball, on the other players. In this sacred space he could think clearly and move freely. He could breathe. He could run. He could lose himself in the feeling of the pebbled leather of the ball under his fingers contrasting with the smoothness of the pine boards beneath the soles of his shoes.
This place was bound by rules he could understand. No holding, no hitting, no double dribbling. Get open, pass, shoot, score.
The court was his sanctuary. Until it wasn’t.
Magic Johnson was hot shit, and he knew it. He lived life like it was going out of style. He walked down the street and people turned and stared. His feet beat out a funky bass line everywhere he walked, and he was the talk of East Lansing. He stood like he earned every inch of his six foot nine frame, on and off the court.
Living came easy to Magic, and if anything, basketball came easier. Within the boundaries of the basketball court he was the conductor of his own five-man orchestra, and he could play like a charm.
It was never fair. He never needed it as bad. Until he did.
On this court, in this game, you get everything you need to know in the space of three breaths:
Breathe in. Know where you are in space.
Breathe out. Know where your team’s basket is.
Breathe in. Find the ball.
Breathe out. Find where you need to be to get the ball.
Breathe in. Find your teammates.
Breathe out. Find the other team’s players.
On April 29, 1978, it changes. Forever. First of all, where you are, where the basket is, where the ball is -- that is secondary to where he is. Second, you were a fool to think you would ever be able to breathe free again.
April 29, 1978. Lexington, Kentucky. World Invitational Tournament. Team USA vs. The Soviet Union.
Rebound! Off the glass, Bird catches it. Magic is there, barreling up the right side of the court. Bird looks left, Magic was open, why didn’t he pass, and then, oh! The ball is in his hand, behind-the-back no-look pass from Bird to Magic, perfect, beautiful, the poetry of sport is singing curvature of the air around the ball and the smack of the leather against flesh. Magic dribbles a crossover, lunging past the confused guard (why are there even other people on this court, why are there other people in the stands they should not be there it should just be the two of them, it is just the two of them, they are the only people alive and oh! they are so alive) and then -- over the shoulder no-look back to Bird.
The ball is in Bird’s hands, where it belongs, and then it is not in his hands anymore, it is in the basket and the world snaps back into place and the crowd goes wild.
This is how it is going to be now, everyone knows. This is how it is always going to be. Magic runs toward Bird and slaps him a high-five, practically vibrating, ecstatic with the strumming golden joy of it all.
Bird exhales, looks to the boards passing beneath his feet. Something fundamental has changed. This is how it’s always going to be, even if he doesn’t quite know what this is yet. Maybe he won’t ever know.
Maybe that’s okay.
1979: Bird leads Indiana State University to a record of 33-0. Only one team could possibly go toe-to-toe: Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson. Of course.
As a rule, Bird didn’t get nervous before big games. Before the first game of the NCAA final, Bird spends the night in the bathroom, spewing his half-digested dinner into the toilet.
Magic always liked to go out before a big game, but tonight he stayed in, even though his team begged him. Instead, he powers up the turntable and spends the evening lying perfectly still on his bed and listening to his roommate’s Paul Simon album. He is slip-sliding away.
Magic makes damn sure the team gets to practice early, while Indiana State is still on the court. Can’t waste any time, he says. Can’t be late. But as soon as he gets there he knows why. Sure enough, there he is, pale and bright as the beacon of Alexandria. Magic watches as he shoots: once, twice, four times, ten. He makes them all. He is Golden.
As Indiana State leaves the court, Magic turns toward Bird. There is so much to say. There is so much he cannot say.
Bird doesn’t look up. He doesn’t need to. He knows Magic is there like he knows the distance between the hoops at Springs Valley High School.
This is how it is always going to be. Maybe this is how it always was.
Undefeated Indiana State loses the first time all season. It doesn't matter, though. They're going to the NBA next season, Boston for Bird, Los Angeles for Magic. And if each of them plays their best? Well. They'll be back. Together. On the same court.
It turns out a continent of separation doesn't make much difference to the magnetic pull, the constant tug on each man's heart. Anyone who truly loves the game knows the drive to play well and the drive to win, and Magic and Bird have always played well and they've always won. But now they know: if each can pull his team to the finals, well. There they'll be again. One no-look away.
"We came down a couple times, I'd go behind my back, no-look to him, he'd no-look back to me. And I'm layin’ it up and I'm sayin’, 'Oh, man! This guy’s got game.' It was an incredible three seconds of basketball. It was like boom, boom, boom!"
- Magic Johnson on playing with Larry Bird in on Team USA at the World Invitational Tournament in 1978. Courtship of Rivals and When the Game was Ours.