On the Dan Patrick Show today, Los Angeles Laker legend Jerry West had this response when asked if Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the NBA:
“No. Absolutely not.”
Does West have a valid point regarding Johnson and Bird not saving the league?
Only if you want to be a stickler about what the word “saved” means.
In the 1980s the NBA was nowhere near the league we know it as today. Mired with issues involving substance abuse, image, and team ownership, the league desperately needed charismatic stars for fans to get behind.
Enter: Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and Larry Bird.
With their dramatic meeting in the 1979 NCAA Championship game, Johnson and Bird began what would be a career-long rivalry that would carry over into the professional ranks.
Everything about the two men was different. Johnson went to the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that immediately succumbed to his glitzy, up-tempo, and “Hollywood” style of play. Bird went to the Boston Celtics, a team that embodied his workhorse spirit and tough attitude. Their plan of attack was far more slowed down and methodical than that of the Lakers. Johnson was black, Bird white. Johnson played on the west, Bird on the east.
Despite the differences, they had one thing in common: success. From 1980 to 1989, only twice did neither Johnson nor Bird win a championship. Both times, Johnson’s Lakers still made it to the finals. Between the two of them they own six league MVP awards, twenty four all-star appearances, and five finals MVP awards. They were both honored as two of the game’s 50 Greatest Players.
What impact did they have on the league? Well, in 1982 CBS purchased NBA broadcast rights for $92 million. In 1991 - towards the end of the ‘Magic and Bird’ era - the broadcast rights went to NBC for $601 million. Today, the league’s broadcast rights run at over $7 billion. Further, the use of tape-delaying championship games ended in 1982.
In the same interview, West went on to say that the two men certainly revitalized the league, but did not save it. He then added that their revitalization of the league was no different than what Michael Jordan had done during his time, or Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had done in theirs. He insisted that tradition is what truly carried the sport, not the players which come and go.
While West’s resume certainly entitles him to his opinion, the comparisons he makes seem a bit odd. Clearly Jordan’s legacy speaks for itself. He goes down in the minds of many as the greatest basketball player of all time. He revolutionized marketing, style of play, and rules as the NBA knew it. He was the role model of many of today’s stars. However, without Johnson and Bird, would his impact have been as great as it is?
Do you agree with West? Did Magic and Bird simply continue a long line of revitalizing the NBA when the hype would die down? Or did these two men, because of the time in which they did it, ultimately save the league for Jordan, O’Neal, Bryant, and LeBron James to later takeover?