Reviewed By

Christopher Armstead
I don't even know where to start with you while discussing this film, 'Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals' as it drummed up a list of glorious memories when Basketball was king, and sports were relevant.  Today, Basketball isn't king any more, and even the relevance of sports can be called into question, but in the age of Magic and Birdů those were the days.  Sounding like the old man that I am quickly becoming.

Director Ezra Edelman's HBO documentary from 2010 begins with the NCAA finals in 1979.  One of the things you might notice was that this NCAA final between Michigan State and Indiana State was some Madness actually played in March and not late April.  I was in sixth grade when that game was played and it was every bit as big as the documentary made it out to be, pitting the dynamic Michigan State point guard Ervin 'Magic' Johnson against the stoic but deadly power forward of Indiana State Larry Bird.  Even though Indiana State was undefeated, even as an eleven year old, as that game went on, I could see that the Sycamores didn't have much of a chance because the Spartans were just a better team.  And even though Larry Bird had a bad game, I knew he could play because he torched Sidney Moncrief's Arkansas team in the elite eight game a few nights earlier.  Why I remember this stuff so clearly, but couldn't remember an algebraic formula to save my life, I can't tell you.

Then the doc tells us on what hard times the NBA was in back in the late 70's, with all the games being on taped delay.  The odd thing is that I remember this quite clearly, because I used to have to ask permission to stay up to watch CBS late nite to watch the playoff games with my older brother.  I mean, I didn't know that was a problem, just thought it was the way it was supposed to be.
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Another thing I guess that was a problem was the NBA, with its recent merger with the ABA, was too Black.  I remember some pretty good white players from back then, like Kevin Greavy and Jack Sikma, plus living in San Antonio at the time the Spurs had Billy Paultz and Mark Olberding, just to name a few.  I know they weren't Larry Bird good, but whatever.  If they tell me the league was too Black back then, who am I to argue with them. 

But all of that was about to change because the Lakers drafted Magic and the Celtics drafted Bird and a league that was moribund was about to take off.  This documentary sits us down in conversation with Mr. Johnson and Mr. Bird, in addition to many others, and what the relationship of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird meant to the game of basketball, and more importantly what these two men meant to each other.  Coming out of college, Magic, obviously, is the gregarious outgoing one, Larry Bird is the shy, reticent one and not a lot has changed as the two guys approach the age of sixty with Magic having little problem sharing his thoughts for the camera, and Bird being a little more reserved.  In fact, getting Larry Bird to sit down and talk about things like 'his feelings', especially in regards to extremely personal things such as the suicide of his father had to be like pulling teeth, Because Larry Bird is clearly not comfortable telling you his business.  In fact, I'm little curious how they managed to convince Mr. Bird to sit down for these series of interviews in the first place. 

One of the main things the documentary confronted was the issue of race, and it would be a difficult one to ignore.  The Celtics of the '80's probably had more white players than any other NBA team, including arguably the single best player in the league in Larry Bird, while the Lakers had decidedly a lot more flavor.  It seems so silly now, but even I was caught up in that nonsense back then as a teenager.  One thing that was illuminating about this documentary was that while all of this was going on, the one person who could care the least about any of it, was the main person at the center of it, that being Larry Bird.  It's funny because you hear people often say in regards to controversial things like that, that 'it doesn't bother me', but you kind of question them because it just HAS to bother them on some level.  But when Larry Bird says he didn't care, mainly because it didn't have anything to do with basketball, you actually believe that this guy just didn't care. 

Naturally the documentary traveled down the path of the end of the careers of both legends, Larry Bird's fused back and Magic Johnson's stunning HIV announcement, with Magic being particularly poignant on how Bird showed his true friendship towards him, while others did not, when he made that announcement. 

For anyone who was around during this time and enjoying arguably the greatest era of professional basketball, 'Magic vs. Bird: A Courtship of Rivals' is a great revisit, and actually taught me some things that I didn't know, and I thought I knew it all.  For those new to this era, I would imagine it to be high informational and educational on two of the greats of the game.  And no matter who you are, even if you've never seen a basketball game in your life, this documentary would entertain regardless.
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