Producer: Ezra Edelman
Featuring: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale, Pat Riley, Bryant Gumbel and more
Premieres: HBO, March 6, 8 p.m.
The history of the NBA is a history of rivalries: Bill Russell and Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
None, however, has left a greater impact than the one that began in earnest during the 1979 NCAA title game, when a young man from East Lansing, Mich. named Earvin “Magic” Johnson led Michigan State to a win over an upstart, undefeated Indiana State team with Larry Bird at its helm.
The inextricable bond between the two very different men – Magic the African-American life of the party showman, Larry the White blue-collar worker with a penchant for surliness – is the subject of the HBO documentary “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.”
The film incorporates a conventional talking heads format to recount the legends’ parallel stories. Both rise from unprivileged backgrounds to the height of the basketball world as members of the Lakers and Celtics. Always competitive, they keep tabs on each other in the morning box scores and admit to a shared, intense desire to one-up the other’s accomplishments. The brinkmanship climaxes in three closely fought NBA Finals meetings over the course of the '80s.
While the movie breaks no new stylistic ground, it scores one major coup: Larry and Magic consent to lengthy on-camera interviews. They offer candid insight into the emotions behind the rivalry, their wildly contrasting mindsets in dealing with the public and the press and, finally, the deep friendship that formed out of their shared experience at the fore of their sport.
When the men joined the NBA it was in disrepair, suffering low TV ratings and dwindling attendance. When they retired, it was at its height. With first-hand expert testimony and a wealth of historical footage the documentary achieves its most notable feat: the transformation of a narrative centered on a fierce competition into the story of the saving of a game.