Magic and Bird: The Rebirth of Basketball

By: Jason Gandhi

 

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics have a well-known rivalry in professional basketball. It stemmed from the early 1960’s up until today still with the two teams squaring off every year. The reason the Lakers—Celtics rivalry has remained consistent throughout history is largely because of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The rivalry of Magic vs. Bird went from 1979-1992 in basketball but it stemmed much further than just on the court. “Bird and Magic would meet face-to-face in a celebrated NCAA title showdown that contributed as much as anything to making college tournament play finally a primetime “made-for-television” event”.[1] Converse came out with a commercial in 1986 pushing consumers to either purchase the “Magic shoe” or the “Bird shoe”[2]. There was also a Broadway show on them called “Magic/Bird” directed by Eric Simonson[3]. This seems to suggest that the men were not only basketball icons but also made an impact on pop culture. Basketball was on the decline at the turn from the 1970’s to the 1980’s. Ratings were down and people were just not interested in NBA basketball like they used to be. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed that, and revived basketball to where it is today. Without Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, the NBA might not be around today. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird not only effected the game itself, but they brought basketball’s popularity to a whole new level.

 

NBA Basketball was on the decline in the 1970’s. “Attendance had already been dropping, as had television ratings. CBS routinely tape-delayed its games, even playoff games, which meant most markets saw these games on TV after midnight. The NBA was in a significant down period.”[4] In the 1960’s, it was mainly Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, but in the 1970’s the skill level was more balanced. None of the fourteen teams in the league were that much better than the next[5]. The NBA used to have a TV deal with ABC but at the end of the contract ABC declined to renew it[6]. CBS purchased the rights to show the NBA, but they could not market the product as well as ABC did[7]. Because there were no teams that were exponentially better than the next, fans did not have the desire to watch subpar basketball. It was hard for fans to rally behind the league, when they weren’t producing high-level basketball. The 1979 NCAA national championship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird still has the highest TV shares, which is the estimated amount of televisions tuned in, to this day.[8] The correlation between the growth in popularity and the rise of Magic and Bird cannot be denied.

 

So, the NBA was at a low point in its popularity as stated previously. When Magic Johnson and Larry Bird burst onto the scene, they helped the ratings and the popularity go up. Magic said after his playing days were over, “Everybody knew that one of the main reasons for the dramatic increase in salaries was the presence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.[9]” When the men got drafted into the NBA in 1979, the arenas were more empty than full, TV ratings were lowering and “the average player made less than $150,000.[10]” This evidence shows that before they burst onto the scene, NBA basketball was on life support. The two men had to try and revive the brand of professional basketball. Then once Magic Johnson and Larry Bird established themselves as the future in the NBA, things began to improve. By 1984, “Attendance had soared. TV ratings were way up-–especially during the 1984 Finals. The average salary was now well over half a million dollars.[11]”. This all demonstrates the clear correlation between the rise of popularity and the two men. Magic had his “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, and Larry had his grind-it-out Boston Celtics. Yet every time the two teams squared off, everybody had to watch because Magic Johnson and Larry Bird made basketball fun again. The two teams met three times in the NBA Finals always on national television, as well as numerous times in the regular season. The uniqueness of an individual rivalry that repeats itself year after year because of team success, but also the men being friends off the court was something fans had never seen before. The Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics won eight of the ten championships in the 1980’s[12], so Magic got the upper hand on Larry in the team rivalry.

Some could argue that the rise of the NBA would have happened with or without Magic and Larry. David Stern, former commissioner of the NBA, believed it to be “more of saving the NBA than Bird and Magic”[13]. They believe it could not have gone any lower so the rise was inevitable. This claim cannot be true because of the evidence that the TV contracts rose from $500,000 in 1969, to over 1 million dollars just under 12 years later[14]. Their national championship game began the rise and their success in the NBA, just took it to the next level. The summer after the Laker beat the Celtics in the Finals, “the NBA signed a three-year, $1.5-million-dollar deal with the USA Network for Thursday night doubleheaders and early round playoff games”[15]. This all demonstrates the men had a clear impact on the growth and popularity. Others could say that Magic and Larry are the only reason that the NBA grew in popularity. That is also not accurate, because players such as Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal and other polarizing figures could have also boosted the popularity. In 2017, the NBA regular season attendance record was broken again for the third straight year[16]. So although they did impact the popularity, they were not the sole factor.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are now in the front office of NBA teams, sprinkling their magic on the NBA even without playing. They are a reason that the NBA is growing as one of the most popular professional sports in the United States today.

 

 

 

Works Cited:

 

[1] Peter C. Bjarkman, The Biographical History of Basketball (Chicago, Illinois: NTC/Contemporary Publishing group, 2000) pages 48, 49

[2] Josh Mapes, “Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s Rivalry,” Bio, last modified April 12, 2012, http://www.biography.com/news/magic-johnson-and-larry-birds-rivalry-20795891

[3] Josh Mapes, “Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s Rivalry,” Bio, last modified April 12, 2012, http://www.biography.com/news/magic-johnson-and-larry-birds-rivalry-20795891

[4] “Magic, Larry and Cable Television:” Basketball Origins, Growth and History of the Game, accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/basketballhistory.html.

[5] “A Decade of Parity” NBA Encyclopedia Playoff Edition, accessed October 26, 2016, http://www.nba.com/encyclopedia/decade_of_parity.html

[6] “Magic, Larry and Cable Television:” Basketball Origins, Growth and History of the Game, accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/basketballhistory.html.

[7] “Magic, Larry and Cable Television:” Basketball Origins, Growth and History of the Game, accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/basketballhistory.html.

[8] Peter C. Bjarkman, The Biographical History of Basketball (Chicago, Illinois: NTC/Contemporary Publishing group, 2000) pages 48, 49

[9] Earvin “Magic” Johnson and William Novak, My Life (New York: Random House, 1992) pg. 204

[10] Earvin “Magic” Johnson and William Novak, My Life (New York: Random House, 1992) pg. 204

[11] Earvin “Magic” Johnson and William Novak, My Life (New York: Random House, 1992) pg. 204

[12] “Magic, Larry and Cable Television:” Basketball Origins, Growth and History of the Game, accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/basketballhistory.html.

[13] Bill Simmons, The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy (New York: ESPN Books, 2009) page 138

[14] Peter C. Bjarkman, The Biographical History of Basketball (Chicago, Illinois: NTC/Contemporary Publishing group, 2000)

[15] Bill Simmons, The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy (New York: ESPN Books, 2009) page 139

[16] “NBA Breaks Attendance Record for Third Straight Season.” NBA.com. April 13, 2017, http://www.nba.com/article/2017/04/13/nba-breaks-all-time-attendance-record-third-straight-season

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s