The Truth About Magic Johnson And Larry Bird's Relationship

Prior to Michael Jordan's 1984 NBA debut, there were two young stars battling on the court in a fierce rivalry. On the east coast, Larry Bird was dominating with his silky-smooth shot for the Boston Celtics. On the west, Earvin "Magic" Johnson was the star point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. At the start of the NBA's 75th Anniversary season in 2021, the league named its top 76 players of all time. Amongst modern stars like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and the late Kobe Bryant were Jordan, Bird, and Johnson — the latter who also served as an official ambassador for the season.

After leaving the NBA as players, both Johnson and Bird helped manage younger ballers. Johnson went on to be the Lakers' president of basketball operations until he stepped away from the position in 2019, the NBA reported. Bird had the same executive role as Johnson, except for the Indiana Pacers. He too stepped down from the role in 2017 but stayed connected with the NBA franchise in an advisory role. Bird first linked up with the Pacers as the head coach in 1997 and was named coach of the year in his debut. After later being named executive of the year, Bird became the only person ever to be awarded both honors in addition to an MVP award as a player, per ESPN.

As two legends on the court and after retirement, Johnson and Bird have developed a special bond built on competition and respect.

From college to confidants

In 1979, the NCAA National Championship was between the Michigan State Spartans and the Indiana State Sycamores. Led by star Larry Bird, Indiana State came in as the undefeated favorite but a young Magic Johnson sunk 24 points for his squad on the way to victory, The New York Times reported. 

"We put the Madness in March," Johnson explained about the epic matchup on ESPN. It was the "highest-rated final" at the time and turned Bird and Johnson into even bigger stars as they headed for the pros. Once in the NBA, "I was just dreaming about another chance that maybe I'd get to play against you," Bird recalled to Johnson. That matchup came true in 1984 when the Lakers went up against the Celtics in the NBA finals. The series went to a decisive game seven and this time, Bird took home the championship trophy. The NBA stars would meet two more times in the finals throughout their careers, with Johnson winning with the Lakers both times, per AP (via USA Today). 

Though the on-court battles made for an exhilarating rivalry, the two were quite friendly outside the game. The connection started when both players went to Johnson's hometown of French Lick, Indiana to shoot a commercial for the Converse sneaker brand. It was their first real interaction together and the two became friends after sharing a meal prepared by Bird's mother, Johnson and Bird explained on the "Late Show with David Letterman."

The NBA stars stayed together through good times and bad

At their amicable lunch, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson connected as two boys from the Midwest with similar values. "We found out we were much alike," Johnson said on the "Late Show with David Letterman." Both players of course stayed fiercely competitive against each other as players but even in the worst times, Johnson felt he could trust Bird. This was especially true after Johnson tested positive for HIV in 1991 and immediately retired from the Lakers. Even before Johnson announced the news publicly, he called old friend Bird. "I knew that he would want to know and also know from me. And I'm glad I was able to talk to Larry and let him know that I'm gonna be okay, and I knew he was going to be supporting me," Johnson told NPR.

Bird was understandably shaken by the news because he remembered that the infection "was known to be a death sentence" at the time. He recalled after hearing from Johnson, "it was probably one of the worst feelings you could ever imagine" and admitted it was the only time he ever didn't want to play basketball. Fortunately, Bird was inspired by Johnson's optimism to overcome the virus.

Johnson ultimately managed his HIV and the bond between the two guys only deepened. According to the famous Laker, even though he might only see Bird every few years, he knows without a doubt the support system is always there.