Tag Archives: Magic Johnson

Heat-Mavs or Celtics-Lakers, circa 1984?

An almost impossibly athletic and heavily favored team loaded with future Hall of Famers and headlined by a 6’8” prodigy from the Midwest whose passing skills are redefining his position.

A gritty squad lead by a blond superstar with slow feet, a high pain threshold, and sweet shooting touch who unafraid to call out his teammates for a lack of clutch play in the first three games.

Sound familiar?

If you’re thinking Heat-Mavs, think again.

This year’s series, which is already shaping up to be a classic, bears an increasing resemblance to the 1984 battle between the Celtics and the Lakers.

that went a full seven games before the Larry Bird-led Celtics prevailed at the Boston Garden.

Comparisons between Bird and Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki have been made with increasing frequency in the past few weeks, and, while I agree with Greg Anthony in finding them overstated, the look at the two teams may be more apt than one realizes.

Think about it.

Among their supporting casts, the Celtics and Mavericks both had a light-skinned, poor-shooting Hall of Fame point guard with a history of domestic violence.

The series’ ebb and flow mirror each other, too.

In both series, the faster squad won Games 1 and 3, and could easily have swept the first four games.

In both Games 2 and 4, a mental error and passive play by the smooth-passing Midwesterner-LeBron James now, Magic Johnson then-led to rounds of harsh criticism (James is being asked constantly about shrinking in the clutch, while Johnson was briefly given the name, “Tragic.”).

Game 4 in both cases was a tight defensive battle that featured a comeback by the underdogs and the leader delivering the key basket in the clutch.

In the earlier series, Bird took over in Game 5 with a vintage shooting performance, while Magic continued his sub-standard play.

The Lakers rallied to win Game 6 before the Celtics held off a late Game 7 charge to win their 14th championship.

My brother Mike and I were in attendance, in what remains one of my life’s greatest sporting highlights.

Of course, much is different now, and the past does not in any way determine the future.

Still, it’s intriguing to think about what will happen next.

Game 5 is tomorrow night.

I know I’ll be watching.

How about you?

Monday book round up

When the Game was Ours is one of the books I've been thinking about this morning.

It’s early Monday morning, and the following items have triggered connections to books I’ve read:

1. I watched much of the 30th Anniversary edition of Magic Johnson’s epic 42-15-7, three-position-in-the-absence-of-Kareem, championship-clinching game last night against the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers.  In addition to Magic’s virtuosity and the short-shorts, Darryl Dawkins’ prodigious strength and unfortunate habit of putting the ball on the ground every time caught my attention.  Larry Bird and Magic’s When The Game Was Ours covered this game, and Vincent Mallozzi’s Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving tells the story of Erving’s skywalking ability and contributions to the game.

2.  The owner of a van formerly owned by Dr. Jack Kevorkian has failed to sell it on  EBay, so is going for a real-time auction.  Frances Norwood wrote about physician assisted suicide in the Netherlands in The Maintenance of Life.

3. On 15 May 1947, President Harry Truman, in defining the “Truman Doctrine,” said that: ‘We hope that in years ahead more and more nations will come to know the advantages of freedom and liberty.’  Eric Goldman wrote about this and other momentous events in the post-war period in Rendezvous with Destiny.

Have a great week!

When Larry and Magic Owned The Game

This book by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson is must reading for hoops junkies of a certain vintage.

One of the first stories I did while at South Shore Community News involved covering the opening of the first Starbucks on Chicago’s South Side.

Ald. Leslie Hairston was there, brimming with excitement.  Mayor Daley was there, touting his insistence that the community get the same store design as those in the suburbs.

And Magic Johnson was there.

As always, he charmed the crowd, sending regards to Michael Jordan, backing off when he invoked Wal-Mart as a place moms want to go in a neighborhood, and shooting down a question from Craig Dellimore about whether the opening of Starbucks would lead to gentrification.  “I’ve got some statistics up in here,” he said, in essence.

After the press conference ended, I took one of the free mugs being distributed and joined the line to have it autographed for Aidan.

When I got there, I shook his hand, explained that I was from Boston and had grown up watching his battles with Larry Bird and our beloved Celtics.

“Those were the great ones,” he said.

“We didn’t always like you, but we always respected you,” I said.

“I know,” he replied.

As they note in the introduction to their book, When The Game Was Ours, Larry and Magic have been linked ever since their initial meeting in the 1979  NCAA championship game.   While they have been the subject of a number of books, most recently Seth Davis’ work about that game and the season that preceded it, they had not written and revealed so much about their impact on each other.

This book does that.

Written in conjunction with Jackie MacMullan, When The Game Was Ours is a must read for hoops junkies, especially those like me who came of age during Bird and Magic’s heyday and the NBA’s exponential growth.

The book opens with a description of a dazzling play they had while on a college all-star team in 1978.  Neither player got much time on the Joe B. Hall-dominated squad, and the play was not recorded, but it was one that both men remembered vividly and recounted to MacMullan.

When The Game Was Ours has a lot of familiar material as this territory has been mined before, and it also has some new and juicy tidbits that eager readers will be sure to devour (I don’t want to divulge them for fear of spoiling the pleasure of uncovering something new and different.).

One thing I will say is that the book does go in some detail into the 1985 Converse commercial, shot at Bird’s home in French Lick, that led to a softening in the hard feelings the two men had borne toward each other.  The section about Magic’s learning he had contracted HIV is powerful and poignant.

In the introduction, both men note that they are asked how the other is doing far more often than about former teammates.

After reading this book, we have a better understanding of why that is so, and how much these enormously talented, driven and dedicated men have meant to each other.

David Halberstam on Michael Jordan and the World He Made


It's only fitting that the late, great David Halberstam wrote my favorite book about Michael Jordan.

It's only fitting that the late, great David Halberstam wrote my favorite book about Michael Jordan.


The middle of David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made contains a revealing anecdote about Celtics superstar Larry Bird.

Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan asked Bird what he thought about Bruce Springsteen

“Who’s he?” Bird asked. 

“Larry, he’s the you of rock,” Ryan replied.  

Intrigued, Bird learned more about the legendary Jersey rocker and even attended a concert.  While he did not particularly enjoy the music, he respected how hard Springsteen worked-something that he could tell by the volume of sweat he generated. 

In a similar way, I imagine that the late, great Halberstam recognized something of himself during the process of writing about Jordan

Both men struggled in adolescence before finding the professional passions that drove them.

Both loved basketball deeply and had a special place inside themselves reserved for baseball. 

Both worked relentlessly at their craft.

And both did work early in the career that defined an era, but then built on that work in the following months and years to establish a nearly unmatched legacy.

There are differences, too, between the two men.

Jordan ranks higher in the pantheon of basketball gods than Halberstam does in journalism.

Halberstam never retired, while Jordan left the game twice, once at the height of his powers, and again after the Bulls’ second ‘three-peat’ in 1998.

Jordan’s global celebrity and conscious marketing of his ‘brand’-a main subject of both of the books by him about him-are also distinctive.

Still, there must have been a sense in which Halberstam felt that he was writing about someone whom he understood.

Playing for Keeps, which is a retrospective look at Jordan’s life, career and global economic impact-Halberstam estimates that it’s in the billions of dollars-all make for the most comprehensive book written about Jordan, and my favorite of the ones I’ve read. 

Impeccably thorough in his research, Halberstam also has the benefit of being able to trace the arc of Jordan’s career before his final forgettable comeback with the Washington Wizards that was the subject of Michael Leahy’s When Nothing Else Matters.   Halberstam takes a far more respectful, even admiring tone, toward his subject than Leahy, and the book has a more respectful, even admiring feel, toward its subject. 

Halberstam effectively moves the narrative back and forward in time, writing extensively of course about Jordan, but also about coach Phil Jackson, Bird and rival Magic Johnson.  Dream Team fans will get a kick out of the description of the legendary scrimmage between Jordan and Johnson’s teams in Monte Carlo.  While no one agrees about who talked the first trash-some say Johnson, while others say it was Charles Barkley-all agree that Jordan took over and dominated with a frenzy that left no doubt both about the result and about the team’s true leader from that point on.

Playing for Keeps ends with Jordan’s final championship winning shot-one that Pistons coach Chuck Daly had predicted-against the Utah Jazz.  While hoops junkies may not find this book as rich or appealing as Halberstam’s classic The Breaks of the Game, it is more than adequate to reach the top of my Jordan book list. 

As Bulls fan know, one of Michael Jordan’s top 20 games is better than just about anything else anyone has to offer.

Have fun, and enjoy tomorrow’s induction.

Michael Jordan Books, Part III: Driven from Within


Jordan fans will love hearing from the man himself.

Jordan fans will love hearing from the man himself.


We’re here with Day III of the Michael Jordan Hall of Fame Induction build up.

Today’s book is his own: Driven from Within.

Jordan has actually written a couple of books, each of which chronicled his family-oriented and middle-class roots in Wilmington, North Carolina, his being cut from the varsity team as a sophomore at E.A. Laney High School, his gradual emergence and burst into prominence at North Carolina, his dominance in the 1984 Olympic Games, and his gradual and relentless quest for greatness in the NBA that led him to six NBA titles and general acclamation as the greatest player ever.

Driven from Within is a multi-colored, fully-illustrated book with text of varying sizes, colors and layout guaranteed to delight Jordan and Bulls’ fans.

Jordan’s voice and commitment to excellence is a constant throughout the work.

He writes about the divisions that occurred within the first run of Bulls championship teams-he lays a lot of responsibility for this on Horace Grant-his own admittedly excessive gambling, his sojourn into baseball and his eventually triumphant return for a second three-peat during the 1996-1998 years.

Jordan’s well-documented dislike of former Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause comes through clearly, as does his desire to go beyond his predecessors Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and be known as an outstanding defensive as well as offensive player.

As we all know, he did that and more. 

Driven from Within gives insight into the forces that shaped and drove Jordan to become a basketball genius and consummate winner.  It’s also a reminder to Bulls fans who have gone 11 long years since his retirement of happier days when a championship in June seemed like the natural order of the universe.

Jordan Books, Part II: The Jordan Rules.


Sam Smith's book gives the backstory on the Bulls' first championship.

Sam Smith's book gives the backstory on the Bulls' first championship.

It’s hard to remember now, but Michael Jordan was not always a six-time champion with an impeccable resume on his way to this weekend’s Hall of Fame induction.

In fact, he and the Chicago Bulls did not break through and win a championship until his seventh season.

Their major barrier: the Detroit Pistons.  Masterfully coached by the late Chuck Daly, the “Bad Boys” from the Motor City defeated Jordan’s squad three consecutive years from 1988 to 1990. 

Daly devised a special defensive strategy, called “The Jordan Rules.”  The goal was to ensure that Jordan did not beat the Pistons by frequently double teaming him and thereby getting the ball out of his hands and by wearing him down physically.

For a time, it worked. 

In 1991, though, Jordan had a vastly improved team featuring an emerging Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, center Bill Cartwright and the steady John Paxson in the backcourt.

This squad swept the Pistons and went on to beat Magic Johnson’s Lakers in five games in the finals. 

The victory led to the iconic image of Jordan holding the trophy in tears as his father James lovingly massaged his neck and shoulders. 

Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith chronicled the first championship season, as well as many before and after, and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the action in The Jordan Rules.

Smith’s title has a double meaning.  

In addition to the defense that Daly devised and his team implemented, it refers to the two sets of rules for Bulls during Phil Jackson’s tenure: one for Michael, and one for everyone else.

Smith’s book has a gossipy and prescient feel, as Jordan’s supernatural talent is depicted in descriptions and anecdotes guaranteed to bring a knowing smile to the face of Bulls’ fans.  

One such nugget has Jordan dunking on the far smaller John Stockton of the Utah Jazz, prompting a fan to yell at him to pick on someone his own size.

The next trip downcourt, Jordan flushed the ball over the 6’11″, 270-pound Mel Turpin.  

On the way back on defense, he turned to the fan and asked, “Is he big enough?”

The book also has a gossipy and prescient feel, as Smith shows Jordan already being somewhat of a prisoner of his immense fame and often treating teammates unkindly.  

Some of the less appealing moments come when he flashes a bunch of tickets in the faces of teammates who are unable to get any.  He psychologically destroys Brad Sellers, whom he deems unfit to play in the NBA.  His cruelty toward General Manager Jerry Krause, who contributes to his own humiliation by not understanding the boundaries between players and front office workers, comes through, too. 

The Jordan Rules is not pure snark, though.

Smith shows Jackson trying to expand his team’s horizons by talking about the first Gulf War-one that the former Craig Hodges opposes.

The book is also the story of team coming together and accepting their coach’s triangle offense and underlying message that they must trust each other in order to reach their ultimate goal.

One of the book’s most memorable scenes comes during a timeout in the final game of the championship series.

Jackson repeatedly asking Jordan, each time with increasing force and volume, who is open.

“Pax,” Jordan finally answers.

“Then get him the fucking ball,” Jackson replies.

Jordan does.  Paxson knocks down four jumpers down the stretch.  The Bulls become champions. 

The Jordan Rules is neither great literature nor even particularly high quality sportswriting.  Still, for fans preparing for this weekend’s induction and hungering for some memory of the days when the dynasty began, it may be just what they need.

The Madness Resumes, Larry and Magic

Seth Davis tells the tale of the original Larry vs. Magic match up in When March Went Mad.

Seth Davis tells the tale of the original Larry vs. Magic match up in When March Went Mad.

March Madness resumes tomorrow night, and should bring plenty of excitement.

From Ty Lawson’s toe to Oklahoma big man’s Blake Griffin’s possible final college games to Memphis coach John Calipari’s quest for his first title, the tournament is chock full of plot lines.

The tournament has grown exponentially since 1979, when Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State Sycamores faced off against Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans.

Sports Illustrated writer and CBS television analyst Seth Davis argues that this game was the birth of what we call March Madness in his new book, When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball.

I should be clear that the book is much more of a behind-the-scenes tale of that pivotal match up rather than a scholarly argument.

Davis revisits the two protagonists in the drama, their markedly different personalities and their teams’ circumstances. 

The introverted Bird refused to talk to the media for nearly the entire season.  The gregarious Johnson could not get enough media attention and autograph signing.  Davis recounts the impact of the stars’ personalities on their teams, too.  At the end of a blowout, Johnson and his teammates were cutting up at the end of the bench.  In a similar situation, Bird sat stonefaced,  his teammates basically saying nothing.

Bird had just one teammate, Carl Nicks, who spent any time in the NBA, while Magic had a stronger supporting cast anchored by Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent.  Sycamores coach Bill Hodges replaced head coach Bob King before the season began, while Spartans coach Jud Heathcote was a Big Ten fixture.  Magic’s team had done well the previous season and was predicted to be a championship contender before the season began.  Bird’s squad was picked to finish third or fourth in their conference.

Despite these differences, the men shared fundamental similarities of a passion for excellence, a relentless commitment to victory, and an ability to improve their teammates’ play. 

Davis skillfully shows the build up to the final match up. 

Playing in the rough and tumble Big Ten, the Spartans had a rough patch midway through the season in which they appeared in danger of not making the tournament, while the Sycamores’ undefeated streak, and their confidence, grew throughout the season, aided by an occasional miracle shot by Bob Heaton.

Davis also does an excellent job of providing previously undiscussed tidbits throughout the story. 

I had not known about Bird’s ignoring of Magic’s greeting before the final game, for example. 

Nor had I heard about Magic’s retort, five years later, when the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game Seven to win their fourteenth championship. 

Bird told Magic, “I got you back.” 

His rival responded, in essence, “I’m gonna win other championships, but I’ll aways have something you don’t-a  college championship.”

The exchange is revealing. 

It shows both how much the loss stayed with Bird and Magic’s equal desire for victory and understanding of the moment.  It also demonstrates how, for all his cheerful demeanor, Magic had a ruthless side that refused to be bested.

In the end, Magic was right. 

Davis shows that, despite Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan’s claim that Bird’s leading his team to the finals was the greatest feat in NCAA basketball history, there could only be one victor at the moment and forever afterward.

Magic got the last word on a televised meeting between the two stars in 1999, 20 years after the game, and Davis ends the book with Bird’s voice wavering as he spoke about his play in the final game to an Indiana State crowd last year. 

The ending is a fitting demonstration of Davis’ storytelling skills.  One of the best parts of When March Went Mad is how Davis uses the benefit of hindsight of the game’s and the superstars’ importance while also keeping us rooted in 1979, when their later greatness was not yet known.

In short, When March Went Mad is an entertaining and accessible read that is nearly guaranteed to please hoops junkies.  It can be consumed in parts, too, so readers should feel free to get a few pages in between the hundreds, if not thousands, of commercials  that will take place between tomorrow night and Sunday, when the identity of this year’s Final Four participants will be known.

March Madness, Larry Bird’s Drive

Larry Bird’s play 30 years ago contributed to starting what we now know as March Madness.


Drive: The Story of My Life is his autobiography.

March Madness has struck.

During the next four weekends, billions of dollars will be spent and countless work hours lost to office and other pools predicting which of the 65 teams who qualified for the NCAA tournament will emerge as the national champion.

It has not always been that way.

In fact, some trace the origins of college basketball fever to 1979, when Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State Sycamores met their match at the hands and feet of Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans, 75-64.

The game, which was highlighted by Magic throwing the then-innovative alley oop pass to Greg Kelser, ended with the dejected Bird covering his head and weeping in a towel.

Bird’s tears came from his deep passion.  As anyone who has followed pro basketball knows, he and Johnson, along with Michael Jordan and with plenty of marketing savvy from Commissioner David Stern, led the NBA to unprecedented heights.

The battles between Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers were the stuff of legend.  The teams met three times in the final, with the Celtics taking the first contest but the Lakers coming back to win the final two frames and take the series.

Last year’s final, which again pitted the league’s most venerable franchises, saw a revival of YouTube clips of the 80s teams as well as the old rivals saying, in split screen, “There can only be one.”

Bird tells the story of his humble beginnings and fierce passion for excellence in his autobiography, Drive: The Story of My Life.

Some have criticized media portrayals of Bird as representing a simpler, idyllic, enter whiter time.  In truth, as David Halberstam notes at the end of The Breaks of The Game, his family background was actually more similar to that of many other black players in the league than Johnson, who came from a stable two-parent family in which his father worked and his mother stayed at home with Johnson and his other siblings.

Bird recounts the poverty in which he grew up, the grit his father showed-he talks about having to peel ill-fitting boots off his feet-and his deep love for his mother Georgia, who was left to lead the family after her husband killed himself (Bird does not write about his marriage as a teenager or his fathering a child with whom for many years he did not have a relationship.).

Bird also writes about how he came to basketball relatively late, but quickly was hooked and played and practiced endlessly.  Hoops aficionados will learn the cautionary tale of Beezer Carnes, whose failure to practice free throws ended up costing Bird’s Springs Valley High School team dearly in the state tournament.

His years at Indiana State and his loyalty to his home state are duly noted-Celtics fans may remember that Bird, after the victory over Johnson and the Lakers in 1984, marked their earlier struggle by saying, “This one is for Terre Haute.”

Bird also writes about his seemingly uncanny ability to register everything that happened on the court and even in the stands while he was playing.

Written in the early 90s, the book straddles the question of whether Magic or Jordan was a greater opponent, and one doubts whether any would put Magic about Michael after the latter’s six championships in eight years and six NBA Finals MVPs.

The book is also tinged with irony as Bird speaks with optimism toward the end of the book about the 1991 drafting of Dee Brown.  The signing gave him hope that the team would return to the pinnacle.

This, of course, did not happen until last June, when we Celtics fans could finally stop saying, “Wait ’til 22 years ago!”

Still, for fans wondering where the madness that grips the nation around this time every year should consider checking out this straightforward telling of one of basketball’s brightest lights.

Black History Month: NBA All-Star Weekend and basketball history.

Shaq and Kobe shared the MVP; here are three books about basketball's history.

Shaq and Kobe shared the MVP; here are three books about basketball's history.

NBA All-Star Weekend is over.

Powered by the play of co-MVPs Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, who played on the same team for the first time since losing in the 2004 Finals to the Detroit Pistons, the West All-Stars overpowered their Eastern Conference opponents, 146-119.

Much of the pre- and post-game commentary focused on the two players’ reunion, on whether Dwight ‘Superman’ Howard would successfully defend his slam dunk title, or on which of the two teams would win.

But one fact received little, if any, notice: 23 of the 26 players selected for both teams are black. 

Black players’ dominance of the NBA has been part of the landscape for so long that it rarely is deemed worthy of comment. 

It wasn’t always that way.

Here are three books that talk about stories of integration, the emergence of black players and a pivotal game in NCAA history.

Getting Open: The Unknown story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball by Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody tells the story of Bill Garrett’s playing for the Indiana University Hoosiers after a stellar high school career at Shelbyville High School.  Shelbyville native Graham was a boy when Garrett led the team to a state title over Clyde Lovellette’s Terre Haute team. 

Getting Open describes Garrett’s admirable conduct on and off the court as well as the people at the university and in the Bloomington community who worked, in some cases reluctantly, to create his opportunity.  Garrett later played for the Harlem Globetrotters and Boston Celtics before coaching a state title winner at Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson’s almamater.  The book talks at length about the darker side of  Indiana’s racial history-the Ku Klux Klan long had an active presence in the state-and includes an afterword that names eight of the state’s other black basketball pioneers .

Elevating The Game: Black Men and Basketball by Nelson George was published on the 100th anniversary of the game’s founding in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith.  Explictly focusing on black male players in the work, the prolific and versatile George chronicles the  different social eras and accompanying shift in the games.  The lifetime New Yorker asserts that an aggressive, in-your-face persona has emerged on the court in part in response to America’s enduring racial inequality and oppression. 

Elevating the Game has plenty of familiar faces-everyone from old timers like Russell and Chamberlain to Rucker Park legend Earl “The Goat” Manigault to contemporary icons Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson makes an appearance.  But there are also plenty of unsung heroes like coaches Clarence ‘Big House’ Gaines, who coached college at Winston-Salem for decades, fast break advocate John McClendon,  and many high school basketball teams whose players paved the way for the later stars.    The book ends with a heartfelt plea for athletes to give back to the community lest they become divorced from it.  The occasional factual error notwithstanding-Dikembe Mutombo is not Nigerian and Magic Johnson did miss more than a quarter of a season in his second year in the league-Elevating the Game is a thought provoking and engaging read.

Frank Fitzpatrick’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: the Basketball Game That Changed American Sports discusses the 1966 NCAA final between Don Haskins’ Texas Western Miners and Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats.  Haskins made history by putting the first all-black starting five on the court and by being the all-white Rupp’s Runts, which included later Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley.  This story has since been told in the film Glory Road, and Fitzpatrick does a creditable job of taking the reader through the story and into the lives and hearts of the players and their irascible coach.

I promise I will blog about something besides basketball tomorrow!