When the Game was Ours

I already briefly mentioned “When the Game was Ours” in the post on Drive by Larry Bird. Former ESPN journalist Jackie McMullan wrote this book in 2009 along with NBA legends Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. And, of course, the book about those two. Bird and Magic remain intrinsically linked to each other to this day, first as rivals, later as friends.

When the Game was Ours

Many older NBA fans know that Magic and Bird once faced each other before their NBA careers. Their college teams Michigan State (Magic) and Indiana State (Bird) played each other in the NCAA Finals in 1979. What many don’t know, however, is that the two future superstars first crossed paths the summer before, but as teammates at the time. Both were part of a selection of the best college players in the country, who competed in several exhibition games against youth selections from other countries. Magic and Bird tended to sit on the bench (along with Sydney Moncrief, who was also part of the selection and later went on to have a very good NBA career). The coach of the college selection was the coach of Kentucky and relied on his own players in the starting five. However, the Magic/Bird duo dominated the Kentucky players in practice and, by all accounts, provided some highlight plays. In the book, many of his companions from that time also have their say.

A year later, as mentioned, the two met in the NCAA Finals. Magic won the first of many matchups against Bird and Michigan State walked away victorious. The road to the championship game is described in detail. Also, that both players were on each other’s radar that season, tracking each other’s stats. Then in the NBA, Bird and Magic were anything but friends at first. That was more Bird’s fault, according to the book. While they had the utmost respect for each other, they didn’t really like each other. The fact that they both played for the big rivals, the Celtics and Lakers, respectively, wasn’t exactly helpful.

The relationship between the two superstars changed in September 1985, when they filmed a commercial for Converse sneakers together. Both agreed only with reluctance. Bird only on the condition that the film shooting would take place at his home in Indiana. Magic agreed anyway and set off. In French Lick, Indiana he was immediately cared for by Bird’s mother, who was a big basketball fan, and was treated to a big meal by her. Bird then showed Magic his basement and they both chatted about old times. In the process, they discovered that they have a lot more in common than they thought. While they are quite different characters, their childhoods, their paths to the NBA, and even their attitudes toward basketball were very similar. Both came from poor backgrounds and had to fight hard for every step up the ladder.

At this point, both had reached the peak of their respective careers. However, the rivalry was not to last as long as one would have thought at that point. Bird had increasingly severe back problems and was therefore limited. And Magic’s story is well known. He tested positive for HIV in the summer of 1991 and ended his career. At the time, not much was known about HIV or even AIDS, and the two were often lumped together. Bird and also some other companions like Pat Riley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Jerry West stuck unconditionally to Magic, while others handled the diagnosis less well. For example, the friendship between Magic and Isiah Thomas, who questioned Magic in public, broke down as a result. Magic sounds very disappointed at times in the book about the behavior of his former best friend.

Their basketball careers together ended exactly as they began in the summer of 1978: as teammates. Bird and Magic were part of the Dream Team that won the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992 with overwhelming superiority. There are some more details about that in this book. Public opinion tended to be that Isiah Thomas was not nominated for the Dream Team because of Michael Jordan. However, Magic tells the story that nobody wanted him on the team. Even he himself did not stand up for his former best friend and was afraid for the team chemistry. The rest of the book then revolves around their time after their active careers. For Bird, it was primarily his three years as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. Magic attempted two brief comebacks as a player and also served for a short time as Lakers head coach. Above all, however, he is active as a businessman and with his foundation, which revolves around HIV/AIDS.

When The Game was Ours is one of the best NBA books I’ve read to date. That’s mostly because Bird and Magic had a hand in this book, so it’s not just a retelling from an outsider. It’s also very honest in its details. Both legends make no secret of the fact that they didn’t like each other at first and it was a difficult road to a good relationship. Also, a lot of former teammates, coaches and other companions have their say.

Get When the Game was Ours at Amazon

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