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Morning briefing

Respect, rings were at stake

June 04, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

With this year's Lakers-Celtics championship finals series bringing to mind the teams' famous NBA rivalry of the mid-1980s, the two players at the center of that rivalry -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson of the Lakers and Larry Bird of the Celtics -- recalled Tuesday the intensity of those battles.

"It was just great to be able to play against Larry so many times as well as the Celtics," Johnson said in a joint teleconference with his former foe and now close friend.

"I knew that Larry Bird could beat us at any time. His will to win was higher than anybody else's."

Bird, in turn, said, "I had so much respect for [Johnson], how he handled himself, how his teams played."

Playing the Lakers, he said, was "an honor."

Johnson remembered that "the cities disliked each other, the teams disliked each other, but we respected each other."

Nothing personal

The Celtics beat the Lakers in 1984 for the title and the Lakers rebounded to defeat Boston the next year for the championship. After Boston beat Houston in the finals in 1986, Los Angeles topped the Celtics to win the title again in 1987.

Through it all, the two Hall of Famers said they never thought of themselves as having their own rivalry.

"It's funny, because I really didn't have a personal rivalry against Larry," Johnson said. "It was always the Celtics versus the Lakers.

"We never really guarded each other," said Johnson, noting that he was a point guard and Bird a forward. "Larry and I were always the focal point" but "my rivalry really was with D.J.," Celtics guard Dennis Johnson.

Bird agreed. "It wasn't about me and Magic, it was about our teams," he said, adding that it was a philosophy drilled into the Celtics by then head coach K.C. Jones.

The Lakers, meanwhile, were constantly preoccupied with their East Coast rival. "During the regular season that's all we watched -- where are the Celtics?" Johnson said.

Trivia time

How many times did Bird and Johnson win the NBA's most valuable player award from 1984-86?

Fond snapshots

Johnson said his favorite memory of those years wasn't his famous "sky hook" shot that won Game 4 of the 1987 Finals and led to the Lakers' title that year.

Instead, it was the Lakers' comeback from losing the 1984 championship. "'85 had to probably be my special moment," Johnson said. After the 1984 loss, "I was devastated. I went into hiding for about a month, sat in the dark."

But the setback forced the Lakers "to become mentally tougher and that happened after '84," he said. "We probably couldn't have won back-to-back [titles in '87-'88) if we didn't learn from them that we had to go to another level."

Bird's favorite memory is the 1984 final series, because Boston had to regroup against Los Angeles after falling behind, 2-1, in the best-of-seven series. "For us to win the '84 championship was pretty mind-boggling to me, the way they dominated us early in the series," he said.

Fast forward

Johnson and Bird also agreed that their teams' style of play -- using speed across the court and rapid-fire shooting by several players on each team -- is far different from today's game.

"When we played it was all about running and going up and down the court," Johnson said. "We built our team basically watching the Celtics."

Boston "didn't run as fast as us but they ran with a purpose," he said.

Making history

When the current Lakers and Celtics square off Thursday, "they'll have their own rivalry," Johnson said. "It doesn't matter whether they understand the [past] rivalry or not."

Bird said the Lakers might have a small edge because "Kobe Bryant has been there before, he's won three championships." Regardless, Johnson said, "what a show it's going to be. The fans are going to be in for a treat."

Trivia answer

Bird was the league's MVP all three years. Johnson won the next year, 1987, the first of three MVP awards he would earn.

And finally

"Everything has really changed" in the NBA, Johnson said. "When Larry and I played, the shoe [endorsement] deals were small, most guys didn't have one. There were no earrings or tattoos. When we played the shorts were hot pants, and now they're, what, below the knees.

"The game has to evolve and it has to be their game," he said of today's players. "They shouldn't have to look at us to make their game today."


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