Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Thank You Sherwood

I grew up outside of Boston, and from 1979-1987 I lived
in Boston. I feel blessed for many reasons in that Boston,
to me is a wonderful city.

But,I was there during the years when Larry Bird played
forward for the Boston Celtics. He wasn't the only amazing
player in Boston Celtic history; before Bird there was Bob
Cousy and Bill Russell. But, I was too young to appreciate

I was amazed to watch Julius Winfield Erving II, 'Dr. J'.
His birthday is today, Happy Birthday, Dr. J.

What these people had in common is that they brought the
game to new heights, and showing the those of us were blessed
to see them, enormous feats of pushing the human body beyond
what many of us would imagine.

One of my favourite is the time Bird was running towards the end
of the court.He jumped up, took the ball from his right hand passed
it into his left hand...he was airborne just below the basket,and
tossed it in as he went into the people seated behind the basket.

Seeing Magic Johnson play was amazing, and the two of them playing
together was good enough reason to take off work:-



By Sherwood Ross

Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, two pro basketball rivals who rank among the highest scorers ever, developed over the course of their careers a solid friendship based on mutual respect that trumped their competitive jealousies. Each regarded the other as a rival worthy of the highest admiration and each took inspiration from the other. As superstars who entered the league at the same time and became the leaders on two elite NBA teams, they were destined to be compared to each other. And although they played different positions, their individual accomplishments were remarkably similar. In addition to being in the Hall of Fame, each won the MVP award three times, each was named to the all-NBA First Team nine times, each is a 12-time All-Star, and each was co-captain of the Olympic team. Bird played 897 games in his career, and Magic played 906, and each played exactly the same number of minutes in his career: 34,443! Bird scored 21,791 points and Magic scored 17,707, ranking them among the top NBA performers of all time.

In an introduction to the book, “When the Game Was Ours,”(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Jackie MacMullan, Bird writes that when he was growing up the only thing he cared about was “beating my (older) brothers,” both of whom were bigger, stronger and better at sports than he was. He wanted to beat them more than anyone “but I hadn't met Magic yet. Once I did, he was the one I had to beat. What I had with Magic went beyond my brothers. I never let on how much he dominated my thoughts during my playing days. I couldn't. But once we agreed to do this book, I knew it was finally time to let people in on my relationship with the person who motivated me like no other.” For his part, Johnson wrote that he and Bird played on the same all-star team in college and “I knew I'd see him again, and I did, everywhere.” Johnson recalled, “When I got to the NBA and played for the Lakers, I watched as many Celtics games as I could so I could keep track of what he (Bird) was doing. He became my measuring stick. The first time we played head-to-head in the finals, in 1984, Larry got the best of me. (Boston won in seven games.) It took me years to get over it. Actually, I'm not sure I am over it yet.” Johnson goes on to say, “I was surprised to hear Larry describe watching me win the NBA championship in my rookie season. He admitted he was jealous, which really shocked me, because he never, ever showed it back then.”

In an appearance on “Books of Our Time,” produced by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, on Comcast SportsNet, sportwriter Jackie MacMullan tells host Professor Holly Vietzke she was stunned to learn how jealous the NBA stars were of each other. “I know that Earvin (Magic) was a little obsessed with Larry, just from my conversations with him. (MacMullan was a sports columnist for the Boston Globe). He would ask me, “What's Larry been like this week? and “What kind of injuries does he have?” Indeed, Johnson was charting Bird very closely. By contrast, MacMullan said, Bird never let on what he was thinking to anyone so she was all the more surprised to learn “how jealous Larry was of Earvin.” During their rookie year in the NBA(1979) both players had great years but Johnson was playing with star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and performed in a facilitator role in which he did not score many points. “Bird, on the other hand,” MacMullan writes, “is the rookie sensation, putting up numbers all over the place, so, not surprisingly, when the Rookie of the Year voting comes in, Bird's the winner. I think Johnson kind of knew that would happen.” That year the Celtics were eliminated by the Philadelphia Sixers. As the Lakers were about to play Philadelphia in game six with Kareem on crutches, Magic learned he lost the Rookie of The Year vote to Bird 63 to three. Magic “was so upset, so angry, and so jealous that everybody thought Larry Bird was that much better than him that he told everybody who would listen, 'You want to see who the best rookie is, you watch me tonight.' And of course he went out there and put on the most remarkable performance of any rookie in the history of NBA finals. (He played) 47 out of 48 minutes, dominated the game, played all five positions, won the MVP, and the Lakers won the championship,” MacMullan said.

That night Bird watched the game live in a Boston restaurant with friends and became increasingly irritated as Magic dominated the game in points, assists and rebounding that he came home to his girlfriend, wakes her up, and says, “You know what? I've got to win something.” MacMullan said that on Bird's mental scoreboard Magic was ahead of him two to nothing and “He couldn't stand it. He couldn't stand it.” Johnson and Bird faced each other in the 1979 NCAA finals and in a total of three NBA championship competitions.

Not only were the two superstars driven to excel by each other's achievements but they could be stung by press criticism that drove them to excel. After starring in his second year at Michigan State when they won the national championship, Magic was under a lot of pressure to return for his third year but elected instead to turn pro. Upon learning of his decision, the savvy Detroit Free Press sports writer Joe Falls correctly, MacMullan says, pointed out that Magic was not ready, that he couldn't shoot and was too slow. “Talk about motivation!” the author said. “Those kind of criticisms weren't that far off the mark because, as a college player, Earvin really wasn't a good perimeter shooter. He had to turn himself into that, and his ball-handling skills weren't the best. That was something he had to work on. But he had all the motivation he needed from all those press reports.”

If Magic overcame his deficiencies on the court when he entered pro play, Bird overcame his infirmities. During the interval between the time he was drafted by the Boston Celtics but had not yet signed a contract, he shattered a knuckle playing softball that required surgery. When the Celtics team doctor and trainer examined him, they told General Manager Red Auerbach, “This guy's damaged goods.” MacMullan said Auerbach then had Bird suit up and watched him hit from “everywhere,” concluding, “You look fine to me, kid.” According to MacMullan, “Bird to this day will tell you he's never had the same feel for the basketball. Since he injured that finger he will say, 'I've never been able to feel the ball quite the same way again.' So as great as he was in the NBA...Bird might have even have been greater. It's kind of unbelievable.” Later, both superstars would play the game despite illnesses that would have incapacitated lesser men: Bird would play through severe back pain and Magic would play even though afflicted with HIV, news that electrified the sports world and made court opponents fear to play on the same court with him.

MacMullan said Bird's very first back injury was actually caused shoveling gravel in his back yard. He had put in a new basketball court at his home and he had asked his kid brother Eddie and some of his friends to spread the gravel around. When Eddie didn't do it “Bird was so angry he said the heck with it I'll do it myself and while he was shoveling gravel for the first time he felt extreme pain in his back.” MacMullan adds that Bird had “a congenital back problem” to begin with. “The canal that led the nerves through his spine was too small. He was going to end up with those back problems anyway but it was started in typical blue-collar lunch pail style with Bird shoveling his own gravel.” During the 1992 season, which he knew was going to be his last, Bird had to wear a fiberglass body brace much of the time he wasn't playing. Off the court, he couldn't drive more than ten feet, MacMullan said. “He'd have to get out of his car and stand up.” “He was having trouble practicing with the team and he didn't feel like he was going to be able to be a contributor to the team. His back was shot. He was really in a bad way” and he was headed for major back surgery. When Bird had back fusion surgery and knew he could never play again, so that it was easy for him to stick with his decision to stay retired. MacMullan says that for him “it was as final as final could be, and I think it was just a huge relief, after 12, 13 seasons just beating his body to a pulp.”

Thus, before his $7-million-a-year salary was to kick in, Bird told the Celtics “I'm not taking any money I'm not going to earn and I won't be earning that money so you can have it. I'm retiring right now, today.” MacMullan says she remembers covering the Bird press conference and that it was “that big and that sudden and it happened just like that. He went in that morning and that afternoon they had the press conference. He didn't want a lot of hoopla...a lot of advance notice. That was the way Larry wanted to go out.” Johnson's retirement announcement was far more dramatic. Upon learning that he tested positive for HIV he held a press conference Nov. 7, 1991, stating he would retire immediately to dedicate his life “to battle this deadly disease.” According to Wikipedia, Johnson initially said that he did not know how he contracted the disease but later conceded he had multiple sex partners during his playing career.

Where Bird was naturally reclusive, MacMullan says, Magic was the opposite: “It was very painful for Earvin for not only strangers to not want to touch him or shake his hand, but for his own teammates and even some of is friends. He would go to hug them, and they would stiffen up and back away. His own teammates wouldn't work out with him because they were afraid he would get his sweat on them. It just became a really difficult time in his life.” When his good friend Isiah Thomas, the Detroit Pistons point guard and the one person he thought he could count on, questioned his sexuality, “it was devastating to Magic,” MacMullan said. Johnson's wife, Cookie, said the pain didn't leave his face for a long time. One friend who did not desert him, however, was Larry Bird. Larry insisted on talking to Magic and cheered him up over the phone, sent him funny notes, and said positive things about him in the papers. “They were subtle little things but they were things that Earvin desperately needed,” MacMullan said. Today, there's no trace of the HIV virus in Magic's system, “which he's very excited about,” the sports reporter says, but he continues to take his medication to avoid a relapse. MacMullan notes that HIV is very different than AIDS. This was poorly understood by NBA players when Johnson attempted to make a comeback. MacMullan says, “They were nervous, frightened about him and, unbeknownst to him were going to the Lakers trainers behind his back and saying, 'I don't want to play with this guy. I don't want to be guarding him. I want you to pull me out of practice, say I have an ankle injury.'”

When Magic got scratched in an exhibition game against the Cleveland Caveliers, Gary Vidi, a trainer for the Lakers, considered putting on gloves when he bandaged the slight cut on Magic's hand. It was a little scratch but it was bleeding. “There was a collective gasp from the arena as everybody seemed very aware of this. New regulations had been put in place (to treat) HIV-positive people and that if a trainer was attending to a player with a cut or any blood, they needed to put on gloves to treat it,” MacMullan says. But Vidi thought to himself, “Privately, I've been telling these players they have nothing to worry about so if I put on these gloves how will they ever believe me?” Vidi reached for his gloves but then changed his mind. He cleaned the cut, put a Band-Aid on it and put Johnson back in the game.

Maybe it was the way Bird stood up for him when he tested HIV positive but Johnson later asked Bird to present him into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. MacMullan points out that Johnson had a number of choices to do the honors. However, “he just felt a kinship with Larry that he couldn't explain to anybody else, and he felt, 'We've always been intertwined and I know who pushed me. I know who made me the player I am and it's you and I want you to present me.' It was one of the biggest honors of Larry Bird's life.”

MacMullan says Bird and Johnson first met in the summer of 1978 when they played on a team of college all-stars against international teams in the World Invitational Tournament. At the time, though, they barely spoke to each other. “Larry would get on the bus and say, 'Hello,” and nothing else. He was a guy that just wanted to play and (would think) 'leave me alone.' Earvin would get on the bus with his boom box, dancing.” The coach of the college all-stars was Joe B. Hall, whose Kentucky team had just won the national championship a few days earlier. He named five of his own team members to the all-stars and as he regarded them to be the best players in the country he started them. Even though Bird and Magic embarrassed the Kentucky players in practice, Hall relegated Bird and Magic to the bench. “And it used to really frost Larry in particular,” MacMullan recalls. “He was really ticked off but he figured, 'Well, you know, what the heck with this guy. I'm just going to have my fun in practice and that's what they had to settle for.”

In 1991, Johnson created the Magic Johnson Foundation(JF) to support community-based organizations striving to improve the educational, health and social needs of urban communities. Fifteen years later, the Abbott Corp. and JF created the “We Stand With Magic” campaign to reduce the rate of HIV and AIDS in African-American communities. One line spoken by Magic in the TV commercial goes: “Get informed. Get tested. Early detection can save your life. If you test positive, seek treatment from a doctor.”

The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, producers of “Books of Our Time,” was founded in 1988 to provide a rigorous, quality legal education to students from low-income, minority, and immigrant households who would otherwise be unable to enter the legal profession. Additionally, through its publications, conferences and televised nation-wide broadcasts, the law school presents information to the public on issues of national importance. Sherwood Ross is a media consultant to the law school. Reach him at sherwoodross10@gmail.com .

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