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Bird and Magic Conquered the Divide

Recently, I was lucky enough to experience that wonderful rite of passage every Jewish father from Minnesota waits for his entire life: I took my son to his first NASCAR race for his fourth birthday.
But for my kid, it really was a special day, as he is a bit of a NASCAR fanatic. I know this because recently I flipped to the Westminster dog show on TV, and he immediately asked me, “Daddy, are they gonna race?”
At the track, we walked down pit road before the race, and he basically named every race-car driver by looking at the pit box’s number and color. Impressive for a 4-year-old. But later that night when watching the Olympics, I asked him what country we live in. “Mexico,” he responded confidently.
Clearly, I have some work to do before kindergarten. Actually, forget that: I’d better get him ready before the World Cup.
But it wasn’t my kid who left the biggest impression on me that day at the track. There was another one sitting behind me; he was about five years older than my kid. And when a Colombian driver was introduced, he yelled out, “Go back to where you came from.”
Perhaps it bothered me so much because just days before, I had been to a screening of HBO Sports’ wonderful new documentary about Magic Johnson and the greatest basketball player to ever play the game, Larry Joe Bird.

I don’t pretend to be a critic, and my taste in everything but women tends to be pretty awful, but I would dare to say that objectively, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals is just a fantastic 90-minute experience. Among the reasons it is so fascinating is that woven into the marvelous, interlocking history of two hard-court warriors is the underlying story line of race relations in American sports 30 years ago.
The film (which debuts on March 6) begins with the first high-profile meeting between the two legends, the 1979 NCAA title game between Magic’s Michigan State and Larry’s Indiana State. From the start, the movie takes on the race issue headfirst, both in a serious and joking manner. When Magic says Larry was “the baddest white dude I’ve seen in my life,” clearly both are present.
But when the self-proclaimed “Hick from French Lick” headed to blue-collar Boston and the African-American showman Magic went to Hollywood to begin their NBA careers, the film captures just how much those journeys drew out racial battle lines.
A clip is shown of a Boston fan saying the NBA is “turning off a lot of white customers” because there were too many black players. And former Boston Celtic Cedric Maxwell acknowledges that the black players were probably racist because “they didn’t think white players were any good.”
Larry and Magic didn’t care. They just wanted to beat each other.
Race may have painted much of the early story between the two, but the film perfectly captures how their
polar-opposite personalities really made the rivalry among the greatest in sports history. Magic’s smile is as prevalent as Larry’s scowl. HBO had one day to shoot Bird’s interview, as he apparently still has the same view toward media, publicity and fame that he had back then: He simply didn’t care. In fact, HBO required Magic’s help to talk Larry into sitting for an interview in the first place.
Larry comes across for much of the film as the lovable jerk he always was. And I mean that in the best possible sense. Not a jerk like Tiger Woods, with his embarrassing on-course sportsmanship and failure to uphold his spokesman image off it. Just a guy who wasn’t concerned with what anyone thought about him.
The first time Larry actually laughs at all comes about an hour into the film, when he says Magic makes everyone feel welcome, and then calls him a “con man.”
There is plenty more to enjoy about this documentary, from great footage of their first commercial together to Magic’s description of the lifestyle that led to his contracting HIV, including the old clip of him admitting to sleeping with six women at once. (Please: Who hasn’t?)
As I said, I am no critic. But a pretty good barometer came at HBO’s premiere event in Los Angeles, a star-studded affair that featured everyone from Barry Bonds (speaking of jerks) to legendary Lakers fan Jack Nicholson.
If you’ve been to a Hollywood screening, you know that everyone laughs a little harder than they would normally, or claps a little louder, in true industry ass-kissing form. But I’ve been to enough of these to know that the laughter and reactions to Magic & Bird were as legit as the dislike that festered between the two in their early NBA years.
It’s sad to think that the racial divides so perfectly woven into this film are still more prevalent than we’d hope, as evidenced by the kid behind me at the NASCAR track. That said, I’m betting any sports fan would praise without prejudice this latest chapter in one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time.