By Joshua Schnitman
On June 9, 1987, one of the most memorable games in sports history took place: Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals between the Earvin “Magic” Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers and the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics. In this hardwood classic NBA Finals game, Johnson countered Bird’s late-in-the-game go-ahead three-pointer with one of the most signature game-winning baskets of all time: “the junior, junior skyhook.”
Johnson finished the game with 29 points and his “magical” game-winner propelled the Lakers to a 107-106 victory and a 3-1 series lead. The Lakers would ultimately close out the defending NBA champion Celtics in Game 6 of the series and Johnson capped off his first of an eventual three MVP seasons, following Bird’s three consecutive MVP seasons, by also winning his third Finals MVP award. After the series was over, Bird avowed at a press conference: “Magic is just a great basketball player. He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
Johnson, who was asked by Lakers coach Pat Riley at the start of the 1986-87 season, to take on more of a scoring load than ever, averaged a career-best 23.9 points per game. The “Magic man,” who is universally considered the most dazzling ball-handler and playmaker of all time, led the league in assists for the fourth time in his career in 1986-87 with a 12.2 per game average, while also corralling 6.3 rebounds per game. In the 1987 Finals, Johnson averaged 26.2 points per game, 13 assists per game, 8 rebounds per game, and became the first Finals MVP to shoot 50 + % from the field while shooting 90 + % from the free throw line in a championship series. The Lakers’ 1987 title victory marked their fourth of an eventual five championships throughout the decade and the pivotal 1987 matchup between these arch-rivals would mark their third-and-last Finals meeting of the era.
Many consider the Lakers vs. Celtics rivalry to be the most intense between any two sports teams and the Johnson vs. Bird rivalry to be the all-time most compelling between two athletes. The Finals rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers dates back to 1959, although the Celtics defeated the Lakers in all seven Finals meetings prior to the Magic vs. Bird era. The rivalry between Johnson and Bird began when Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the highly-anticipated 1979 NCAA Championship Game. Bird ended up in a Celtics uniform as Arnold “Red” Auerbach, their then decision-making executive, had reserved the future rights to him back in 1978. Magic ended up in a Lakers uniform as their then general manager, Bill Sharman, won the coin toss to obtain the No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft and selected him with that pick.
Johnson and/or Bird and the Lakers and/or Celtics appeared in every single NBA Finals series throughout the 1980s. In the process of reviving the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry, Johnson and Bird proved to be two of the most crowd-pleasing superstars and versatile team leaders utterable and godsends that transformed the league and the sport. These two preeminent stars spearheaded the NBA’s miraculous rise in popularity from struggling television ratings and attendance when they first entered the league to the epicenter of popular culture that it has become. Johnson and Bird were two of the greatest all-around basketball players and two of the most captivating entertainers of any form that the world has ever seen.